Western Society vs 'Traditional societies' & teenaged rebellion

I’ve been kicking around the idea recently that many of Western Society’s problems with adolescence stem from, in no particular order: a lack of a distinct point of adulthood (except the legal, and that varies by locality), a lack of ritual for passing into adulthood, a tendency for children not to have serious, meaningful responsibilities except those of school and associated study and homework (which may have no meaning to the children at all)…and - and here is where I expect to run into disagreements with people - the segregation of children by age including separation from their families and from the mix of ages found in society at large…for the majority of the day, for most of the year, for years on end.

If you’ve read Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead, and Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak, you may remember that neither of them noted adolescent-specific angst or rebellion among those traditional peoples living in small communities. Yet in the US, teenagers are expected to rebel. Rebellion is considered normal and healthy, part of the child becoming his or her own person, separate from the parents. There are other norms which may be connected: the expectation that all children should have single rooms by the time they’re teens, that socialization can only properly be accomplished by beginning as early as possible, in structured, age-appropriate social groups.

Yet these modern Western (or American) expectations are hardly universal. In many societies, the whole family, including extended family, may live in a single room, all sleeping together because that’s all the space they have. Children as young as 5 may have full-day jobs - and they are expected to perform them, too, and they do perform them, bearing the responsibility in a way we would never expect of even much older children in the US, and would excuse away without a moment’s thought. Before the child labor laws, children in the US were similarly expected to take on heavy responsibility very young…and did. Think of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder: by the age of 8, Almanzo was expected to - and did - take on a man’s job of plowing in the field, and worked dawn to dusk like everybody else. Even in the US, fifty years ago, nobody expected every child to have his or her own bedroom. So there’s been a shift in expectations.

So to come back to my question: are teenaged rebellion, teenaged angst, and other “normal” phases that American teens go through…are they real and normal, or are they mere artifacts of American affluence and societal expectations? Are they medically based, as we occasionally hear, because of developmental changes in the adolescent brain? Are they exacerbated by “socialization” in age-segregated, self-perpetuating social settings such as schools? Or are these things not factors at all?

My own opinion leans toward ‘this is an artifact of our society, rather than a normal phase in human development’ without knowing how to fix that problem. But I’d like to hear other opinions. Extra points for references to documents I can peruse for myself.

Hmmm, did you mean to post this in the Great Debates forum, as it involves a discussion of opinions rather than a query with a factual answer? A mod can move the thread for you upon request.

Hm. Yes, I suppose so. Though…I put it in GQ because of my own cites and references. If that’s wrong, go ahead and bump it over, and I thank you.

Well, I don’t have much to debate, 'cause I agree with everything in the OP.

One of the most eye-opening experiences of my parenting life was watching the Horde of the Flies - the gaggle of children whose parents work at the local Renaissance Faire. This was a group of 20 or so kids, ranging in age from 14 down to diaper wearing, with most in the 5-10 age range. I used to watch these kids as we ate breakfast before opening, and many times saw kids fall, scrape knees, knock things over or a dozen other things that would have most kids running for Mom. These kids were so self-sufficient and capable that they took care of all but the very serious wounds themselves, and did it quite competently. They invented games together and taught one another songs and other activities. They sorted out their own conflicts, often turning to one another for judgments in disputes. I was amazed at the level of maturity and independence demonstrated by these kids. The adults merely kept a watch on them out of the corners of their eyes (and the one time a kid really cut himself pretty badly on a rock, there were a dozen parents there at his side before he even yelped, so they weren’t neglectful or anything), but most of their growing up and instruction was one kid to another. This was only possible because of the mixed age group.

Since then, I’ve seen the same thing in a number of different neopagan communities and festivals. The kids tend to congregate and the adults, with romantic notions of communal child rearing, pretty much leave them alone unless it’s meal time or someone is causing trouble that the other kids can’t handle. Even meal times tend to be catch-as-catch-can, as sometimes I’m feeding 15 kids and sometimes none. Only 2 are mine biologically. And the result, as far as I can see, is the most level-headed mature groups of kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with.

We’re only just now starting to see grown ups who were themselves raised like that, so we really won’t have a good idea of how well it “works” for another 10 years or so, I don’t think. Still, so far, so good.

I really dislike age segregation, for all the reasons the OP mentions. My daughter’s therapists are starting to push for more play groups and daily preschool so my daughter is surrounded with kids her own age, but I’m fighting them on it pretty seriously. She learns so much more at home with one older kid and one younger than her (I babysit the other two; they’re not siblings.) One day a week of being restricted to her age mates is plenty at age 2, I think.

I’m harking back to my days as a cultural anthropology student.

Back then, it was generally regarded as something uniquely American. It isn’t just that we coddle our children, it is what happens during the continuum of their path to adulthood. We raise our children to be very family-centric, dependent and well, incompetent. Then at the ripe old age of 18, we toss 'em out and expect them to be adults. They are expected to live on their own, support themselves and comport themselves as adults. Now surely, it doesn’t happen on the 18th birthday for most kids and even taking college into account, it surely does happen ultimately.

Now from the childs perspective, they are going to be expected to be an adult (by our definition) soon and take care of themselves. To go from 0 to 60 that quickly is frightening. The parents are also struggling to keep them kids while trying to safely couch their entry into adulthood.

Very few other cultures really expect their children to move away and be independent of the family. Sure, more are doing this more than every, but many, many cultures the family is multigenerational. There is a connection there that is expected to last. They aren’t apron strings, they are family.

From what I understand in India, the thought of an unmarried child moving out is unheard of and a newly married couple is expected to live with the husbands family. To us, that is insane. To them, it is smarter all around.

Live in a city with a huge immigrant population, you see tons of young men and women working to send money back to their families.

So my big question is…if this is a negative aspect of our culture…how do we address it? Not everybody’s going to join the SCA. Or a kibbutz. Or a hippie commune, etc. Although maybe we’d be better for it.

Would it be better to have many many more small (read one-room) type schoolhouses, with younger children learning from the younger, rather than fewer, but absolutely enormous, single-grade schools and classes? Or is that so impossible as not even to be worth considering?

I’m hip to a commune. I think we have lost something very valuable by losing proximity to our immediate families. I hope to raise my daughter with the right skills to be on her own but not feel like she has to leave to be able to be her own person.

I remember the day I heard someone refer to my brother as “Hey, you are Auntbeasts brother!” I had spent my entire life being Mammabeats Daughter or Brotherbeasts sister. I was finally myself. Now? I’m ok with it. But now I’m Babybeats Mom. Our children shouldn’t have to fight to be themselves, to discover who and what they are. Unfortunately, in our society, I just see this trait becoming more and more common, rather than less common. Just check the thread about the Prussian Blue girls. How far away will they have to move, physically, mentally, intellectually, spiritually to be who they should be, not who their parents think they are?

If you read Margaret Mead, you should also read Derek Freeman’s controversial counterpoints, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth and The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of her Samoan Research.

A previous thread on the same topic:

Teenager angst across cultures

I suggest The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine. According to him, it is only since the Depression, when people aged 14-18 were encouraged to go to high school to save the work for adults with families, that the idea of a “teenager” as something less than an adult but more than a child has existed in U.S. culture.

In a similar way, the phrase “juvenile delinquint” was invented in the 1940’s (I think ) to express a new concept–that teens should not be tried in court as adult criminals.

Then there’s History Begins at Sumer in which my favorite story is “Schooldays.” As I remember (I read this 40 freakin’ years ago) a father is ranting to his son about how he doesn’t come straight home from scribe school, but instead is hanging around with his friends.

So maybe it’s not as localized in time and/or space as you think. :slight_smile:

It’s easy to see that kids learn at different rates, so teaching kids that are all the same age makes the teaching easier. The flip side, that they learn important non-classroom stuff from kids of different ages than themselves, seems to have been left out of our educational theories.

I think it’s also important to define “rebellion”. I think too many parents — my own included — defined “rebellion” as “he doesn’t like the same things I like”. The whole rock & roll thing is a good example, and in fact becomes a chicken or egg thing: is the rock & roll causing the kid to have a bad attitude, or is the kid’s bad attitude caused by mom and dad constantly haranguing him about that “noise” he likes?

As a teacher, I find the whole age-segregation idea frightful. Kids need to have evidence in front of their eyes as to what growing up means. It’s not enough to have a brother or sister ahead of you. You need bunches of people both older and younger across a full spectrum.

We got into age-segregation because it made for more efficient handling of the kids, not because it was better for them.

There needs to be something in the middle, though. IME, other cultures - especially mine - expect kids to be fully-fledged adults. The teen years should be a bridge, not a catapult at either end. Teens should still be allowed to act like kids sometimes and adults some others.

My culture is the same as yours except I am already expected to be mostly in adulthood by 13 or 14. Where did my time go, is how I felt.

Exactly. What I’d like to see, if I ruled the Educational System, would be a modified Waldorf plan: something where a teacher would be trained and certified in five or six years of study and would have a mixed age group and have the same kids for those five or six years. So a classroom of 30 kids would contain about 5 or 6 kids from each age - enough for identification and support when going through age specific developments like loosing teeth and getting your period, but enough of a range for them to learn from one another, and enough of a tenure together as a group to really form bonds and connections across the age range. Within that group, promotion to more advanced material would not be based on age, but on mastery of previous material.

In short, back to the one-room schoolhouse method, but within a large school building, with multiple “schoolhouses” working side by side to share in supply and infrastructure costs.

As **phouka **says, this is a huge radical departure from the assembly line instruction that we switched to in order to make education easier on the teachers, not the students. But at the end of the day, I’m not sure that that’s even true. Wouldn’t it be great to assign the older students a research project on, say, the solar system, and then have them teach what they’ve learned to the younger ones? (Not to exploit them, but because we all know that you don’t really “get it” until you can teach it.) The little ones, meantime, can learn how to find reference materials in the library and become little research assistants for their older peers. And we all learn that working together is more efficient than everyone scattering to duplicate data.

But even there, “rebellion” is pretty recent. A teenage Russian peasant 300 years ago didn’t listen to newfangled music that his parents disapproved of- he listened to and liked the same music his parents did.

Well that’s the thing. For thousands of years, everything changed so slowly, and even major “new things” took a very long time to spread across the world, instead of almost instantly like they do today. Add in the fact that most people never traveled more than a day’s hike from their homes, and you ended up with one generation looking pretty much just like the ones before it. Lifestyles in two towns a thousand miles apart may have been vastly different from each other, but the residents of one town never saw what went on in the other town. There was little to inspire teenaged rebellion. The same is still essentially true in the less developed countries today, and was even true to a certain extent in the USA, until the mid-20th century.

Then here came the end of WWII and the technological revolution. We’ve now had a few generations of Americans constantly pushing the envelope and creating the next big thing. Everybody thinks this is good for America … except when it comes to their own kids. Then they turn into Luddites who think, “The old way was good enough for me, and it ought to be good enough for Junior.” Meanwhile, their kids see the new things and say, “Cool!”

An example: “brand name” clothing. When I was in junior high school I remember begging my parents to buy me a pair of Nike running shoes. My parents refused, on the grounds that they weren’t going to pay $40 (big money at the time) for shoes just because they had a “brand name” on them. If the Sears catalog was good enough for them, it should be good enough for me. But see, I was on the track team. Realizing I wasn’t going to get Nikes from Mom & Dad, I saved my paper route money and bought my own pair. My parents rolled their eyes and lamented, even ridiculed, the waste of money.

Later on, my dad decided to take up jogging, and bought himself a pair of those $15 “Winner” faux running shoes out of the Sears catalog. I listened to him constantly complain about how much his feet and knees hurt after every jog. By this time, I was wearing the same shoe size as Dad, so the next time he was getting ready to go for a run, I handed him my Nikes and said, “Here, try these.” He came back from his run utterly flabbergasted at the difference the “brand name” shoes made, and finally realized that the higher price wasn’t just because of the label, but because the shoes were simply better. He went to a proper shoe store the next day and tried on many different brands of running shoes, finally settling on New Balance as the best fit for him.

I think parental jealousy, believe it or not, is also a cause of teenage rebellion. Say the kid dreams of being a rock star, or an actor, painter, dancer, whatever. Parents hate that. Why should their kid have a life like that? Why shouldn’t their kid have to spend the rest of his life working a boring, tedious job like they do? And so their kids’ dreams are proclaimed “fantasy”, and are actively discouraged, while concepts like “dependable” and “realistic” are put forth as cardinal virtues when choosing a career path.

But how would one teacher educate a class of thirty students when they’re all at different levels? especially when you get into the more advanced classes where just learning the material is hard enough, without having to deal with younger students to help out as well.

Well, how did they do it for thousands of years? Creativity and hard work and very meticulous planning that you’re willing to throw out the window the moment it doesn’t work. Teachers already have students of varied ability. What they also have now is no guarantee that their fifth grade math students all know how to do long division - many of them were promoted despite academic or emotional unreadiness, just in the interest of keeping them with their age mates socially.

In what are today the higher grade levels, I wouldn’t expect this sort of model, but instead a mixed age class based on skill mastery, specialty and interest. So anyone of any age who can understand the material in Chemistry 102 should be in it, whether she’s 9 or 16, and no one who couldn’t pass Chemistry 101 should be in 102, regardless of her age.

So really what I’m interested in is a 5-9 years cluster and a 10-14 years cluster, then high school much as it is without classes being mandated by year in school but mastery of previous material (Driver’s Ed and any legally age mandated classes excepted).

But that’s not the important question, really. The important question is: how would the results compare to what we have now? If the results are worth it, then I’m quite certain people could be trained to achieve these results.

Homeschooling families somehow manage to teach children of multiple ages and skill levels, with satisfactory to outstanding academic results. Some of these families are very large. Mary Pride - mother of 9, author of numerous homeschooling books and considered (by many Christians at least*) to be one of the “top experts” in homeschooling - taught all her 9 children at home. I remember reading one of her books nearly 20 years ago, and she said even then that her older children were not only largely self-directed, they were also very helpful in helping younger siblings and could teach basic skills as well as she herself could do. There is no reason this model could not be mimicked in classrooms…on an experimental level at first, and then more widely. That it will never happen is a function of teachers’ unions, inertia, entrenched expectations, money, money, and more money. It is not because the model would not, could not work.

*I am not a Christian. I am at best an apostate, Agnostic. However I recognize experience and expertise when I see it. And I only teach 4 children of 3 different ages at home, so I bow to her greater knowledge in all things homeschool.