Sometimes, as my toddler and I cuddle together to read books on the couch, I can’t help but imagine what our relationship might be like when he becomes a teenager. On some days, I dread it like a slowly-approaching disaster. On other days, I feel a sense of hope that, as I deal with my own issues, I’ll be able to give him something better than I experienced. I’m confronting my old ideas about teenagers head on, and replacing them with healthier and more accurate ideas.
Growing up in fundamentalist homeschooling circles, I heard a lot about “Biblical” parenting–extreme parental authority enforced through potentially abusive levels of spanking. Because it was “Biblical”, this parenting approach was thought to be the only correct way to parent in any culture and in any time period. In short, it was supposed to be universal. I was constantly reminded that the increasing teen rebellion in America and elsewhere was the direct result of parents abandoning these “Biblical” child training principles.
Imagine my surprise to discover that there are entire cultures of people who use exactly the opposite of “Biblical” parenting, yet produce teenagers who are cooperative and contributing members of society.
One fascinating example of this is in the book “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” which is the autobiography of Daniel Everett, a Bible translator who de-converted after spending nearly 30 years living with a remote Amazonian tribe called the Pirahas. About the Pirahas, Everett writes, “It is interesting to me that in spite of a strong sense of community, there is almost no community-approved coercion of village members. It is unusual for a Piraha to order another Piraha about, even for a parent to order about a child. This happens occasionally, but it is generally frowned upon or discouraged, as indicated by the remarks, expressions, and gestures of others watching” (p. 100). So in the Piraha community, parental authority is not a major part of the child’s experience. Instead, “Piraha children roam about the village and are considered to be related to and partially the responsibility of everyone in the village. But on a day-to-day basis, most Pirahas have nuclear families that include the stable presence of a father, a mother, and siblings (full, half, and adopted). Parents treat their children with much affection, talk to them respectfully and frequently, and rarely discipline them” (p. 98).
Also in contrast to proper “Biblical” parenting, Piraha parents do not use any form of spanking with their children. Everett explains, “Piraha parenting involves no violence, at least in principle. But my model of parenting did” (p. 99). He then describes how his attempts to “Biblically” discipline his child by spanking her led to a huge embarrassing scene in the Piraha village. Spanking a child is a shocking foreign concept to the Pirahas. Instead of using physical discipline to achieve obedience, Piraha parents allow their children to make their own choices and learn from their mistakes. According to Everett, “Piraha children are noisy and rambunctious and can be as stubborn as they choose to be. They have to decide for themselves to do or not to do what their society expects of them. Eventually they learn that it is in their best interests to listen to their parents a bit” (p. 97).
So, growing up without strong parental authority or physical discipline what are Piraha teens like? Everett explains: “Piraha teenagers, like all teenagers, are giggly and can be very squirrelly and rude. They commented that my ass was wide. They farted close to the table as soon as we were sitting down to eat, then laughed like Jerry Lewis. Apparently the profound weirdness of teenagers is universal. But I did not see Piraha teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Piraha sense of productivity…One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Piraha youth” (p. 99-100).
Clearly, this type of parenting approach, even though it is the opposite of “Biblical” parenting, is working out well for the Pirahas in their culture. Piraha culture, however, is very different from American culture, and there are many aspects of their lives that would be unacceptable in the cultural setting of the US. It would be foolish to blindly imitate Piraha parenting and expect similar results in a very different culture.
It is also foolish and simplistic to say that the American problem with teen rebellion is due to the abandonment of “Biblical” parenting principles. In America, the increase in teen rebellion appeared at the same time as American youth culture did; therefore, to find the real answers, it’s necessary to look at the cultural shifts that led to the emergence of the American youth culture almost one hundred years ago.
A very thoroughly-researched and interesting history textbook by Paula Fass, recommended by Libby Anne, covers the major cultural changes in the US in the 1920s. The book, called “The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s”, focuses on how these cultural changes led to the new influential youth culture during that time. Here are some of the key ideas:
1. For most of history, and even in many third-world countries today, the family had a very specific purpose: to work together to ensure the survival of all of the members. Family members’ time and energy were spent on basic survival, with little time for deep conversation or affection. However, leading up to the 1920s, huge improvements in technology drastically improved the quality of life for many American families. As Fass explains, “advances in industry and the effects of technological progress in labor-saving procedures made this conservation of youthful energy socially feasible. The labors of the young were not immediately needed for social survival or progress” (Kindle location 619). In other words, child labor was no longer necessary for most families in American culture.
2. The decrease in youth work requirements was replaced by an increase in educational expectations. Because of the technological advancement of society, the youth suddenly needed more education in order to successfully enter society. High schools and colleges at the time saw an shockingly huge and sudden increase in enrollment.
3. Extended education meant that the youth had to remain dependent on their parents for much longer, as Fass explains: “Both parents and children must be willing to accept the parent-child bond for longer periods of time and not to chafe under the terms. Parents must accept the burden of costs, but children must bear the constrictions of continued dependency” (Kindle location 906). Although they were biologically ready for independence, the youth were not mentally ready for the complex and technologically-advanced culture, and thus had to continue living as dependents for far longer than was comfortable. This created the opportunity for far more parent-teen conflict than in previous generations.
4. To adapt to the new educational and vocational reality, many people at the time moved away from small communities to larger urban centers. This urbanization had unexpected effects. The social role of the small friendly community, where everyone knew everyone, was replaced by the impersonal anonymity of the bigger city. In this new impersonal urbanized setting, family dynamics had to change to fit the new needs. Family relationships became much more affectionate, deep, and personal, qualities which had been lacking in previously rural family life. Fass says: “In a rationalized and depersonalized society, the family became an agency of individual nurture and an environment for the development of intimate personal relationships” (Kindle location 1026).
5. Additionally, the increased school enrollment and extended educational time meant that youth spent increasing amounts of time with their peers. Peer influence began to play an important role in the lives of the youth, a role that had previously been played by the tightly-knit community. According to Fass, “the impersonality of the city made families autonomous and anonymous, cut off from the eyes and ears of community control. No longer could community pressures ensure conformity and order” (Kindle location 1176). In this new setting, youth peer culture provided a transitional middle ground from the affectionate and personalized family life to the depersonalized and performance-based adult society. Fass explains, “the effect of peer activity within the expanded student population was to promote wholesale conformity among ever increasing numbers of adolescents and young adults. Peer pressures and peer groups thus counteracted the individualizing and personalizing trend that had become marked in the family” (Kindle location 1362).
Since the 1920s, the pace of social and technological change has been even more rapid, and in many ways, it is the ever-flexible and adapting youth culture that has enabled so many changes in such a short time. Youth today are more connected to each other than ever before, thanks to social media, smart phones, and entertainment; and they have access to far more information through television and the internet. Is it better for a parent to try to reverse all of this social change, or is it better to learn to work with it?
Authoritarian parents, who have the goal of preventing teen rebellion, find that they must resort to oppressive totalitarian controls to repel the influence of the youth culture. Theirs is a heavy-handed attempt to wind back the clock on teen rebellion while keeping all the good cultural changes that came side-by-side with it. In their attempts to eliminate the influence of the youth culture on their teens, they must avoid so many crucial aspects of our culture today that they greatly damage their teenagers’ ability to eventually enter the wider culture in adulthood. Additionally, all of the parents’ efforts to isolate and control can be erased as their adult son or daughter enters that society and begins to make their own decisions.
Perhaps a better model of parenting is to realize that total control in this new cultural context is impossible. Maybe what teens really need from their parents is a few protective boundaries and a lot of openness, approachability, and affirmation. Maybe they need unconditional love from their parents as they experience both social success and social failure with their peers. Maybe they need a deeper relational connection with their parents as they experience the anonymity of life in our urban culture today.
Luckily, I have a lot of time before I’ll have my own teenager to deal with–a lot more time to process this information; a lot more time to hear from others about their positive and negative teen experiences with their parents; a lot more time to hear from parents about their positive and negative experiences with their teens; and best of all, a lot more time to cuddle and read with my toddler.
I’m only certain about one thing: “Biblical” parenting is not for me.