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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 58 NOVEMBER 2003 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

between the generations

Adolescents and adults: Why working together seems impossible

Prof. Mike Baizerman thinks up ten reasons for inter-generational conflict: It is very common to hear teenagers say that adults don’t understand them and its very common to hear adults say that teenagers don’t understand them!

 This kind of talk has been going on for years and years. I want to look more closely at this complaint by putting it into the context of adolescent-adult working relationships.

Someone wrote that there are three rules for writing a good book. The problem is that no one knows these rules! My approach is to say, without any proof whatsoever, that there are ten reasons for everything, and, thus, ten reasons why it seems impossible for teenagers and adults to work together.

The ten reasons
What follows are the ten reasons why adults and youth say it seems impossible to work together.

1. Adults know what’s best for kids and kids know what’s best for themselves.
This is one way to capture the basic tension of age as it is reflected in the ideas of “experience” and “wisdom.” Like so much of adolescent-adult relations, there are also issues of power, control, and trust.

In the tribal and Hispanic cultures, as in parts of the white world, older people are seen as wiser, as in possession of something called “wisdom” and it is this which they have more of than do teenagers. The older the person, the more “experience” he (or she) is said to “have” and the greater the chance that the person will possess wisdom. Wisdom is a special form of common-sense knowledge. When all of this is put together, it comes out something like this:

“Older people have been around longer than teenagers and they have more and better common-sense. This comes from having experience. They know what makes sense. Their judgments are better. They know what’s best for kids.”

On the other side, the teenagers want to decide for themselves, sometimes with adult help and usually with help of their friend(s).

Making decisions and choosing are two ways in which people make themselves and make the future. This is a crucial way in which we learn for ourselves what we believe, what we want and need — in short, who we are.

Many times adults use the words “experience” and “common-sense” as ways to prevent adolescents from “doing something dumb” or from “getting hurt.” Many teenagers hear in these words that the adult doesn’t “trust them” or have confidence in their abilities; or want them “to grow up.” Both adolescent and adult may be right!

2. Adults have experience and kids want experience (but adults don’t want kids to experience what they — the adults — experienced).
This is related to the first point, but is a little different. Hidden inside the word “experience” is a secret: That (some of) the adults did things when they were young which they now think was dumb or scary or sad or bad or stupid, and/or they’re sorry for. Some adults truly want to protect teenagers from the troubles and sadness and turmoil which they, the adults, experienced when they were young. This is an understandable motive but it has the consequence of keeping the young person from exploring his/her own world and its possibilities for themselves.

Yes, there may be danger and hurt or boredom in the new experience, and there may be short and long term troubles resulting from a single, basic, simple act, that is, from “experience.” This is what “growing up” is about.

Again, both may be right. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that kids will ask for adult guidance, and adults will offer guidelines.

Guiding, not control through prevention, may be the best strategy for both. It allows for wisdom and experiment, for age, experience and possibility.

3. Adults want to take some time and think it over, and kids want to do it yesterday.
Our clocks tell us that a second is short and every hour we see the news on the television.

The kids’ radios and tapedecks tell time in the rhythm of songs, not in community drums or the seasons of snow and drought. Adult time is different from kid time. One is slower than the other; one takes longer than the other. Slower is somehow thought to be wiser, while the fast and the quick are probably wrong, some believe. Slower, older and wiser vs. fast, young and naive. This is one form of the age-old tension between generations, between adults and kids, between children and their parents.

4. Adults want to talk (use words) and kids want to act (do it).
Other forms of time are talk and action. Adults want to “talk it over,” “talk about it,” “discuss it” and “meet about it,” while kids want to do it. Now! Teenagers don’t seem to understand talk as a form of action and commitment.

Adolescents may experience adult talk as a form of preaching or teaching, or as a type of military tactic designed to prevent or divert them from doing something. Many may experience adult talk as a way to slow them down, confuse them, or transform their adventure into something “educational,” i.e. without excitement or risk.

Talk may be a way to try to control the unpredictable, the unknown and the possible. In religion and in tribal life, stories, prayers and ceremonies may have, in part, this purpose. Unfortunately, talk between people is far less common than talk at someone or to someone. All over the world, talk seems to have a bad name if it comes from the wrong person. Often, the wrong person is the adult. Kids, like all of us, want from others support, encouragement, trust and confidence. Instead they often hear “don’t” or “you shouldn’t” or “you’ll see” or “you’ll be sorry!” They want to hear “You can do it, but let’s talk about it first.”

The tension isn’t between talk and action, because both are action. It is between encouragement and support, on the one side, and the misguided attempt to control on the other. Sometimes it is even simpler: it is just plain bad communication.

5. Adults think about consequences and kids think about now (or tomorrow or next week).
Another aspect of time is found in consequences, the results of acts, the future. “What will likely result” is an adult way of thinking about their own plans and actions and the plans and actions of others. The afterwards, later, is crucial for adults. For youth, the act may be more important than its results. The joy lies in anticipation and action, more than in result. The before and the now matter most to teenagers.

Some of the great differences between adolescents and adults are found here, in the land called “responsibility.” A so-called responsible person is one who “thinks of consequences before (s)he acts,” we say. But what if a person is not able to conceive of the idea of consequences is truly unable to think about later? Could such a person be thought of as responsible?

This is one way to think about the nature of adolescence and what is called “adolescent development.” One aspect of development is understanding time, and another is understanding cause and consequence. Adolescents are not able to do this in the same way as adults. The idea of “future” brings together the two and adds a third:

Maybe. “Now” and “before” and “later” and “possibility” are complex ideas. For example: “If you brush your teeth every morning and evening and rinse your mouth after meals, you are likely to not get cavities now — or to lose your teeth when you are sixty-five.”

This example is complex in several ways. The ideas of “now” and “future” are pretty clear, but the idea of probability, or maybe, is hidden in the word “likely.” If you do all these things, you may or may not get cavities. As they say, only death and taxes are for certain.

There are cultural and personal developmental issues here. One developmental issue is that adolescents typically see the world as opening up and full of possibilities, while adults typically see the world as closing-down and full of lost chances, bad choices and other people’s boundaries. When adolescents and adults live together or work together, there may be tension between these different views about the present and the future; and the abilities of each age-group to literally understand the views of the other.

Development occurs within culture and takes its shape from that context. Some cultures are more now-oriented, while others are more laid-back. Development and culture give shape to anyone’s (an individual’s, a group’s and a community’s) ability to plan, to analyse, and to consider short and long term like consequences. It is not that kids simply have “ants in their pants” or “too much energy” or “too many hormones.” While this may be true, it is not the whole story. This may be one of those tensions between adolescents and adults which both must learn to live with.

6. Adults think they have to be in charge, and kids want a chance to be in charge.
The tension between adolescents and adults over who is or should be in charge is related to issue of power, control, and to our old friends, “experience” and personal development. To most adults, it is simply inconceivable that teenagers believe that they could or should be in charge of a task or a project or a programme. The idea usually never enters the adult mind. It is simply in the “natural order of things” that the older, more experienced person is in charge of the younger person: It has “always been that way”. Why change it?

Many youth agree with this and don’t even consider the idea that they could be in charge, and think that the issue is not one of more vs. less experience, but the appropriateness of the experience.

But there is more to this. Other youth, including two in my family, accept the principle that age matters, but use it differently. Most people seem to believe that the older person, the adult, should be in charge. My kids believe that the younger person should be in charge of some things. In other words, the decision about who should be in charge must be made in the context of the specific activity under consideration and the specific individuals, including their relevant experiences.

Age discrimination is illegal. Except that these laws do not protect youth from discrimination resulting from adult and adolescent blindness to the possibility that youth, with appropriate guidance and supervision, could be in charge.

Leader, boss, supervisor, parent and employer are different words for being in charge. Each of these is a learned role that one learns by doing, along with guidance and supervision. Hence, it is an adult responsibility to encourage youth to try out the responsibilities and the rights of being in charge.

Out of the incredulity of both can come adults with confidence in the ability of youth to learn what they the adults can teach about being in charge, and a willingness to learn from youth what they can teach about what it is like to be the person who is supervised. Youth can also suggest alternate ways to lead and supervise.

7. Adults can ‘hang in there’ longer than kids, who get bored easily and quickly and want a change
of task or job.

Here again is “time,” but now in a different set of clothes. The tension here between teenager and parent has to do with words such as “patience,” “deferred gratification,” “endurance” and “stick-to-it-ness.”

Adults are thought to do these better than adolescents. Perhaps in general adults are better able than adolescents at “hanging in there.” In one sense, all of this is just another way to say someone is “responsible”, that is, the person will “stick to the job ... until it’s done.” Part of making it in the adult world is by “hanging in there.” Why? There aren’t a lot of choices for the adult who won’t or can’t. In fact, we have special words for those adults: “irresponsible, crazy, immature, undependable.” Adult society on the community level, in families and in the work place, is built around adult willingness to be there over “the long haul.” Adult boredom is not a recognised personal or social problem by society. But kids can and do “get bored” relatively easily and quickly. Part of this is physiological and in other ways developmental. And also, no doubt, part of this is a valid and authentic reaction to work which is truly boring. However, don’t forget that kids use the word boring to cover a wide variety of feelings. “Boring” (as in BO-RING!) is a code word.

It may be that the core issue here is that workers are expected to hang-in regardless of whether or not the work is boring, while kids still want to fight the system of work which makes it hard for adults to resist doing work they don’t think is meaningful, or work that is organised in a boring way, or the like. In other words, on this issue many youth are true radicals who are, often without awareness, challenging the very way we organise work in our society] and the way our lives are given form or shattered or whatever by this work, its meaning or meaninglessness, and how it is organised.

Fortunately, part of “growing up” in our society is for most an opportunity to struggle with this issue. Unfortunately, many don’t have this chance and become bored, unhappy and “lost” adults. What is frightening about this issue is that the very nature and place and amount of work in our society is changing dramatically, with the possible consequence that many in our society will never hold regular, paid employment. What will happen to boredom then?

8. Adults think that it will be too expensive" and that kids don’t understand this, while kids believe
that adults can get the money if they want to.

This is the reality of money as mediated by power, fantasy and naiveté. Adolescents with little or no work experience and those with little experience of having and spending money (i.e. poor kids or kids not living in a money economy) seem not to be able to fully understand how much life costs — whether it is clothes, a colour TV or a particular programme. Often youth believe that adults can do it, if only they want to. We only wish we could! Adults who work hard for their money, or to raise money for a programme, often lose patience when adolescents talk and argue and tease about money. In our society, money is tied in to so many other issues that it is hard to be reasonable and rational about it. This is another domain in which youth can be guided to an appreciation of life as adults see it, live it and feel it, while adults can be reminded of the sometime purity of naive belief!

9. Adults really don’t respect kids, but expect kids to respect them.
This is a real tension which can’t be lessened easily. While it is not present in some cultures, it surely is in many others. Adults rarely respect youth as an age-class, a category of people, or particular youth, individuals. They rarely have practice in how to do this, and they rarely want youth to teach them about this. Youth have few sustained contacts and relationships with adults, if family and school are excluded. In small villages and in some tribes, such relationships can and do develop, while they are far more rare in the larger world. In the “old days,” age, wisdom and respect were joined, but this is changing as knowledge changes so quickly and is itself separated from wisdom. Age, too, is increasingly separated from knowledge, and it is often the young who create and master the “new ways.” Obviously, respect cannot be demanded; it is said that it must be earned. Maybe respect is not something we can work directly to bring about. Instead, it may be a result of how we are with others. That is, respect comes to be in relationships and shows itself in how we live with others. It is neither a method nor a technique, but simply a way of being-with.

10. Adults think that they know how to work on a project with kids and kids think they don’t know how to work on a project with adults.
There is often great discomfort and even distrust when adults and youth try to work together on a common project. There are many sources of these feelings — developmental, cultural, existential and personality, among them — and there is no simple way to dissipate this tension. What is possible is for adolescents and adults to recognise the feelings and expectations about each other, which each has learned as children in their own families, in school, in the community and at work, and to use this recognition consciously to choose whether they want to try to get along with one another — even to understand each other. Getting to this stage is the hard part. The easy part is jointly practising how to work together. In every way, the process is the same for any two people. Every day, men and women, girls and boys, tribal people and white, western and eastern, have the opportunity to see difference, to look across some line separating them, and to choose. My hope is that each of us, regardless of age, will have the wisdom and courage to cross the boundary lines which we think keep us apart.

In the end, we must work together, whether we think we can or not. The world depends on that. The world depends on us!

This feature: Baizerman, M. (1994). Adolescents and Adults: why working together seems impossible. The Child Care worker. Vol.12 No.8 pp. 6-8