Sociology has often been mocked as a `pseudoscience’, but there is nothing in this biting 1970 portrait of modern American society that could be so described. The principles therein equally apply here and now. The title of the book gives the hollow reality of the Declaration of Independence; `Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, and one way of finding out why the American Dream turned into a nightmare can give hope for our own futures. Human society is ultimately made up of individual people growing up in family units. It should be no surprise that `national character’ is merely an aggregate of family values. The following comments are based on chapter three: `Women and children first’.
We are used to the stereotype of the spoilt child who has every conceivable want satisfied. The explanation given in this book begins with an earlier model, based upon the Victorian style military model; take children who are all basically different, and get them to behave outwardly in a regulated, uniform manner, regardless of how inwardly committed to this behaviour they may be. It mattered not whether the child harboured inner feelings of rebellion or contempt, so long as these are never expressed. Today, however, in a new twist on the parent’s perceived responsibility to mould `an adult in their own (idealised) image’, it is felt the child, as miniature adult, can be more or less intelligent, creative, or personable according to how the parents behave toward him. Due to the ‘investment’ of time, effort and self-sacrifice, parents are much less inclined to let go emotionally, in effect, swallowing up the child’s natural personality, freedom, and individual expression even in the face of visible conflict and unhappiness in the child.
At some point of crisis, the child will rise up against the induced guilt and try to lead his own life. The only unique characteristic today is that formerly this perhaps happened after the child had married and left home, but now even younger teenagers rebel against this style of upbringing. The challenge appears to the parents as attacking the fundamental premises they, consciously or unconsciously, have based their lives upon. No parent will quickly admit to their children they have spent their lives in a foolish or meaningless fashion. Additionally, the older generation were, in effect, taught to lie about their inner feelings. How likely are they to say, `We are frightened. We are afraid we have spent our lives and your upbringing in narrow self-interest, brutalizing others, pursuing useless and trivial material things, and creating a loveless home environment. It seemed the right thing to do, for after all, we were copying our parents, maybe we are unsure, but regardless, we are too far down this road to change’.
In order to maintain a facade of stability, happiness is sacrificed. It is an attempt to view the family and the world as unchanging, therefore conflict, misery and joy happen to other people, other families. Henry David Thoreau once described the view behind the scene in the phrase `the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. One barrier seems to be the way parents increasingly resent their children. `If it weren’t for the children, I would divorce/remarry/move etc.’ Since most parents would not consciously express these feelings to their child, the child is not only a scapegoat, but a scapegoat that cannot metaphorically be led away into the wilderness, like the original. Instead, an undefined resentment builds toward their children, or youth in general, with its roots in their own discontentment. This is inevitably more pronounced if the child wants to live differently, or more openly expressive than themselves. This does not mean to say that parents do not make sacrifices for their children, but helps explain why the sacrifices may be resented.
Having worked with, and tried to understand what motivates individuals with autism, I believe behavioural and emotional disorders we sometimes dismiss as upbringing, childhood related, actually impact on many more adults than we care to admit. This explanation is surely kinder than writing someone off?
The challenge has to be for individuals to break free from this artificial, stilted and emotionally bereft circumstance, and learn not to perpetuate such misery. The lesson is one of balance, so mindless, military-style regulation as well as indifferent permissiveness, giving way to true natural affection. A useful book for all parents of teenagers is Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager