There is a longstanding and ongoing debate among social scientists on the subject of “nature versus nurture” – whether our personalities, actions and life choices are impacted more by “nature” (our genes) or “nurture” (the way we are raised and the life experiences we have).
It stands to reason, therefore, that these two schools of thought would weigh in on the subject of teenagers. This vigorous debate has significant ramifications for how we view – and raise – our adolescent children.
TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
The “Sturm und Drang' theory of adolescence basically maintains that adolescence is an unavoidable, stormy period in the life of young adults – along the lines of the “temporary insanity” concept to which I made reference in my previous column.
According to this line of reasoning, teenagers are unpredictable time bombs; moody, anxious and troubled - driven by raging hormones. (“Sturm und Drang' is German for “storm and stress.” The term was coined in the 1700’s in matters unrelated to teen years, but became popular in the early 20th Century by some psychologists to describe the teenage phase.)
The downside to this view is that there seems to be little that parents and society can do to rein in teenagers other than to exercise damage control.
AN ALTERNATE VIEW
In 1925, Margaret Mead journeyed to the South Pacific territory of American Samoa. She sought to discover whether adolescence was a universally traumatic and stressful time due to biological factors or whether the experience of adolescence depended on one's cultural upbringing. She observed that adolescence was not a stressful time at all for girls in Samoa.
After spending about nine months observing and interviewing Samoans, as well as administering psychological tests, Mead concluded that Samoans did not have adolescent stress since their cultural patterns were very different from those in the United States. Her findings were published in Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), a vivid, descriptive account of Samoan adolescent life that became tremendously popular.
She argued that, living in a more primitive culture, Samoan adolescent girls had little in the way of transition between childhood years and adult life and its responsibilities. Teenage girls (and boys) immediately and seamlessly assumed adult chores and shared responsibilities. They enjoyed the fulfillment of hunting/gathering and contributing to help put food on the tables of their families. She claimed that this level of teenage participation and responsibility was a direct factor in the successful acclimation of adolescents in Samoan society. According to this second view, adolescence is a painful reality that comes into play only when there is significant discontinuity.
HEY, MAYBE OUR PARENTS WERE RIGHT!!
We all remember hearing from our parents and grandparents how, “When we were growing up, teenagers were more respectful, and helped more at home.”
Well, aside from the fact that there has been a significant breakdown in the social fabric of society over the past few decades, it would seem that there has been enormous erosion in the level of responsibility that teens have towards their families over the past three generations.
In pre-war European life, there was very little discontinuity. The vast majority of boys, even in charedi homes, began to work and contribute to their impoverished families almost immediately after bar mitzvah. They joined the work force and worked alongside adults, and were probably better suited for strenuous physical labor than their older co-workers. Only a small percentage of mitzuyanim (outstanding talmidim) continued in full time learning. Girls worked alongside their mothers in the never-ending chores needed to maintain their homes.
So, when our parents told us that:
• Teenagers were more respectful, and
• Helped more at home
They not only were right, but there may be a significant correlation between these two comments.
While I am certainly not recommending sending thirteen-year-olds to work, it would stand to reason that giving our kids more responsibility and participation in our home life will lead to greater respect and less teenage “Sturm und Drang.'
© 2005 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
To sign up for Rabbi Horowitz’s weekly emails, please click here.