01 November 2008

It Takes a Tribe to Raise a Teen

I remember Hillary Rodham Clinton asserting that, "It takes a village to raise a child." And various right-wing commentators saying "No, it takes a family."

I have a alternate aphorism. It takes a tribe.

From infancy to adolescence the formative unit in the child's experience is indeed the family. But modern society progressively dis-empowers the family with regard to controlling the child's reality. First there are public and private schools, which teach in loco parentis, in the place of the parents. Unless you home-school, the state begins driving a wedge between your experience and your child's in Kindergarten.

This was not much of a problem in small, insular communities where everyone knew everyone else, and mothers stayed home. The gossip network was all it took to keep tabs on your kids. And your informal network of acquaintances, from neighbors to the police, could give a lot of support when it came to discipline. But, in parallel with the feminist movement's successful integration of women into the workplace came the economic necessity for families to do so. The result was that in the 1980's an anti-drug slogan circulated asking, "It's five o'clock - do you know where your children are?" Families began losing their grip on their kids at earlier and earlier ages.

As this was going on, technology made possible a mass media-culture, which promptly mutated into the world's first mass youth-culture. Youth-culture provided an identity-group, a tribe, in which adolescents could do what adolescents must always do - develop an identity that is their own instead of their parents'. Their first way-station to becoming their own persons is the tribe. The tribe used to be local, civil society, which exerted a powerful influence toward adopting the values that would sustain civil society, which were more or less the values of the parents.

But the youth-culture offered a tribe that had more tenuous connections to society-sustaining values. And then, another technological revolution brought the fragmentation of mass-media and mass-culture. Now you can see a group of ten kids with ten iPods listening to ten different genres of music at the same time. As there are now a plethora of music genres, there are a plethora of youth cultures, sub-tribes waiting to receive the adolescent, to be consumed by the adolescent, to reward the adolescent for consumption, and eventually to consume the adolescent. The result is the relative (to past history) dis-enfranchisement of parents when it comes to shaping the development of their adolescent children.

Some of these sub-tribes are beneficial or at least benign. Some are not, like criminal gangs, extremist groups, and radical-religious terrorist cells. In their combination of false confidence that they know what they are doing and their fear of being rejected by their chosen tribe, adolescents are primed by nature to fall prey to seductive yet superficial ideologies. Ideologies that offer a quick fix to the problems of identity and maturity: help kill the Zionist occupiers and be a man, kill them yourself and be a hero, get killed killing them and be a martyr.

What civil society lacks is a deliberate and lengthy "tribal" initiation into adulthood. To the extent that we fail to provide it, our kids will find tribes of their own. And some of them are profoundly uncivil.

I write these thoughts in the abstract, but I have a concrete example in mind. It is the autobiography of Ed Husain, a British-born Muslim of Indian/Pakistani descent, entitled The Islamist, reviewed here.

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