Young People Ask . . .
Why Don’t Grown-Ups Understand Me?
“FEW adults really understand the problems of young people.” True or false? A group of young Germans, aged 15 to 24, were asked to comment. Twenty-three percent said “absolutely true,” 25 percent, “possibly true,” and 37 percent, “partially true.”
Regardless of how you would have answered, it is obvious that a great many young people feel that grown-ups misunderstand them. No doubt there are many reasons why young people feel that way. Let us discuss three of them.
Dissimilar Backgrounds and Experiences
“I find it dreadful,” complains 18-year-old Heike, “when grown-ups say: ‘Just wait until you’re my age and have gone through all I have—then you’ll know what life’s all about.’” Sound familiar? Sixteen-year-old Frances has a similar complaint: “The main thing about parents is that they say, ‘We were young once,’ but there’s no way to compare when they were our age. It’s so different. . . . They had some of our same problems but we have new ones they don’t know anything about.”
Both these girls make a valid point. Some grown-ups do find it difficult to comprehend the problems of young people. But remember that the converse is also true. Even as grown-ups have not experienced growing up in your world, you have not experienced growing up in theirs. You find it hard to imagine the horrors of a war your elders may have lived through; they find it equally hard to understand fully the pressures and temptations at school, at work, or in your pursuit of recreation.
But it would be incorrect to think that this inability to understand one another is limited to grown-ups versus young people. Even young people do not always understand one another. For example, do you live in one of the Western industrial countries, known for their fast-moving, throwaway, instant-gratification society? Then you may find it quite difficult to relate to young people growing up in countries of the Third World. Behavioral patterns considered normal in one country may seem strange and hard to understand in another.
A cross-cultural study comparing American youth with young people in India revealed that “family cohesiveness was greater in India and that Indian adolescents were more subject to family authority.” This study concluded that any judgment as to whether young people are being treated with understanding or not “depends upon one’s cultural reference.” Lack of understanding, therefore, is often less a matter of age than it is of culture, experience, and background.
Lack of Communication
A young woman named Inge points out a second reason. Looking back upon her teenage years, she says: “My parents were not good at conversation. They were just too wrapped up in their own affairs.” And Ludwig’s parents were likewise so busy with their business that they had little time for him. “Once I began to realize,” he says, “that they were not going to answer my questions, I stopped asking. Our relationship suffered. When we did the converse, it soon turned into an argument.”
Kathleen McCoy, for nine years feature editor for ’Teen magazine, stresses this point, telling parents that “what a teenager needs to tell you will not always be what you want most to hear, but, in building good communication and growing past blocking habits, listening and being there for your child—no matter what—is crucial.” Yes, an unwillingness or inability to communicate does real damage to the parent-child relationship.
You may further feel that grown-ups—particularly parents or teachers—are too strict with you, perhaps even harsh. What could be their motive?
One possible reason is mentioned by Kathleen McCoy as she speaks to parents: “You see your teenager, poised on the threshold of so many choices and so many opportunities, ignoring, canceling out or not realizing his or her good fortune—and you feel angry. You may have invested many of your hopes, dreams and feelings of self-worth into your child and feel furious when he or she doesn’t come through as expected.”
Now, in all honesty, does this sound like a parent who really doesn’t care about you? Imagine a father whose son, the proverbial “chip off the old block,” has inherited not only some of his father’s good qualities but also some of his weaknesses and bad tendencies. The father, seeing in his son a reflection of his own imperfection, does not like what he sees. He wants his son to be better. Can you blame him for trying to achieve this, even when his attempts may come across at times as being less than understanding?
Andrew has not had to contend with this kind of father. He says: “I’ve never had anybody step in. I’ve always done things my way.” Yet he admits, “I’m not so sure that’s good.” On the other hand, Ramon, another teenager, reports: “My parents were hard on me. I couldn’t go out all the time and do whatever I wanted.” Has this made him resentful? On the contrary. “When you think about it,” he acknowledges, “you’re going to be a better person.” So which of these boys will be better off in the long run?
There is no question as to how an ancient king, widely known for his wisdom, would answer this question. He wrote: “Foolishness is tied up with the heart of a boy [or a girl]; the rod of discipline is what will remove it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15) So it would be unwise and unjust always to view strictness as proof that a grown-up lacks understanding. Even though you may find it difficult to give him an “A” for wisdom, ask yourself whether he doesn’t at least deserve an “A” for caring.
No Reason for Despair
The feeling that people we love do not understand us can be painful, both for young people and for adults. If this is your problem, do not despair, for it is not a problem beyond solving. It may simply require better communication or more consideration of the fact that all of us are a product of our times, our environment, and our education, as well as of our racial, social, religious, and political upbringing. Perhaps we must try harder to see good motives behind awkward efforts.
Putting the blame for such lack of understanding totally upon grown-ups, of course, would be self-defeating. Yet you should not go to the other extreme and become discouraged, thinking it is all your fault. Do not permit negative experiences with a few to lead you to conclude that no one can understand you. Be assured that some grown-ups can.
Take comfort in the example of David who as a young lad killed the giant Goliath. Shortly thereafter, he made friends with Jonathan, a grown-up some 30 years his senior, the son of King Saul. Whereas the king showed David no understanding—a fact that caused David great sorrow—the king’s son Jonathan did. In fact, it is said that “Jonathan’s very soul became bound up with the soul of David, and Jonathan began to love him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1) Imagine having such an understanding friend—and a grown-up at that!
Above all, David found comfort in the fact that despite human misunderstandings and despite his own imperfections and mistakes, there was One who always understood. “Do understand my sighing,” he pleaded to God in prayer. He rejoiced—as you can too—in the knowledge that God “well knows the formation of us,” or as moderns might put it, ‘he really understands what makes us tick.’—Psalm 5:1; 103:14.
So there is no need to feel that grown-ups and young people cannot understand one another, that there is a generation gap that cannot be bridged. If you are willing to do your part, it can be—quite successfully, in fact.
[Picture on page 19]
Although some grown-ups do not understand young people, there are others who do