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Building Bridges of Mutual Respect

By Marilyn GardnerLiving page editor of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1982



In the Book of Genesis the 17-year-old Joseph announces to his brothers: ''Behold, I have dreamed a dream . . . and behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.

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''And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?'' (Genesis 37:9-10)

In her recent study, ''The Adolescent Idea,'' Patricia Meyer Spacks, a professor of English at Yale, observes: ''The young flaunt their beauty, energy, and freedom; the middle-aged assert their experience, wisdom, and parental dominance. The young press forward, the old press them back. Conflict prevails.''

Is this scenario of conflict, of adversary relationship inevitable? Samuel Johnson wrote, ''I cannot but fancy . . . that the young and the old were always at variance.'' But Dr. Johnson loved the young and considered the encounter, for the most part, one of those healthy debates between the loyal opposition that keep both sides alive and tingling.

It was Freud, with the famous ''Oedipus complex,'' who took all the humor and most of the affection out of the game. He, of course, was not alone.

A study of the history of the family suggests that since at least the middle of the 19th century parents have been judged incompetent to raise the children they gave birth to, and any number of experts have called themselves in to save the next generation from its worst enemies: the parents.

In his book ''Haven in a Heartless World,'' the historian Christopher Lasch lists the ''helping professions'' who have competed for the power of playing the parent's role: ''doctors, psychiatrists, child development experts, spokesmen for the juvenile courts, marriage counselors, leaders of the public hygiene movement'' - generally ''reserving to their own professions,'' Lasch notes, ''the leading role in the care of the young.''

The results have been less than successful. ''The health industry's ministrations to the family benefited the 'helping professions' far more than they helped the family,'' Lasch charges. ''The erosion of parental authority and the delegation of discipline to other agencies have created in the American family a growing gap between discipline and affection.''

If the parent was initially considered a bungler, more recently he or she has been regarded as the villain - not only incapable of solving the problem but, in fact, constituting a major part of the problem.

Books announced ''The Death of the Family,'' and 10 years ago it was generally assumed by the experts that new, more flexible social units would have to be invented to do the job that mother and father had so botched.

Few parents, individually or collectively, would care to defend the family as a blameless institution. But has it been this much of a disaster? Even its alleged victims, the children, do not appear to think so. In their poll of 20, 000 teen-agers three psychologists, Daniel Offer, Eric Ostrov, and Kenneth I. Howard, discovered that about 70 percent of their respondents said: ''I can count on my parents most of the time.'' And: ''My parents are usually patient with me.'' These averages include respondents classified as ''juvenile delinquent'' and ''psychiatrically disturbed'' as well as ''normal.''

The interviews the Monitor conducted with teen-agers, parents, teachers, and counselors tended to agree with the Offer-Ostrov-Howard findings on a number of general points.

First of all, the dialogue between teen-agers and adults is easier - more natural, more open on both sides. Meredith Spector, a freshman at Wellesley College, puts it thus: ''It seems most of the barriers in communication are gone in families. They've been broken, just gradually over a period of years. In the '60s things were forced open. Now it's settled down, and it's natural. I'm grateful.''

''A lot more is out in the open,'' says Skip Messbarger, 18, of Rockford, Ill. ''You don't sneak around as much.''

Beth Winship, author of a syndicated teen-age column, ''Ask Beth,'' told the Monitor: ''I think the '60s, with all that went on, blasted loose a certain amount of communication between parents and kids. If I ask high school students if they think the generation gap is better or worse, they almost always say better. I'm not sure the parents would say the same.''