Building Bridges of Mutual Respect

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.

''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.''

At least some of them do. Pauline Arbanella of Rockford, Ill., mother of three teen-agers, says: ''When my mother was parenting us teen-agers, we wouldn't dream of questioning her. Right or wrong, my mother was right, and don't you dare say otherwise. My kids have the freedom to express their opinions , whether I like it or not. And that makes it doubly hard for me.

''My mother said to me, 'I wouldn't let you kids talk that way to me!'

''I said, 'That's right. You wouldn't. But I happen to think this is a better way.' ''

The conversation can get blunt and funny, as when Mrs. Arbanella responds to her 15-year-old daughter's classic reply to criticism - ''It's not like we do it on purpose'' - by replying: ''No, that's the maddening part.''

Frank Rainaldi, a principal at North Junior High School in Hopkins, Minn., does not believe in sparing this kind of frankness. ''Criticism needs to be straightforward - 'I don't like some of the things you do,' rather than, 'It would be better if. . . .'

''I think parents speak to their children far too often that way - 'It's just not right . . . you shouldn't . . .' rather than 'I really don't like that, and here are the reasons why.' Then kids have something to push against, and you're more likely to get a discussion.

''In all the communication we have with parents and kids, we try to give them the straight information. Even if they don't like what they're hearing, it's best to give them the accurate answers.

''In dealing with teen-agers, I think that's what they're really asking for. There are several things that are always in their vocabulary, especially when they have a complaint. It needs to be fair. It needs to be honest. They need to be informed, and they want to be involved. They don't use those words, but that's really what they're saying. They have a unique sense of fairness.

''Communication is the whole ball game with young people. You either get them with you or turned against you, depending on how well you are able to communicate.''

But Dr. Rainaldi hastens to add: ''What they really need from us is a continual reminder of the things they do well, the positive reinforcement. We need to try to catch kids being good, and then let them know what we see.''

This touching desire to express appreciation is one of the more appealing resolves on both sides of the fence.

Meredith Spector says: ''Clashes have come, but that's given me more of an appreciation of who my parents are. The love gets stronger.''

Sometimes the appreciation takes time - and patience. Steven Housh, 18, of Edina, Minn., says: ''When you're younger, there are things you want to do and your parents won't let you do them. You think, Gosh, my parents are so strict. But when you get a little older, as a senior, maybe, you can see the value of those judgments that they made, and you can kind of see why they're thinking that way. I really respect my parents. I've been influenced by their faith, and that's been good in my life.''

It's as if, as the family has come under stress, both parents and children have come to value it more. The Census Bureau says that divorce rates have doubled in the past 15 years. ''I almost feel I'm in the minority,'' says a teen-ager at West Junior High School in Hopkins, Minn. ''Everybody has a new mother or father.'' In the last decade, furthermore, there has been a 69 percent increase in single-parent families: They now constitute 1 out of 5 families with children.

But even these gloomy figures cannot shake teen-agers' faith in the family, or their optimism about the families they hope to have someday. In the latest Gallup Youth Survey, 87 percent of teen-age respondents reported that they expect to marry someday, and 81 percent want to have children.

The conviction appears to be growing that, for all its flaws, the family - the ''haven in a heartless world'' and ''the last refuge of love and decency,'' as the historian Christopher Lasch called it - is indispensable. Neither schools , nor the welfare state, nor the experts can truly stand in loco parentis. The dialogue between generations, many parents now realize, will finally take place in the home, if it takes place at all.

Theodore Duchene, chief of staff of North Shore Children's Hospital in Salem, Mass., expresses what hides behind the lines of a lot of other speeches: ''We keep hearing families really aren't necessary. I'd like to make a statement. There has been absolutely nothing to take the place of the family as we know it: father and mother and children. No commune, no menage a trois, whatever they want to substitute - nothing that I have ever read about, or seen, can beat that unit.

''What we have to do is start strengthening the family unit. We have to make the family a place where kids want to come back to, even though they're on their own. What we have to do is to provide role models. We live in the kind of a world where we become so technical about everything. We teach our kids how to run computers and live on the moon. But we don't teach them how to get along together. What in the world is the sense of teaching a kid how to play chess at the age of two when at 12 he can't get along with either his parents or his friends?

''As adults, something we have refused to do is provide them with our values, '' Dr. Duchene continues. ''Whatever our values are, if we as adults don't provide them for that other generation, where are they going to get these values? It becomes the blind leading the blind. They pick the values from their peers, who also have nothing to relate to.

''I tell parents, Tell your kids that you're their parents, and mistakes or failures notwithstanding, you're still going to act like a parent. Because no matter how little they think you know or how stupid they think you may be, you've got something they don't have. You've been there, and they have yet to get there (where you are).''

Neil Postman, author of ''The Disappearance of Childhood,'' takes an equally strong approach. Parents, he says, should be in ''an act of rebellion against American culture'' - returning to their role as ''guardians, custodians, protectors, nurturers, punishers, arbiters of taste and rectitude.''

That parental role, of course, must include an acknowledgment of a teen-ager's growing maturity and responsibility. ''Parents need to stop thinking of you as a kid,'' says Skip Messbarger. ''You are, at 18, mature enough to make up your own mind on some things.''

But there may be one act braver for a parent than playing the teacher, and that is for a parent to play the student, learning from one's own children.

''In many ways teen-agers are light years ahead of us,'' says Therese Burke, a secondary school resource teacher and mother of four in Needham, Mass. ''Kids today question our values, and right they should after Vietnam, a depression, developing nuclear power, poverty, and incredible suffering in the world. It's healthy that they question us. We need to be questioned.

''They seem to have a good sense of putting things in proper perspective. We tend to overreact a lot of times. Kids figure, 'That's weird,' or 'That's crazy, ' and they let it go. Kids are more accepting, which is good. And that's mature. They're less judgmental.

''I marvel at how forgiving kids are. They really do forgive you. You slip and you're grumpy or crabby, or you say something sharp, and they're willing to let it go. And they mean it. They're very open. They're very caring. They're inquisitive and receptive.''

To that list of attributes Beth Winship adds, ''Teen-agers are very idealistic. If we could just get the right values out there, we'd be set. We do it mostly by our own example. We have to find ways to talk to young people that make sense to them in the lives they lead.''

In this search for new approaches and new answers, in this act of humility and caring, the dialogue of mutual respect must begin. Socrates spelled out the solution thus: ''The right way to begin is to pay attention to the young, and make them just as good as possible.''

It may be worth recalling how the story of Joseph and his brothers and his father, Jacob, came out. There were detours. There was exile in Egypt and alienation. But some concept of family seemed to survive and, in fact, grow in the hearts of all of them.

The happy ending did not come glibly. They had behaved as enemies behave. Joseph, who had come out of his captivity in Egypt a powerful man, could not resist playing out mock revenge on the brothers who failed years later to recognize him. But in the end, whatever had been torn healed. A kinship that was family, and more than family, asserted itself. Joseph and his brothers and his father threw themselves on one another's necks and wept for all that had been lost and all that had been found again.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.