A New Switch - Teenagers Talk, Adults Listen

CAN we talk? That's the question the French government is asking 9 million young people this summer. A questionnaire sent to all 15-to-25-year-olds seeks comments on 58 statements about school, family, work, and society. When responses are tabulated, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur hopes to learn why so many French youths have little faith in the future.

What a novel idea - consulting young people about their opinions! How much easier it would be for talk show hosts and their adult guests simply to theorize about adolescent alienation, generation gaps, and the Angst besetting so-called Generation X. How much harder - and braver - to go to the youthful experts themselves, even giving them space on the questionnaire to write their own ideas and identify their priorities and ideals.

The completed forms will undoubtedly yield surprises. In fact, French officials eager for a preview might find clues in a much smaller poll of American teenagers conducted earlier this summer. The New York Times and CBS News asked more than 1,000 13-to-17-year-olds about their parents, friends, school, and work. The answers were often poignant, revealing young lives shadowed by violence, worry about the future, and distrust of adults.

Four out of 10 said that their parents sometimes or often are not available when they need them. And although many teenagers find their peers a solace, they also see them as a source of fear and menace. Often isolated, lonely, and scared, these young people appear cut off from the very sources of support they most need.

Call it Generation F - for Forgotten.

Yet contrary to stereotypes of teenagers as unwilling to communicate with adults, poll interviewers found young people, ``more often than not, were open and eager to talk,'' according to The New York Times.

Talking teenagers, listening adults - the solution seems so simple. Still, talk alone can't make the present more satisfying and the future more promising for young people.

If adults are to help give teenagers moral bearings and a sense of purpose, says Rev. Michael Thompson, senior pastor of the Tabernacle Church in Melbourne, Fla., they must understand the ``major sociological shapers'' affecting young people. Writing in Ministries Today, Reverend Thompson places the breakdown of the family high on his list of these shapers. He states: ``No wonder kids today have almost no relational skills. They haven't lived in a family environment to develop them.'' Media saturation also takes its toll.

Thompson also sees ``a generation of young technophiles consumed with gadgets'' - ``mesmerized'' by technology. ``They choose to live in an artificial world they can control rather than in the much-less-responsive real world around them.''

To Thompson, the effects of these societal and cultural shapers are clear: The younger generation ``is being spiritually numbed,'' and ``it's going to take a spiritual fire to rouse them.''

Among other solutions, he says, young people need ``real relationships.'' Their generation ``isn't bonded to anybody or anything. ... They have been abandoned or alienated by parents more concerned about personal achievement than their children's emotional and spiritual well-being.'' Teens, he adds, want responsibility. Tired of hypocrisy, they demand integrity. And they need mentoring, ``connecting a young person to a godly older person,'' although he admits that ``most of us are so busy that we don't have time to invest in other people.''

What else do teenagers want? Even teenagers may not really know - which makes them just like adults. But trying to explain themselves - on a questionnaire or face to face - is a necessary part of the discovery process. It's certainly their turn to say more than, ``You don't understand me.'' And it's certainly the turn of adults who love them to listen with care and respect, as if the future depends upon connecting their generations. Which it does.

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