Teenagers rebel, but why did my son become a moderate Republican?

Teenagers rebel against their parents as a way to define their own identity. Still, this dad who grew up in the 60s and 70s is wondering how he raised a son who cuts his hair short, doesn't recycle, and ... may be a moderate Republican.

Ari Denison/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Teenagers rebel against their parents and seek their own identity including hippies in the 1970s or punk rockers (like these two pictured in this 2001 file photo). The author wonders what he did wrong that made his son become a moderate Republican.

For a child of the 1960s whose generation was defined by rebellion, my own rebellion was embarrassingly modest. I tuned in (to politics), turned on only modestly (some pot, mainly in college), and didn’t drop out (full steam ahead through college and law school).  I grew my hair long, to my parents’ dismay, listened to music that sounded to them like so much noise, and took up the guitar. Never made it to Woodstock.

You might think organizing Earth Day activities at my New Jersey high school in 1971, leading student walkouts to protest the Vietnam War, and getting arrested my freshman year in college for blocking the entrance to Westover Air Force Base in western Massachusetts along with a few hundred other students and faculty were a form of rebellion, but I think my mother considered those my finest moments. After all, I was just following in her footsteps. (My dad was a Democrat, but not very political.)

Throughout most of the '60s my mother wore a pendant around her neck that declared “war is not healthy for children and other living things,” regularly appeared with one protest sign or another in front of our congressman’s local office, and took a volunteer position at the county “Peace Center” advising young men on how to avoid the draft. She made it clear that Canada was a better alternative than sending her own sons to war and she didn’t even like hockey. The first record album I remember ever hearing was Pete Seeger’s “Talking Union,” and one night in the late ‘50s my parents came home early from a Pete Seeger concert because someone had phoned in a bomb threat. The first television I watched, though I was too young to remember it, was the McCarthy hearings.

If I were looking for a way to rebel against my parents politically, dedicating my life to election of Richard Nixon would have been the way to do it.

Some form of rebellion against one’s parents is an accepted right of passage, essential, many would say, to forging a strong self-identity as children prepare to separate from home and strike out on their own. For parents, though, perhaps the most painful type of rebellion is when children reject their basic values, a referendum in which the child essentially votes against something essential about the life of his or her parents.

As best I can tell, my younger son, 17, is rebelling by rejecting my love of the outdoors, remaining inside except under duress and living in a virtual world where he can slay aliens and bad guys with a joystick. He keeps saying he wants to go to college in a warm climate but I can’t imagine why since he lives 99 percent of his life in a climate-controlled environment.

Now, I’m not entirely sure about this, but in subtle ways I sense my older son, now 21 and approaching his senior year in college, is quietly rebelling against something more fundamental. First, there’s his decision to major in finance. Finance? At the small liberal arts college I attended you couldn’t even take a course in finance and those who weren’t going to medical school were majoring in history, English, or philosophy. (For my friends and me, finance was everyone pitching in two bits so we could fill the gas tank on Bob Brown’s VW Beetle; gas was 29 cents a gallon.) For another thing, he keeps cutting his hair short even though he looks terrific with long curly blond locks. And if all that that weren’t enough, he doesn’t recycle.

But perhaps most troubling of all, I have a vague suspicion that I have somehow raised a moderate Republican. He doesn’t talk about politics, hasn’t registered to vote, and gets all his news from ESPN. He’s a terrific kid with a ton of charisma and a good heart. I could be wrong, of course, but I worry that one of these days he’s going to sit me down and come out of the political closet. If he does, I won’t love him any less, of course, but I may always wonder where I went wrong.

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