Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
There is a period in everyone's life which no one can quite understand but has to be gone through. Tempers are frayed, loud - and sotto voce - words are exchanged, the sweet and congenial home atmosphere gives way to uncertain, and often depressing, and erratic moodiness. Old jokes and references which used to once raise so many laughs and instant appreciation are now met with pitying looks. The family as a unit is under seige. Gone are those lovely "together" outings. You come home from work to be greeted not with cries of welcome but with either an empty house or with the darlings in front of the TV or poring over books or with the phone cradled lovingly in the neck. As soon as you enter, the speaker's voice drops meaningfully to a whisper, thereby confirming your suspicions that whoever is calling is upto No Good. Friends - sweet, lovely creatures once - who used to call you Uncle and Auntie not so long ago still call you that, but now the tone and inflection have changed. There is patronage there and admiration has been replaced with a certain airiness.
And not only has behaviour changed. Appearance has changed beyond all recognition. Boys' voices change, hair sprouts all over the body, accompanied by other bodily changes. Girls start developing figures and menstruating and enter the sisterhood of women, while boys go through other rites de passage which ensure, for them at least, smooth transiting from childhood to adulthood.
Yes, I am talking about adolescence.
All of us who have something to do with children know this phase in their lives which brings in a storm that sweeps through their minds and bodies making it difficult to be patient and understanding, yet realising that these are the very things that are required if this has to be handled effectively and sensitively, so that at the end of the six or seven years between twelve and eighteen, parents and other adults and the children still have a relationship which is permanent and loving. It seems almost impossible to achieve when in the throes of adolescent behaviour, but it can be done as anybody with experience will testify.
What actually happens and why? The bodily changes are governed by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain which sends clear messages about the changes which the body has to undergo if it has to function effectively until its death. A lot of these messages has to do with the reproductive system which in turn involves sex. Actually this is the unspoken, but all-powerful, all pervading subject which is at the bottom of the secrecy and conflict of adolescence. This is not to say that children think only of sex all the time or don't get on the process of acquiring other skills that equip them to do better in life. The good results that every examination brings show that they are perfectly capable of concentrating on the job at hand and giving it everything that they have got. But I do believe that one of the reasons parents, teachers and children fall out, at the very time that they should be cementing their bonds so that they get help and sustenance to aid them through the stormy passage that marks the end of childhood and the start of adulthood, is the fact that parents want - and believe - children to be asexual.
As things are however, adolescence has become one of the most difficult and upsetting periods in all our lives. As a teacher of this particular age group, I can testify to the power of adolescence and its free masonry. Cool, sometimes cold, stares greet one, where once there was adoration and respect. Because they are so uncertain, a mask of complete indifference is worn to hide true reactions. It is almost as if friends have become strangers. But before we berate the new generation on their lack of respect and concern which we, presumably were full of at "that age", we have to admit this is something that we all went through, only we had to agonise over it in private, because all of it was taboo. Because adolescence coincides with burgeoning sexuality and an almost obsessive interest in the opposite sex at the very same time, when extremely important educational and career decisions are being made, there is fear in the minds of the parents that things may get too far, if intervention is not shown.
Since adolescent children feel this lack of understanding in the adults who have to do with them, they find intense comfort and reassurance in each other's company. Friendships are instant and intense. They are also, barring a few exceptions, very shortlived. A friend who, just a few weeks ago, used to be very much part of the scenario, is banished from the inner circle. Repeated enquiries (because you as a parent may have thought him to be a good influence) are answered with vague replies or sometimes even anger. Vagueness characterises adolescence, because it is a kind of protection against the superior experience and therefore the acuity of the parents', or teachers', guesswork. They cannot be certain of our support and affection, so there is deflective answering or lying. Some of this results in groups which go off to a hideout where there is smoking and drinking and adult status is thereby attained. Our new morality dictates that we should not object to any of this and so the parent trap is laid. I believe that we are not very clear in our minds about what is acceptable to our family mores and we are also inconsistent which adds to the confusion that already exists.
What can we do to ease the passage? Plenty. Is the hope lost? Not at all. Adolescence is a phase and like all phases will come to an end. But if we are not alert to the demands of our young people, we may not like what we finally see. First we have to recognise and respect our children's sexuality. This is the basic secret of adolescence. This does not mean adopting western mores and allowing what we do not like. Our thresholds of tolerance do not have to be lowered if we are able to exert the same control on ourselves that we demand from our children. Children absolutely and at all times respect consistency. The father who serves liquor or drinks excessively cannot demand self control in terms of telephoning. Parents who put their career first cannot expect more than a cursory interest from their children in their affairs. Autocracy is met with defiance, because that is the adult in the child defending itself.
On the brighter side, honesty is met with honesty, consideration with concern and loving kindness with permanent respect. For this a greater emphasis on spirituality is required. We do so much for our children but we neglect this aspect which teaches them an inner strength and in the words of Swami Vivekananda, allows us to recognise our true nature which is immortal. We give our children the best we can afford in terms of opportunities and education and show them the darker sides of our personalities when we think we are being defied but we don't offer them a true value system. Adolescence is a relatively new problem in India, one of the aspects of westernisation of urban India. The ancients had the right slant on it when they declared - "At the sixteenth year, the son becomes a friend and should be treated as one."
A friend, who deserves love, respect and equality, not an adversary who must be somehow brought to heel.
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