Adult Conspiracies: the art of gangin up on teens

In the tiny farming communities where Serena and her siblings grew up, lying was not a option. Oh, you could try it, and most did. But you couldn’t get away with it. The short skirts, the midnight skinny dipping, the incomplete homework, the female integration of Shorty’s Pool Hall; all was faithfully related to parents, with plenty of commentary. They were surrounded. They cursed the adult conspiracy. Not only did it keep them honest against their will; it required constant co-operation and ingenuity to get around it.

When she was parenting, Serena invented a tongue-in-cheek, fictional version of the adult conspiracy in order to deflect that ubiquitous charge against parents: that they are “mean”. “Yep,” she’d say,” I’m going to get the “Meanest Mommy on the Block” pin again this month. I am so proud!” The daughter would laugh, or grumble, or add to the tale; it was a family joke. Better a fictional conspiracy than none at all. But the truth was that by the time her daughter became a teen, Serena felt surprisingly alone.

As we listen to parents with teen children, we are struck with the commonness of feeling alone. Here are some examples of how the adult conspiracy has failed teens and parents (If the reader thinks that he or she is being used as an example, rest assured that these are common stories, disguised to protect real families. Any resemblance to your own is coincidental):

A single mother’s children call their father to complain about discipline and chores. The ex-spouse says, “well, I know I couldn’t live with your mother.”

The star of a youth sports team is caught stealing and fights with his father at home on the day of a big game. The youngster refuses to play unless the father is removed from the stands. The coach demands that the father leave, saying, “We simply can’t risk the whole game over a family problem.”

The student tells her parents that she does her homework during her spare hour at school. She tells the teacher that family problems prevent her from working at home. This continues until a report card shows numerous incomplete assignments. Why, the parents wonder, had they not been alerted to the problem? Why, the teachers wonder, did the parents not check that the homework was done?

With divorced parents, the segregation of generations, large classes and larger schools, it is so easy for a child to slip through the cracks. As one father said of his daughter, who was busy doing exactly the opposite of what she had been told, “she knows that adult attention spans are short. If she waits until we’re distracted, she can do exactly as she pleases.” The neighbors won’t tell on her, the teacher won’t tell on her, and, if all else fails, she can bluff her way through. What child is up to the challenge of developing integrity within themselves, when it is so immediately satisfying to do exactly as one pleases?

Of course, the adult conspiracy wasn’t always such a great thing. For every memory of teens being held accountable by the adults around us, there is another of adults supporting one another in their unaccountability. There were parents who got away with brutality, teachers whose incompetence went unchallenged, and youth leaders who exploited children sexually and emotionally. We were part of the “don’t trust anybody over 30” generation, and we had our reasons.

The cultural shift between the authoritarianism of post-war parents and the anti-authoritarianism of boomer parents was a big factor in the breakdown of mutually-empowering adult conspiracies.   In fact, many of us were so cautious not to reproduce the “Father Knows Best” authoritarianism of our childhoods, that we were sitting ducks for the “Children Know Best” consumer messages of more recent years. Determined that our children would not be shamed or silenced in the face of adult cover-ups, we developed a belief that our children were above lying, and we treated them as guileless long after they were on their way to exploiting our naiveté. Surely this cultural shift, that prematurely liberated children and demoted their parents, is one factor that makes it easier to escape the development of integrity through accountability. (Not coincidentally, it also makes it easier to sell children products that are bad for them.)

A second factor in the breakdown of the adult conspiracy is the general speeding up of life. Overextended at work and usually multitasking, we don’t have the time or focus to listen well to one another, or to monitor children—our own or each other’s–carefully.

Third, a highly competitive economy and large schools feed an over-focus on outcome over process; winning over character. Learning requires the humility to not-know. But who can afford the luxury of not-knowing when every moment is a competition? Plagiarism and cheating have become alarmingly common among students. Adults have provided plenty of models for this kind of short-cutting, from faked medical research, to skimming the most talented teens for a performance choir while neglecting the musical education of the majority. High-profile and world travel opportunities await a chosen few before they have even completed high school. The stakes are too high to resist; the product becomes more important than the road to get there.

Now, as always, teens are built to test their limits, and to push off from their parents’ orbits with all of their might. It is for the teen years that we most need a functional adult communication network, and we have a long way to go toward building (or rebuilding) one.

What can you do? Here are some tips for helping the teens in your personal orbit step up to the challenge of developing integrity—even when they would really rather avoid it!

1. Know your self. Hidden motives often block adult co-operation around children. Competition for the children’s affection is a huge temptation, especially between former spouses. Even teachers and coaches can be lured by fantasies of heroism, believing a child’s story unconditionally before trying to understand the parents’ point of view.

2. Value teaching over performance product. A winning sports team, a stellar theatre performance, a world-class chamber choir, or the highest school Provincial Exam scores: none of these is more important than making better, more honest people out of our children. Neither the game, nor the show must go on.

3. Have courage. The fear of embarrassment, being put down, or being exposed in our own mistakes keeps adults functioning in isolation from one another. Make that phone call, and say something like, “I’m concerned about Johnny. Is now good time to talk about it?”

4. Be gracious. When someone calls to complain about your children, it is not easy to say, “thank you.” But the information that that person has given you will help your child really learn and grow. It is a message to your child that they are not invisible, and that they therefore must be ready to account for (and repair, when necessary) what they say and do.

5. Always try to get more than one side of a story, especially before jumping into White Knight mode. When mediating among teens, or between teens and their parents, look for solutions that meet the need for justice while preserving dignity all around. It is especially important not to shame parents in front of their children.

6. Get involved in multi-generational activities. Teens need to interact with adults, elders, and younger children in order to best develop their own character.

7. Stand for character and honesty in the adult world of business, government, community service and relationships. Think, and talk, about the values that inform your voting, purchasing, livelihood, and friendships. Be a good role model.