In this conference, I will be summarizing a book I
read by Rudolf Allers, Forming Character in Adolescents
[Roman Catholic Books, Fort Collins, CO. $19.95. 970-490-2735].
Rudolf Allers is a Catholic psychologist. His works of
psychology are inspired by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.
You may not agree with every single thing this author says, but
you will certainly find much food for thought. I personally
found that most of the observations of Mr. Allers were accurate
and very helpful.
The doctrine we will study tonight is a little
abstract, but I do not think it will be a waste of time. Why?
Because we cannot influence an adolescent without
If parents want to educate their adolescent well, they
must know some basic facts of psychology. A sculptor needs to
know what kind of material he has to work with. Likewise, a
parent needs to know what kind of material he has to fashion.
No age is more difficult to approach and to manage
than adolescence; nowhere is the educator, accordingly, more in
need of a thorough understanding of the personality he has to
direct and to mold.
"Understanding" means, in the most literal sense of
the word, "to stand under another," that is, to bear his burden
and take his place, to share his point of view. To understand
the adolescent mind, we have to become perfectly aware of the
way it conceives itself and reality, so as to
share completely its point of view.
The period of adolescence is essentially one of
trouble and problems. The formation of the definite self is the
central problem of adolescence. Formation means something not
yet achieved, something not stable, something in the process of
becoming. Accordingly, it is essentially a period of unrest
and uncertainty. The reliability of things and of persons
vanishes, not because these things and persons have become
different, but because the adolescent’s relation to them
changes. This change of relation is due to the change in the
individual himself, or rather in the consciousness he has of
himself. The naive attitude which the child had towards himself,
that is, taking himself, his existence, his life and its
conditions for granted—all this unproblematic being in harmony
with all and each–disappears. It is as if the child, when
passing from childhood to adolescence, has to rediscover the
whole world, and this task is definitely more difficult than the
original discovery, because it has become conscious. The
happy unconsciousness of early childhood is lost forever.
Nobody can ever hope to understand the adolescent
mind, and even less to influence it somewhat, unless he is fully
aware of the fact that uncertainty is the very basic feature of
The adolescent has, so to say, no character, or rather
the essential point is that his character impresses the observer
as not deserving the name of "character." This impression is
caused particularly by the instability of behavior which
is so characteristic of many adolescents, and with which, quite
unjustly, they are very often reproached. The adolescent indeed
is not guilty of, or at least not responsible for, the
inconstancy of his behavior. It is an inevitable result of this
Authority is already a problem in the training of
children. But as long as the original bond of loving trust
persists between parent and child, the task of influencing
children is not too arduous. Adolescence is no longer inclined
to rely on others.
The growing knowledge of being a person in one’s own
rights causes authority to be doubted. The
awareness of increasing strength makes the young mind long for
independence. Yet, the adolescent has not, however, gained
sufficient insight to be capable of understanding the necessity
and the right of authority. Laws appear to him as willful
restrictions imposed by the tyranny of the older people.
Authority is held to be the illegitimate claim of those who
possess it for retaining a position which they in truth
ought to abdicate. The feeling that the era of the older
generation is passing away and that of youth beginning is very
common with these adolescents.
Adolescents are, as is well-known, rather inclined
to criticize everything. Whatever the older generation holds
to be right is held to be ridiculous by the adolescent. He feels
that laws and rules ought to be changed. He is easily captivated
by all kinds of new and revolutionary ideas. Being keenly aware
of his newly awakened personality and its uniqueness, he easily
develops a kind of relativism, making "man the measure of all
things." Objective and eternal truths are doubted. The very
existence of such truths becomes questionable to the adolescent
mind. If one refers him to such truths or to laws which have
proved valid throughout the centuries, he is not impressed at
all. For him the world is as new and as ambiguous as he feels
his own personality to be.
If you want to know an adolescent, you have to gain
his confidence. If you want to gain his confidence, you
have, first of all, to take his ideas and problems seriously.
Discarding his ideas as unripe, making light of his
difficulties, telling him that these things come to everyone and
will pass away (as has happened with all those who have become
old enough to see the futility of these problems and
difficulties), refusing to listen to him because it has been
thus with boys and girls since time immemorial —all these
well-known attitudes of adults, born partly from their being
disenchanted, partly from envy, partly simply from laziness and
evasion of responsibilities, are the surest way of
estranging the young person and of creating a profound cleavage
which will never again be closed.
If necessary, bring in "outsiders," such as a priest,
football coach, scoutmaster, older brother or sister, who can
give the child counseling. In the majority of cases, however, it
is necessary to prepare slowly and persistently a way of
approach. This takes time; but the time is not lost. While we
still are far from enjoying the youngster’s confidence, we may
come to know him better, and he may, without being really aware
of it, come to trust us and to show a certain disposition to get
in closer contact with us. The nearer the point we choose for
establishing contact is to the adolescent’s personal problems,
It rarely does good, however, to attempt to get hold
of the adolescent’s mind by surprise. Unless he is already
willing to confide in us and needs but a little help to pass
over the last obstacles, he does not want to be found out,
though he may be very desirous of telling us what is in his
mind. Surprise may prove to be a shock and scare him away. It is
better for us to proceed slowly and with much patience.
When we are dealing with young people (or, for that
matter, with older, too), no quality is of greater importance
than patience. If we wish to be of help, we must wait
until an opportunity is offered to us. The better we know how to
wait, the more surely will such an opportunity be given to us.
In the meantime we can do nothing but try to keep on as good
terms with the youngsters as possible, and to amass whatever
information we may get. Everything is worthy of consideration,
whether it is of personal observation or from third persons. But
we must keep those things in our minds and not hurl them at the
boy or girl, even if we feel definitely shocked by what we have
been told. The frequently-used challenge, "What is this that I
hear of you?" ought to be discarded. Young people do not want to
be spied upon, they do not like feeling controlled, and they are
easily scared away, because they are so very anxious to preserve
what they call their "independence."
Authority as such does not impress youthful
minds. Simply to assert authority is rather a way to make the
young people more restless and disinclined to listen or to obey.
The adolescent is no longer like the child who either trusted
implicitly and, therefore, obeyed even if he at first
remonstrated, or who felt that the adults knew better in every
case. But it may be quite useful to point out, even to a child,
that he has to do what he is told, not simply because it is
father and mother who say so, but because they are bound to know
better. The adolescent is impressed when he can be made to see
the rights and the necessity on which such authority is
predicated. Insofar as authority itself is concerned, the task
of education in adolescence is much less the maintaining of this
authority than building it up.
Authority can never expect to see demands fulfilled
which it ignores itself. The criticism of adolescents is
directed not so much against authority as such, as against
authority which believes itself exempted from its own rules.
There are, of course, many things permitted to adults which
cannot be conceded to the child or to the adolescent, but the
youngsters must know that these things will be accessible to
them too after a certain time, and, insofar as possible, must be
told why the adults may do or have this or that, while the
younger generation is still denied the permission. Though they
may be unable to think these things out quite clearly, children
as well as adolescents distinguish very well between rules which
apply to adults as such and others which are conditioned by
development. It is true that this capacity of discernment
becomes somewhat blunted in adolescents, because the longing to
be already grown up, to be really what the young mind feels
itself to be (though for the present but potentially) tends to
lessen the sharpness of distinction. But even the adolescent may
be made to see these differences, especially if the older people
take care to explain to him how things stand and why he ought
still to abstain from this or that.
Encouragement is something of which the
adolescents are urgently in need. They do not seem, as a rule,
to be discouraged, nor are they always. But every adolescent is
subject, at least at times, to fits of despondency and of
discouragement. This, of course, is very detrimental to moral
development. The feeling that they never will overcome certain
difficulties, never be able to realize certain ideals, etc.,
works as a heavy weight drawing them down to lower levels.
Discouragement is the necessary consequence of uncertainty,
especially of uncertainty about the "self."
Even if we feel sure that we have to deal with an
unusually-gifted youngster (maybe a genius), we ought to be
careful in expressing our appreciation of his doings. Here too
we have to adhere to the middle course, not discouraging the
adolescent by telling him that his achievements are nothing, nor
letting him believe that he has already attained the summit.
The wisest course is to make the young people
see that they have to content themselves at first with
smaller achievements. If one bluntly tells them so and
refers them to the future, they may feel discouraged. They want
to be great and important and successful right now. They cannot
wait for the realization of a future of which they have but a
very dim idea, and which scares them at least as much as it
attracts them. How indeed can they be expected to have a clearer
idea of the future when they have but a very blurred notion of
the present? To be effective, encouragement has to apply to
The task of encouragement has two sides, a negative
and a positive one. One must beware of discouraging the
adolescent. One ought, therefore, never to rebuke him for
something wrong he has done, without letting him feel that one
trusts in his capacity to behave differently. One has to be very
careful especially with a youngster who has just become
submerged in a fit of despondency.
It will be not without some profit to point out
certain common mistakes of parents, whereby they estrange
increasingly the minds of the adolescents. It is a very common
habit of parents, when they are rebuking an adolescent for some
misbehavior, to refer to their own youth and to tell the culprit
that they, of course, never did behave that way. This remark is
generally quite ineffective. The younger generation does
not believe it to be true; and it is not true in most cases. One
father remarked to his son of ten years or so, "Did you ever
see me sitting down at table with dirty hands?" The boy
replied: "Well, I didn’t know you when you were ten years
Another very common mistake consists in taking the
parental authority for granted, because it is objectively
legitimate. But what is objectively true is not always
recognized subjectively as true, even by adults. If we take for
granted what our opponent denies, no fruitful discussion will
ensue. If we wish to convince another person, we must start from
his point of view and lead him gradually on until he realizes
We should clearly recognize that a disturbance of
relations between two people is hardly ever the doing of one of
them alone. In most cases both of them share in the guilt,
though it may be in not quite the same degree. But the
misunderstandings which are so extremely frequent between
parents and adolescents are mostly caused by the attitude of
the former. The adolescent, of course, becomes guilty of
many mistakes or even of faults which deserve to be called by
stronger names, too. But his faults, though materially grave,
are not always formally so, since (as has been emphasized
already more than once) the adolescent is ignorant of so many
things, especially related to his own personality, that he
cannot be expected to behave according to objective rules which
would apply either to very young children or to mature adults.
Instead of holding the young people exclusively
responsible, it would be much better if the parents, at least
occasionally, reflected on whether they too have made mistakes,
and whether they still are making them. They will discover, if
they are sufficiently sincere, that they have already been
guilty of many blunders, and that of these blunders they are now
reaping the harvest. A situation which has been established for
a long time cannot be changed and reconstructed by a few hours
We have heard many an adult complain that the training
of his intellect was neglected in his youth, and that he cannot
make up for this defect now, having neither the time nor the
courage to do so. There is in human nature a general inclination
to follow the "line of least resistance." It is indeed much
easier to live up to a level of "un-intellectuality." And the
adolescent mentality is, for reasons which have been pointed out
sufficiently, even more inclined to be scared by difficulties.
It does not need much intellectual effort to follow a screen
play, to read "thrilling" stories, or to keep abreast with the
latest events in baseball or tennis. Not even the average
interest in technical things can be called intellectual in a
higher sense. A real understanding of technique, indeed, demands
quite a marked degree of intellectual capacity. But the average
interest which young people display in technical things is
nearly as shallow as the rest of their inclinations.
Instead of encouraging this tendency towards the
superficial and shallow, we ought to try to arouse the
slumbering interest of the adolescent in things intellectual.
The task is difficult because of the tremendous influence of the
general mentality in the opposite direction. A boy who does not
display the usual interest in sporting events, or who does not
know all about the most famous screen actors, is regarded as
crazy, as priggish, and as being behind his time.
This general mentality, together with the uncertainty
of his mind and his natural tendency to follow the line of least
resistance, contributes towards making the adolescent feel that
many things, especially of the intellect, are "way above him."
The guidance and influencing of adolescents is not an
easy task. But it can be accomplished if we first become aware
of the characteristics of the personality we have to form. There
are certain features of behavior, some of them generally
considered as faults, which reveal more of the deeper structure
of personality than is commonly believed. But the educator has
to beware wisely of assuming the attitude of the judge. His
principal task is not to condemn, but to understand.
Condemnation may prove an efficient means of influencing, if it
is used with discretion. So may punishment. But both
presuppose thorough understanding.
To illustrate this point further, let us look at an
example in the life of St. Anselm. A certain abbot visited St.
Anselm and mentioned to him the serious difficulties he was
having with the children reared in the cloister. "What, I beg
of you, is to be done with them?" said the Abbot. "They
are perverse and incorrigible. I never leave off whipping them
day and night, and they are getting even worse than their very
Anselm wondered at these things and said, "You
never leave off whipping them? And when they have grown up what
kind of men will they be? Stupid beasts."
"What then," said the abbot, "is the use of
spending money on their upkeep, if we are going to develop
beasts out of men. We restrain them in every way possible in
order to help them and we get nowhere."
"You restrain them!" said St. Anselm. "Tell me,
my Lord Abbot, if you were to set out a young tree in your
garden, and bound it up on all sides so that it could not send
out a branch in any direction, when you unbound it years later,
what kind of a tree would you then find? Surely a useless thing,
with its gnarled branches all bent in. And whose fault would
this be but your own who tied it up so tightly? This certainly
is what you are doing with your children. They were planted by
oblation in the garden of the Church, that they might grow and
bear fruit for God. But you by frightening them and threatening
them and whipping them have tied them up so completely that they
are allowed almost no freedom at all."
St. Anselm then goes on to point out that a sculptor
does his fine work with gentle touches rather than heavy blows,
and remarks that a baby must be fed on milk, not on meat and
bread. A strong soul is capable of taking punishment and makes
spiritual progress out of humiliations and suffering. But, he
says, the baby needs the milk of infants, that is, as St. Anselm
wrote, "the gentle helpfulness of others, kindness, mercy,
friendly consultations, charitable support, and many things of
St. John Bosco has written many things which could be
quoted. A few lines will suffice:
We are the friends of our boys….You will obtain
anything from your boys if they realize that you are seeking
their own good….Establish a friendly relationship with the
boys, especially in recreation. Affection can’t be shown
without this friendly relationship, and unless affection is
seen there can be no confidence. He who wants to be loved must
first show his own love. Our Lord made Himself little with the
little ones and bore our infirmities....Remember that
education is a difficult art, and that God alone is its true
In conclusion, I exhort you to pray for your
children and all children, especially the adolescents who
face grave temptations and are in need of many graces to
overcome the allurements of the world.
Lord God! Thou hast called us to the holy
state of matrimony and hast been pleased to make us parents.
We recommend to Thee our dear children. We entrust them to Thy
fatherly care. May they be a source of consolation, not only
to us, but chiefly to Thee, Who art their Creator. Be
watchful, O Lord; help and defend them.
Grant us the grace to guide them in the way of Thy
commandments. This we will do by our own perfect observance of
Thy holy law and that of our holy Mother, the Church. Make us
conscious of our grave obligation to Thee and bless our
efforts to serve Thee. We humbly ask this blessing from the
bottom of our hearts, for ourselves and for the children whom
Thou hast been pleased to give us.
We dedicate them to Thee, O Lord. Do Thou keep them
as the apple of Thy eye and protect them under the shadow of
Thy wings. Make us worthy to come, at last, to heaven,
together with them, giving thanks unto Thee, our Father, for
the loving care Thou hast had of our entire family, and
praising Thee together through endless ages. Amen.