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THE EDUCATION OF ADOLESCENTS
Fr. Herve De La Tour

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 understanding him.

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 this age.

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 state.

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, the better.

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 actual things.

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 old!"

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 his error.

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 of explanation.

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 selves."

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 this nature."

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 master.

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.

This is a slightly edited transcript of the conference given by Fr. Hervé de la Tour to the Sacred Heart League at St. Mary’s, Kansas, in October, 1984.