Articles

IT’S A TOUGH TIME TO BE A KID

Never before have two generations been so divided. Our teen-agers, caught in a whirl of fast and complex living, rebel against the dictums of an adult world. This frank and searching report shows how this family crisis affects the lives of most Canadians

SIDNEY KATZ January 1 1951
Articles

IT’S A TOUGH TIME TO BE A KID

Never before have two generations been so divided. Our teen-agers, caught in a whirl of fast and complex living, rebel against the dictums of an adult world. This frank and searching report shows how this family crisis affects the lives of most Canadians

SIDNEY KATZ January 1 1951

IT’S A TOUGH TIME TO BE A KID

PART TWO

SIDNEY KATZ

IN MY trip across Canada to investigate the problems of Canadian adolescents nothing stood out more sharply than the growing conflict between teen-agers and their parents.

This breach between father and son, mother and daughter, often finds the teen-ager groping in an adult world, cut ou from the benefits of parents’ advice and experience. The lack of family understanding is an important factor in most cases of juvenile delinquency a subject cloaked in confusion and distortion.

In Calgary a worried 17-year-old girl recited to me her difficulties at school, with girl friends and with the boys she was dating. I asked her if she ever discussed these problems with her parents.

“Goodness, no!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t do that. They’re usually too busy with other things. And even if they did listen their ideas are so old-fashioned you’d be wasting your breath.”

Her dilemma is common. In some cases it’s so intense that it has driven youngsters to behave in harmful and indiscreet ways. A 16-year-old Montreal girl ran away from home with a man twice her age. More often, though, the conflict results in stormy family scenes where the teen-ager’s behavior and attitudes come under fire, with no result but a widening of the conflict.

No two generations, perhaps since the beginning of time, have hcd less in common than the generation that had finished growing up by the nineteen-twenties and the generation that began its life in the nineteenthirties.

The 1950 teen-ager takes for granted jet planes, television, more years at school, more leisure time and a wide variety of commercial entertainment. Everything is changing, including ideas about right and wrong. The adolescent often finds or thinks he finds that his parents’ code of behavior doesn’t apply to his own situation.

Take the ritual of dating. A Vancouver girl explained that “when Mom went out she was chaperoned. She knew the boy well and she was in by 10 o’clock. But times have changed!” This girl goes stag to a teenage dance, teams up with a stranger, leaves at 11 with the gang for a coke and sandwich and gets home by 12 or 12.30. If she doesn’t conform she’s written off by her friends as a wet blanket.

Or take the matter of money. Many parents remind their children that their own monthly allowance was 50 cents or a dollar. That would have been just dandy in the Gay Nineties,” one Toronto boy remarked. “But even a casual date—movies, coke and sandwich can run to $1.50 or $2.”

On race, religion and sex there’s a wide gap between the thinking of parents and children. A Winnipeg boy whose parents are orthodox Jews doesn’t agree with their methods of worship. “I don’t see the sense of sticking to rules that are 2,000 years old,” he told me. And a Vancouver boy, who at the insistence of his parents went to two churches, says he’ll go no more. “At one of the churches the minister was always nagging at you for dancing, smoking and going to movies,” he said. “Why all the fuss? Kids do those things anyway.”

Most youngsters are more tolerant of other racial groups than their parents. A 17-year-old Winnipeg Ukrainian girl is scolded for going out with a Polish boy because Poles are traditional enemies of the Ukrainians. In Regina I met a boy from the prosperous Lakeview section who went out with a foreign girl against his parents’ wishes.

Sex is paraded for their children in Press, movies and radio but many parents still subscribe to the theory of a generation ago: children should be kept in the dark about sex. An Alberta boy told me: I d be afraid

to bring up any sex problem with my parents. They think it’s dirty. They’d suspect the only reason I was bringing up the subject was because I was in trouble. So I keep my mouth shut.”

Superimposed on these changes in attitudes is the fact that teen-age years have been unsettled to live through. War, high prices, housing shortage, a tense international situation, unhappy marriages and excessive

Never before have two generations been so divided. Our teen-agers, caught in a whirl of fast and complex living, rebel against the dictums of an adult world. This frank and searching report shows how this family crisis affects the lives of most Canadians

drinking have dealt staggering blows to the serenity of the Canadian home.

I asked one 16-year-old boy, who couldn’t name the prime minister of Canada, if politics was discussed in his family circle. “What family circle?” he replied. “You couldn’t call our family a family. We each go our own way.”

Let’s examine in more detail the problems of some young Canadians I interviewed in this survey of teen-age living.

I think the most frequent cause of conflict with parents was dating.

In Calgary a 16-year-old girl expressed to me her fear that “I’m gradually going out of circulation.” Her parents insist she has to be home by 11 o’clock, which means she can’t stay until the end of a dance. Boys hesitate to date her. In Montreal a boy told me he felt uncomfortable on a ' date because his father carps on his late hours and sits up waiting for him.

Is there a solution to the problem of keeping hours acceptable to both teen-agers and parents? There’s no sure formula but some kids have been able to work out a satisfactory arrangement. The answer lies sometimes in discussing the matter frankly and fairly. The parents can point out that lack of sleep during school time can lead to failure, that they are afraid of drinking, fast driving and promiscuous sex relations. The teen-ager may point out that he has to keep up with the gang—an activity frequently quite harmless. One girl told me she is allowed one early date a week on school nights. She can also go out on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday, if she wishes, she can do her homework in the afternoon or evening and the free period can be used for another date. A Montreal boy also has an arrangement with his folks: “I tell them

where I’m going, who I’m going with and what time I’ll be back. In return they’re not supposed to criticize me.”

The teen-ager needs more cash than his father did when he was a boy: there are more places to go to, more time to go to them and prices are higher. It’s not always easy for father to accept these facts. Thus, a Brandon girl who asks her father for the family car is told to “work the same as I did and buy your own car.” At the same time he wants her to go to university. “I can’t do both,” she says.

A mental hygiene worker in Toronto told me that many parents were deeply affected by the depression. They know you need an education to get ahead; therefore they put pressure on their children to do well at school. At the same time they try to discourage extravagance. The child may react by becoming a nervous wreck from trying too hard at school or by throwing the whole thing up with the remark, “I’d rather have a good time.”

How much truth is there in the frequent accusation that teen-agers are always looking for “an easy touch”—that they shirk responsibility?

I met teen-agers who work spare time as gardeners, grocery clerks, errand boys, babysitters, waitresses and truck driver assistants. Many of them didn’t have to work. In Winnipeg, Milton Corne, whose father is a well-to-do publisher, is a grocery clerk in a department store. His friend, Roy Vincent, whose father is manager of a trust company, cuts grass at a golf club. In Toronto, Hugh Curry’s father is an aluminum factory executive and Dan McTavish’s dad is a successful physician, yet both work at odd jobs like ushering at the Canadian National Exhibition.

But teen-agers will balk at taking responsibility when they feel that they are being treated like children. They want their opinions listened to. One girl told me that she’s automatically against helping with jobs around the house because of the way her mother issues orders. “She won’t ask me, ‘Would you mind doing such-and-such?’ From the tone of her voice you’d think you were doing forced labor.”

Practically every teen-ager having family difficulties described his parents in these terms: “They regard their opinions as gospel—not to be questioned.”

It’s often repeated that family life is disintegrating. But do we realize the crushing effect of weakened family ties on children? These victims of

unhappy homes—thousands of them across

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Continued from page 11

Canadabear their pain quietly and privately. Like the three 'girls I met on my recent tripVicky from Vancouver, Cora of Regina sn{J Dorothy in Calgary.

Vicky lives in one of the better residential areas of Vancouver. She’s regarded as a reasonably normal, happy girl. Httr club leader thinks of her as a typical member. This was the same gi.n' who confided to me. “I have a _ rpttcn life. I wouldn’t care if I died tomorrow.” Her story isn’t dramatic. Her father was killed during the last war, leaving her mother, two brothers and herself. The mother, a nervous woman who had been very dependent on her husband, turned to her children. She tried to win the affection of the boys by giving them every privilege, at the same time restricting the girl.

Vicky bristles with resentment against the mother. She’s gnawed by jealousy of the brothers.

Cora is outwardly a cheerful, smiling 16-year-old blond Regina schoolgirl who talks about her dates and the latest movies. Inwardly, she is heartbroken because of a mother who she thinks doesn’t love her enough and a father who she knows drinks too much. Her father returned from overseas, to find his wife had been running around with other men. He got drunk and beat her up. He has repeated this performance on an average of three or four times a week.

Cora’s mother has told her it’s not her fault she went out with other men because the father went out with other women overseas. Usually the mother treats her coldly but once in a while she buys Cora expensive shoes or a tailored blouse. “I feel funny about taking her presents,” Cora told me. “If she’d be nice to me that would be enough.” Cora doesn’t invite friends to her home.

The 17-year-old girl I met in Calgary appeared to come from a different type of home. Dorothy’s father is a business executive and their home is in a better district. “But I envy kids from poorer families who have some sort of family life,” she told me. She doesn’t consider her father, mother, brother and herself a family unit. Her father, an ambitious man, has switched jobs frequently, moving from city to city. Her mother is active in social and charitable organizations. As long as she can remember she has never had the chance to talk to her parents about personal matters.

^ When the girl was 12 she had a sexual experience which frightened and shocked her, but this too she couldn’t confide to anybody. She stopped trying to be one of the crowd and turned inward. She did brilliantly at school, coming near the top of the class each term. “What I really want,” she told me, “are girl friends and dates and a good time.”

Most psychologists say that sex

instruction should start as soon as the child is old enough to ask questions, at three or younger. Evading or frightening the child in order to stop undesirable sex practices may produce results more damaging than the sex practice itself feelings of fear, guilt, anxiety, inferiority and homosexuality.

On my trip I found an alarming number of teen-agers who were sexuallv illiterate.

In Montreal I met a willowy, attractive blonde who has never had a date, though she is 18. She was afraid to go out with boys because of what might happen to her. In Winnipeg a 17year-old boy and 16-year-old girl are struggling to make a go of their shotgun marriage. When their child was born a year ago neither was aware of the consequences of their behavior.

Who is responsible for teen-agers not being informed about sex? The parents? The schools? The churches? Or is it due to a public reluctance to face the challenge of sex education squarely and honestly?

It was my impression that not half of all the teen-agers I met were getting adequate sex information from their parents. They had to go elsewhere for it often with harmful results.

Teacher’s Face Was Red

Some parents oven make it difficult for their children to obtain reliable sex information outside the home. In response to requests from a teen-age club a Manitoba physician gave the group a frank talk on sex. He answered questions in a simple straightforward manner. Within a few days critical parents spread the news that the doctor w'as telling their children “to go ahead and have sex experiences.” The physician, prompted by a number of tragic cases of teen-age unmarried mothers, approached a local cleric to support a program of sex education. The cleric was unsympathetic. “Why make an issue of it?” he said. “It’s really not important.”

Sex instruction is given in high schools in several parts of the country. I asked scores of teen-agers for their reactions to these courses and the people who gave them.

Many criticized the attitude of the teachers giving the course. “The teacher was a spinster in her forties and her face was red most of the time,” says a Calgary girl. “I didn’t enjoy those classes, and neither did she.” In Regina: “The teacher looks out the window when she talks and you get the impression sex is wicked and shouldn’t be talked about.”

Teen - agers want to know more than the bare mechanics of sex. They want to ask questions about the whole business of relations with the opposite sex. Typical questions are: How can I tell if I'm in love? (“I meet a stunner

and I think that this is it for sure. But two weeks later I meet someone else . . .”) Should you marry for love or

money? (“I think there’s a similarity

because you can lose both money and love.”) Should you kiss on the first date? (Girls say: “If you kiss on the first

date boys think you’re too easy and don’t value your kisses.” Boys say: “If you don’t make a pass the girl might think you’re not interested.”) Is it all right to neck and pet? (Girls say: “If you don’t you might get a reputation for being a wet blanket and get left on the shelf. If you do it might lead to other things.”) Should you go steady? (“It’s not good because you don’t meet many new people, but all my gang go steady so you feel out of things if you don’t go steady too.”)

All across the country “going steady” has become the custom, even among some 14-year-olds. It is my impression that this is one way teen-agers have of saying that they want some security in an unstable society. It’s significant that in higher economic groups there’s less tendency to go steady.

This search for security is also reflected in many teen-agers’ approach to marriage. The romantic myth that “two can live as cheaply as one” is dead. The modern approach is realistic. An Ottawa girl said she would like her boy friend to be making $60 a week, have a steady job and enough money to make a down payment on a house. A Regina boy of 16 said he wouldn’t think of marriage until he had $5000 in the bank and $50 a week. A Toronto high-school graduate told me the experiences of his own family taught him a lesson. Before he would talk marriage to a girl he wanted a bankaccount, a house and a business of his own. “I figure that will take me until I’m 35,” he said, “but I’m going to wait.”

An encouraging thing I found was this: teen-agers are teaching us a

lesson in racial and religious good will. In this they are far ahead of their parents and also ahead of teen groups I knew 15 years ago.

Florence Baynham, a 17-year-old Irish - English Winnipeg girl, told me her two closest girl friends and her “steady” were Ukrainian Catholic. If she wants to she will marry him. “My brother married a Ukrainian girl and she’s terrific,” she says.

Andy Wolf, an English-speaking Montreal boy, has five close friends, Protestant and Catholic, from French, English, Rumanian, Polish and Irish families. They all belong to the Rendez-vous Teen Club. In Vancouver, Ronnie Con, a Chinese-Canadian, finds there isn’t as much discrimination against him as there was against his father.

This feeling is certainly not motivated by religion. At least 50%, of the teen-agers I met were only slightly religious, 25% were hostile or indifferent to religion and the remaining 25% could be classified as truly religious. Members of the “slightly religious” group had no serious religious convictions. If they did attend church it was

mainly to please their parents. “My friends never mention religion,” says a 16-year-old Toronto boy who attends church fairly regularly, “except to tell the occasional joke about what one minister said to another.”

I asked teen-agers opposed to religion the reasons for their hostility. One 17-year-old Winnipeg boy said, “In the beginning, religion was made to unite people. Instead, it’s caused segregagation. It’s worse than trade barriers and capitalism.” A Vancouver girl accused ministers of being hypocrites.

Teen-agers who were religious tried to express in words the value of faith. Sixteen-year-old Jean Fuga says,“After confession I get a nice feeling. I can’t go to sleep at night until I say my prayers.” To Base Marantz, an 18year-old Winnipeg cashier, “people need something when everything else is gone. To some, it’s mother; to more people, it’s God.”

Teen-agers seem much more interested in religion than politics. They showed a woeful lack of knowledge about what was going on in Ottawa. What’s more, they didn’t care. Fred Coates, who left school last year to work for the CPR in Brandon, says, “Canadian politics don’t connect with us. They have no bearing as far as we are concerned.” This pretty well sums up the feeling.

A Winnipeg boy told me he could remember only two political parties, “the C.C.F. and C.I.L.”

Are they anxious to take up arms'? Not particularly, but many of them have accepted it as inevitable. A Regina boy, Herb Powell, told me, “I might as well join first and get the advantages of rank and gratuity. What would I be fighting for? That’s hard to say.”

The interviews I had across Canada point up the necessity of bridging the wide gap between many teen-agers and their parents. I would like to suggest four ways in which this can be attempted:

1. Most important, parents should work at building relationship in which their children can feel free to talk about their problems without fear of criticism or punishment.

2. Parents should study teen-age psychology by reading and participating in discussions. They should be aware that the time has come to relinquish a good deal of the control they have over their children.

3. Every effort should be made to provide teen-agers with courses and discussions—at home, school, church and clubs—on every phase of human relationship.

4. Both teen-agers and parents should have local facilities for individual counseling, staffed by trained people.

Among the organizations that are attempting to get action on suggestions like these is the Canadian Mental Health Association. Membership in this group is open to all who believe it’s possible to introduce programs to help children and their parents live together more comfortably.

Teen-agers need help in growing up. They need the guidance and love of sympathetic, understanding parents. If they don’t find this at home, they may be driven to seek it elsewhere. It is in the wide chasm that separates parent from child that the juvenile delinquent grows.

In my cross-country trip I met many of the juvenile delinquents whose gang warfare has been hitting the headlines in most Canadian cities. In a third article in the next issue of Maclean’s I’ll tell you something about them. ^