July 19, 2011

Trust-building, rites of passage, and over-parenting

The glue that holds together a group of developing kids who are roughly the same age is a feeling of trust that they have actively created through shared rites of passage. They separate themselves from the ordinary world and its structures, level the outside distinctions, and cease competing against each other for a small while in order to lose themselves in the revelry of their crowd, returning to the world of more clearly defined ranks and roles only after having thus transformed their sense of who they are and how they fit in with others.

Throwing yourself into the structureless realm of the betwixt-and-between is a sign to the others in your group that you trust them enough to make yourself that vulnerable. If you believed that they'd take advantage of you, you wouldn't go in the first place. And they likewise signal their faith in your goodness by taking the plunge themselves.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, the trust-bond holding groups of young people together has become so thinned-out that they have mostly come apart. Remember those people who used to pray that there would be less of a "wild roaming pack" behavior among children and adolescents? Be careful what you wish for: that was just an indication of how cohesive and trusting they were.

In the real world, trying to dampen their hormone levels and restrict them from engaging in "risky behavior" -- therefore including all meaningful rites of passage -- will be like squeezing a balloon that is inflating to a larger size than you'd like. Cliques -- at least the intimate, face-to-face ones that form within a peer group -- are open, dynamic systems, so if they're getting too puffed-up, they'll sense that and respond by releasing some air. Treating them like inanimate and unresponsive things leads you to try to shrink the balloon yourself. Not being omniscient, you won't know exactly how much pressure to apply over time. And not being omnipotent, even if you did know that, you wouldn't be able to pull it off without error. You will instead clumsily pop the balloon and send dozens of patches all over the room.

"Well it was getting too damn big!" Yeah, well you should've left it alone to heal itself back to a smaller size on its own instead of intervening only to blow it up. If the group is entirely unnatural, like a gigantic modern bank, then we can't rely on it to self-correct. But not a band of age-mates -- the fact that most parents today treat something so perduring and spontaneously developing in our species as a suspect, unwholesome novelty goes to show how truly decrepit the modern mind is growing.

Fortunately for mankind, there are cyclical recurrences of danger that over-ride the wishes of helicopter parent types. Unlike predictable rites of passage, such as turning a certain age, or voluntary ones like going through boot camp to join the military, the rites of passage that young people undergo in times of rising violence rates are not clearly marked out for them ahead of time by the elders who have gone through it themselves, nor are they chosen freely. It's either sink or swim. Grown-ups see that and begin to back off of their over-protective instincts, letting them develop fully and naturally.

This dynamic appears especially powerful during the second half of rising-crime times, when the world starts to look more apocalyptic, and so the need for solidarity even stronger. During the 20th century, this corresponds to the Jazz Age (the later 1910s through the early 1930s), and the Terminator Age (the later 1970s through the early 1990s). For the period in between, and its counterpart since the early '90s, we shouldn't confuse the taking-for-granted of physical security with a bond of trust that was cemented through shared rites of passage.

In surveying the practices and institutions that bring age-mates closer together in a rite-of-passage kind of way, it looks strange to see that the most long-lasting of them were born in times where it looked like the world was going to end soon anyway, and so what would have been the point? Most successful religions, or movements within a given religion, started out that way, too, so perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising.

The easy way out in such an environment is to just abandon yourself to hedonism, so the fact that most people felt like coming together for group preservation is a testament to how much stronger our moral sense builds itself in response to a moderate level of danger in the outside world. Traditionalists may not like the fact that in this atmosphere the rituals that bond members together are newly invented, but then in such a topsy-turvy world, it's perfectly natural to feel ambivalent about the efficacy of older rituals that evidently were not enough to prevent the present disorder. And anyway, this round of trial-and-error experimentation provides the variation needed for successful new traditions to emerge.

Would you believe that an institution as apple-pie as the youth scouting movement arose during the era of bootlegging gangsters, hot jazz music, a wave of new age cults, and an epidemic of sex criminals and serial killers? That wasn't the only rite of passage that the Jazz Age has given us: add to it the joyride, parked-car make-out sessions, and the cocktail party.

Who knows which of the countless ones introduced during the late '70s through the early '90s will prove as successful 50 or 100 years later. I have a good guess, but I'll save that for a separate post.

1 comment:

  1. Alice Finkel7/23/11, 2:53 PM

    The ideas are a bit inchoate, but add a few links and referents, allusions, etc. and you would have the seed of something interesting here.


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