The question amounted to this: “What about helping parents cope when their college student returns home believing she is now all knowing and right thinking, and that her parents are not? Her views have changed so dramatically. She challenges everything we say with some newfound piece of wisdom. Social, political, religious, dietary, sexual, environmental, cultural, you name it! She is in and we are out! What’s a parent to do?”
It’s not called “the generation gap” for nothing. And come the last stage of adolescence, trial independence (ages 18 -23), the generational differences should become more clearly pronounced as the young person is now more committed to seeing and living life on more independent and individual terms. In consequence, she or he can be more critical of where parents stand and what they stand for. Through the intergenerational lens, these differences can loom large on both sides of the divide.
Now both parent and young person need be able to answer a very important question: “What difference in our relationship are we going to allow these generational differences to make?” Hopefully, their answers will bring them together and not drive them apart.
In writing this blog, I was reminded of a powerful generation gap that divided my father’s family, where political affiliation had close to religious importance. Arising from my dad's college education, an intergenerational difference was created that never was never resolved. What apparently happened was this. Diving into the free thinking ferment of ideas on campus, my hitherto socially obedient father underwent a countercultural conversion in college and on graduation declared himself a very left-leaning Democrat. This bold act of independence was a serious affront to his father, my grandfather, who remained a very conservative Republican and who had not known he was paying for such a liberal education.
How did father and son encompass this significant generational difference without creating an unbridgeable rift? Looking back, I believe the answer was love on a number of levels. The two men loved each other very much. They both shared a love of politics and a love of debate. They both enjoyed the competition of provoking the other if they possibly could. And when not actively opposed they could see ironic humor in this unchanging opposition between them. Of course, going into any argument, both knew that neither one was going to change the other’s mind.
From my childhood, I have fond memories of the fireworks between them when the family gathered as I watched and waited for an apparently innocent opinion about the state of the country to ignite a heated exchange over which political party was to blame. In this oft-repeated dance of well-rehearsed conflict, father and son were well matched.
Both men had a wonderful way with the spoken word, my grandfather a salesman, my dad a teacher, words that I loved to listen to but which my grandmother would finally cut short when she had had enough: “There will be no more arguing politics today!” And because she ruled the roost, all four foot eight of her, there wasn’t. She was wise enough to appreciate the need for mutual respect that underlay the significant difference between father and elder son, yet she was also sensible enough to set limits on endless dispute so more harmonious family conversations could occur.
As for my father, I think what happened to him is true for many other students in college: what is learned from higher education can be subversive, a source of potential estrangement between the family generations. Current beliefs promoted in the college classroom and encouraged through late night discussions with other students can gain a currency that discredit some of what parents have taught and what they stand for. In college or otherwise out in the world, however, last stage adolescents must establish their own identity and perspective, some of which will be in contrast to values and views of the older generation. Certain of these ideas parents will find unfamiliar and inappropriate, just as last stage adolescents may now consider parental values and views to be ignorant,out of touch, or even prejudicial.
The mistake parents can make when confronted by revisionist thinking which their son or daughter believes is more up to date, in fashion, the “new normal”, or otherwise politically correct, is to take offense. Try to change these beliefs, defend their own, or attack the adolescent’s new ideas, and parents risk driving their son or daughter away. Better to ask for help understanding the young person’s frame of reference, treating it with respect and worthy of discussion. Understanding doesn't require agreement.
In the case of some emerging lifestyle differences – traditional against alternative, church going against agnostic, living together unmarried against living together married, gay against straight, for example – it can be tempting for parents and older adolescent to treat these as deal breakers. Then, unwilling to change themselves but demanding change by the other, the generational difference is allowed to become a barrier to contact instead of a bridge to further knowing.
To keep this from happening, parents can lead the way. They can say something like this. “We accept your right to believe and behave differently from what we are familiar with, and we hope you can be accepting of us for believing and behaving as we continue to do. Neither of us is in this world to change the other, although we may each decide to change some of our thinking for the other and for the sake of the relationship. What needs to be unchanging is our commitment to stay connected as age and experience continues to grow us apart. How we live our lives, or believe about life, does not exactly have to match for our relationship to stay closely connected."
The importance of bridging the generation gap comes down to this. Use emerging generational differences during the last stage of adolescence to learn how to encompass them in your relationship, because many more such differences lay ahead when your adult child marries and comes under the foreign influence of a life partner, when they have children and child raising differences with you emerge, when they make life change decisions you may not agree with. As your adult child grows older and further differentiation between you occurs, your tolerance for these changes must grow as well if your relationship is to lovingly carry on.
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: When Will Adolescents Finally Grow Up?