By David N. Hafter
It has only been a handful of generations since people were born, lived their lives and died in the same geographical region. Unless a man was conscripted and hustled off to fight in a faraway war, he was likely to live his life in the same place as did his father. His sons had the mentoring benefits of access to other family members and known community members in order to address growing up and rite of passage issues. His daughters had the benefits of their extended families, as well, having women besides their mothers to help with the transition from girlhood to womanhood.
One of the unintended consequences of the industrial revolution is the breakdown of those non-parental mentoring relationships. As men followed employment opportunities outside of where they grew up, they uprooted (literally) their nuclear families and relocated to places where immediate access to caring mentors was often cut off. This pattern continues to this day. Uprooted families experience everything from linguistic differences and accents which separate them from their neighbors to unfamiliar cultural norms and social expectations. These differences can leave them isolated in their own communities.
In tribal cultures, where established rites of passage create the next generation of culturally consistent adults, it is not the parent who ushered a son or daughter through the process of transitioning from youth to adult. Rather, it is other trusted elders in the community who play that role. After all, for a child, it is often easier to hear guidance and constructive feedback from a trusted adult other than his or her parent. Kids can tend to tune out parents who are often busy reminding them to take out the trash, do their homework and brush their teeth. Indeed, life lessons successfully taught by a mentor have often been offered to the child many times before by a parent.
Today, there is a paucity of culturally competent mentoring opportunities for non-familial kids. In fact, in many communities, there are now fewer mentoring opportunities of any sort than in past generations, especially in schools. For example, when education funds get tight, arts, music and sports programs are often the first to go, despite their value in terms of mentoring and skills development. Families may not be able to afford private lessons in music or other arts where their children could benefit from the tutelage of a teacher/mentor. Even the military can no longer be counted upon to help in this arena. Military service used to play a significant social role in the grooming of youth into adulthood. With professional soldiering now the norm, entering the service – unless aiming at a high level professional career like a pilot or engineer – is more likely to be an economic decision than one steeped in a desire for self-realization (i.e. becoming a man or woman). It is now an opportunity for youth from under-served economic classes and carries with it an unusually high safety risk.
Like all adolescents, fatherless and/or mentor-less young men and women experience an inner striving for opportunities to earn their stripes as grown-ups. When we fail to recognize this need, we neglect to provide or support the structures where these needs can be met. Ironically, gang culture sometimes takes up the slack, addressing some of these unmet needs: The need to belong to a community; the need to be relied upon; the need to transition to adulthood by taking on and surviving a dangerous task. Unfortunately, gang activities – once organized around neighborhood protection from racist authorities – are now mostly organized around illegal activities focused on making money and anti-social attitudes and behaviors. The notion of ‘doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do’ now sounds quaint and antiquated compared to the drive for making money, which has proven to be the over-arching value in our modern, western culture. To counter these trends and their expensive consequences, it is not enough for enlightened people to have good intentions: We need an action plan with a commitment to following through.
What might that look like? The fantasy is to miraculously overhaul public priorities in line with what we perceive to be the chronic unmet needs of our youth. It would indeed be a miracle, because I don’t see much happening there. This would mean redesigning the overall social and monetary system with an eye towards increasing fairness and decreasing income inequality, requiring massive amounts of good will and non-partisan operation. Just writing that causes me to begin humming “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha so, at least for the time being, I will let that fantasy go. When Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren gets elected president, we’ll sit down again and talk. That said, we are capable of taking the issues into our own hands and, sans government support, help our kids to safely walk the path from childhood into adulthood.
This already happens, to a certain degree, within the relationships of adults to youth in the myriad of sports and other after school activities where volunteers create learning and growing experiences for their young charges. Many of us can look back to our youth and appreciate the invaluable experiences we gained in scouting, 4-H, sports, youth groups and so on.
Youth have deeper needs, however; needs which go beyond learning new skills, interpersonal cooperation and good sportsmanship. They include addressing existential issues even when there are no clear or provable answers. Spiritual and philosophical discussions stretch the mind, open the heart and teach youth to learn to tolerate uncertainty – a vital skill if one is to experience the here and now with a sense of adventure. Such discussions alone are important: Sometimes, the best we adults can do is welcome the transitioning youth into the adult world – with all of its challenges and uncertainties, and offer the opportunity to discuss the various ways of handling them successfully.
This deeper work requires some planning. One on one discussions open the door for youth to share their thoughts and questions, their theories and fears. Scratch the surface and offer to go deeper with a young person: Most teenagers are perfectly capable of a deep conversation. You just have to ask for it and be as willing to listen as you are to speak.
For the moment here, I will address young men’s issues in transitioning from boyhood to manhood. I would love to hear from the wise women in our community who are making a conscious effort to walk young women into adulthood, either one to one or in group activities.
As for assisting young men, we must start by addressing and meeting some of the unmet needs of the fathers and ‘neighborhood elders’ who themselves, as youth, may not have had the chance to be mentored. It is hard for a person to guide youth in ways he (or she) was never taught. Many of these men learned their life lessons ‘the hard way’, at the respectable but unreliable ‘schools of hard knocks’. To prepare men to be positive mentors, we start by serving them. In that vein, I offer two models from my own experience.
Garage Groups: I have been a part of a ‘Garage Group,’ for over twelve years now and that group was already going when I joined. Our group of meets once a month (not always in a garage) to talk about issues that we face as men, husbands and fathers. We have no leader and few rules aside from avoiding talking about sports or politics. A brief check-in is followed by discussions on issues relating to the stressors in our lives: Work and relationships, parenting challenges, caring for aging parents and our own health and aging issues. We brainstorm solutions to vexing problems or just hear one another out, as needed. Together, we gain the energy, inclination and ideas to support our young ones.
Men’s Talk Circles: An idea from the oft-maligned or dismissed Men’s Movement, Men’s Talk Circles serve a similar role as Garage Groups, but they are drop-in affairs not requiring any formal membership, usually much larger (15 to 20 men) and tend not to provide a participant with any particular answers. Like the Garage Group, the Men’s Talk Circle is not a therapy group. Instead, it is a gathering of men who want to connect with others to hear how they are dealing with life’s challenges. It is a place to hear and be heard. Just knowing that one is not alone with his issues is often quite helpful and men. Our own Davis Men’s Talk Circle operates free of charge and meets at International House on Russell Street on the 2nd Wednesday of each month, starting at 7pm. Feel free to come on by.
So, first things first: We, as adults, address our own unmet needs while connecting with the power of community. Next, we calibrate our attitudes and behaviors according to both our own values and those of our wider community, offering the youth in our lives a chance to see values in action in both big and small ways. Get active; take on a project. Or, just connect with the youth in your life and be there for them. Welcome them into adulthood as you prepare them for what they are likely to experience. Fatherless boys need other men to step up as guides: uncles, older cousins, grandfathers, coaches, clergy and others. A healthy culture filled with young men who proudly own their strong sense of self is not made overnight but instead, step by step, man by man. If we don’t, other powerful forces will command the youth’s attention, not all of them positive.
On the female side, young women also need guidance from the wise women in the community.. Those of us who work in the helping professions have long learned that it is much easier to redirect a youth’s attentions towards something positive and attractive than it is to get him or her to stop doing something counter-productive or negative. Yes, times have changed and so have attitudes, social expectations and standards. However, some things have not changed: the need to have personal integrity and self-respect; the need to have some skill sets to feel good about when times are hard; the need for outlets of positive self-expression. We adults can create forums for discussing these things and planning challenging activities – opportunities for youth to earn their place at the table of the community of adults.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.