A reading from the Gospel According to John:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
I built the closet at age six… I started after I told my dad not to paint over the wallpaper in my new bedroom… It had yellow flowers that matched my wicker lamp and wood cut butterflies my mom had made.
The look in his eyes, a visceral sadness; a confirmation that describing his son as “sensitive” was not sufficient, that look gave me the material to build closet. Dad had taught lessons with words, hands and a belt, but it was his eyes that day that taught me to hide.
A year later, he died unexpectedly and I locked myself inside the closet and prayed to be “normal.” I tried to avoid anything that might have earned that look. I hid the yellow wallpaper and the wicker lamp in my closet and painted my bedroom grey. That fall, when the kids named me “faggot”, I searched my behaviors for the most offending and tried to hide those too.
I found that as much as my love of opera and antique silverware might have appealed to my kindred Auntie Mame, those interests were less endearing to the Boy Scouts of Northwest Missouri.
Desperate for affirmation, I found the Church, where a little Midwestern boy can sing in a foreign language while wearing a costume without being afraid. Not having a father to come home to, I found solace in God the Father. Dogma and ritual provided cold, disimpassioned mercy counterbalancing my family’s disapproval. The confessional mirrored my closet, and the pretense of holiness masked the sins I imagined for myself.
As I got older, the closet became less of a hiding place and more of a camouflage. I hid parts of myself in the closet I closed it and hung a crucifix outside as a diversion. By the time I got to college, the closet was mostly forgotten; the name-calling and judgment from my peers had quieted enough that through practice I was able to craft a new image. The “faggot” of yore was replaced by the image of a witty and faithful man. “Sure”, I could hear people say “he likes art, music, and design… perhaps his clothes match too well, but look at how well he sings and prays!” For the first time, I was able to pass as “normal.” It felt good and, to be honest when you have been pretending that long it can be hard to determine what is real.
I thought I would be a priest, devoted to service… Instead, my best friend, a beautiful and talented woman said she loved me.
I didn’t set about lying but I didn’t tell her about the closet, but, in my defense, I had distanced myself from the experiences that had pushed me inside that I had really forgotten that there had ever been a closet. As a matter of necessity, my life had been isolated; homosexuality was hypothetical and antithetical to the façade I had built.
I didn’t try to lie, I thought mutual care would be enough. We married, had three kids, and embarked on a largely happy life as newlyweds.
The turning point came three years into our marriage when in quick succession, my younger sister was murdered and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The blunt force of these experiences was beyond my ability to cope and instead of opening to my wife, I closed myself. I retreated, finding the closet and hid what I felt instead of sharing my pain. I focused on my career to the exclusion of my family quietly maintaining 10 years of white-knuckled sanity before my marriage dissolved, as my wife and best friend couldn’t live with a husband so distant.
She left and in the moment I was shocked, devastated. I tried to establish a new sense of “normal” throwing myself into the practices that had given me purpose. But was confronted by the inauthenticity of these practices. One by one I stopped. Stopped church, stopped praying, stopped looking for my sister. I quit my job; I drank gin, and numbed what I could.
I wasn’t enough, there were too many pieces missing… I wasn’t man enough, I wasn’t holy enough, I wasn’t handsome enough, or smart enough… Unmoored from the Catholic doctrine that had stopped me earlier in life, I was presented with a previously unthinkable choice: acknowledge the things I had hidden from for virtually all of my life, confront all of the things I was hiding, or chase a bottle of pills with an expertly-mixed cocktail and pray for mercy from a God I didn’t trust or fully believe in.
In the end, it was my children that stopped me from destroying myself.
After 36 years locked away I told my friends and family what I had been hiding: – “I’m GAY!” True story: people aren’t surprised when a male, Catholic, interior designer/opera singer, who tap dances, and once considered becoming a priest, tells them he’s gay.
Having informed the world and thinking the work was done, I quickly fell in love and ended up living with a charismatic artist, thinking that I had “come out.”
It took me nearly a year to realize that these were just actions. I said the words: “I’m gay” but had not acknowledged what those words meant or what that label had done to me.
I was still in the closet, but this time, I was pretending that all the missing pieces had magically reappeared! I imagined a beautiful life with the artist and my kids, ignoring a reality that was just as dysfunctional as my earlier life had been.
He loved my kids but when they weren’t there he belittled me. The career I had worked so hard to develop was largely supporting his career.
Honestly, I’m not sure that I would have acknowledged anything had the artist not tried to hit me.
It wasn’t even a one-time thing, or even remotely the worst thing that he had done, but for whatever reason it was the thing that made me recognize that I was letting him treat me like my dad had, like the kids in school had… The ridiculousness of the situation unbolted my closet.
Seeing his raised hand, my brain opened, I remembered all the things that had been done, that I had accepted from this man who said he loved me: being pushed, hit, drugged and worse. His actions, the broken glass and destruction of my things helped me see the closet and to remember what I had hidden inside.
As the closet fell apart, I remembered my dim adolescence and the chants of “faggot,” the pain of a fist in the eye, and being rolled around in a trashcan.
As the yellow rose wallpaper was exposed, I felt my stepdad picking me up, shaking me, and hitting me. I heard a litany of names that no 7-year old should know… Every slight, every bruise, the rocks thrown and each name not my own, became real again. The hours sitting and crying unable to fathom what was wrong with me became tangible. The hypocritical religious-indoctrination that I had clung to hoping to be good enough to see my dad and sister in heaven.
Finally I remembered my dad, his disapproval, synthesized by my 6-year old self and eternally misinterpreted. I started to recognize how his look, some 30 years earlier invited me to become something less than what I was created to be. I thought I had come out but instead I recreated the same disapproval.
I’m not sure why, but that last time he tried to hit me, the stupidity of my predicament became apparent… I wasn’t enough because of what I was lacking, I wasn’t enough because I couldn’t accept the substance of my own experiences.
I’m starting to grasp that admitting my sexuality wasn’t coming out. Maybe it was a step, but without introspection, it was just another distraction.
Now, instead of accepting that I am gay, I’m trying to learn who I really am which is so much more than “gay.”
A year after the artist tried to hit me I find shards of glass hiding in my living room. I still fight invalidation that helped me build the closet. I’m trying to acknowledge that it, like those pieces of glass; are just a ruined thing that no longer serves any purpose. On the occasions I’m able to do this, I walk away from it and take some of the power that I had given away.
Every day I come out a little more and in doing so, am confronted by the “me” I really don’t know. Each day I’m a little more gay, a little more artistic, a little more musical, and on the best days a little more dad to the children who saved my life. There is no finish line, but I’m not in the closet and that is a start.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
Zakk Hoyt – November 6, 2017 © 2017, all rights reserved.
This month, join Emily Frost, Marisa Taborga Byrne, and Dane Zahorsky as they discuss Whole Person Sexuality and how to support youth in empowering themselves and their communities towards equitable intimacy and healthier relationships.
About This Month’s Guests – Emily Frost
Emily is an artist, girls empowerment coach and contemporary rites of passage guide working with youth and families around the Bay Area of California. She is also a devoted mother, wife, sister and daughter. She is the founder of LOVE YOUR NATURE, a movement devoted to girls and women awakening to their inherent wisdom, power, and purpose. Emily works with young people and adults, in groups and individually, as a counselor, rites of passage guide, experiential educator and consultant. She facilitates programs that develop social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, with a focus on girls coming of age.
Emily is also the co-founder of Real Talk Events, designing events to inspire learning, honest sharing, and authentic connection about what it’s like to be alive in these times. Her ‘Real Talk Curriculum’ is specially designed for teen girls to talk openly about sex, sexuality, intimacy, and other “risk taking behaviors”. She is a is a certified facilitator with Prajna Consulting, at the crossroads of youth advocacy, gender, sex and sexuality. She has trained in the work, philosophy and practice with Prajna’s founder, Charis Denison. Their partnered events address the questions: What are teens doing, what do they want, what do they need, and how can we support them.
Like What You Hear? Find More Episodes or Subscribe!
Sexuality Doesn’t Develop in a Vaccum – About This Months Topic:
Whole Person Sexuality, or holistic sexuality, is a expansive topic that encompasses values, relationships, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, experiences, self image, communication and socialization. Healthy love and sexuality emphasize the relational and interpersonal aspects of self-inquiry as an integral part of a thriving community. Holding these conversations with youth in strong and healthy ways can help cultivate the interdependent sexual health of the entire community, as well as be a preventative measure of sexual harm and misconduct.
Whole Person Sexuality is the open acknowledgement and discussion of one’s sexuality and gender not just internally but as an integral part of healthy community, that includes one’s spiritual, bodily, emotional and intellectual connection to their sexualityBy sharing our self perception and esteem, as they relate to other individuals and the community, we can become more sexually and emotionally literate, engendering healthy intimate relationships with self and others.
As seekers ourselves, our goal is to help cultivate the interdependent sexual health of the entire community.
Initiation as Prevention
Preventing sexual assault is one of the greatest and most important challenges in our lives today. The key is to be proactive and not reactive. Of fundamental importance is holding space to explore healthy personal and interpersonal practices. The more one can build off of the existing sexual health education (or lack-thereof) in intimate and public discussions, the more it will reinforce a culture of healthy sexuality, create a feeling of invitation and investment, and aid in preventing sexual misconduct in the various places we frequent from our bedrooms to our workplaces.
Practicing Community holds consent based openness and access to relevant information as paramount values. One of the most common experiences of rites of passage for many youth is sexual exploration. Without guidance or dialog this natural threshold can often manifest dysfunctionally. Whether the topic is emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse, free and open information and dialog regarding natural curiosities, taboos, and desires will build respect and mindfulness in maturing youth.
We encourage practitioners and caring adults to create situations in which peers are guided by mentors to explore healthy and responsible sexual literacy. Consider a viewing of Al Vernacchio’s TED talk entitled ‘Sex Needs a New Metaphor.’ He promotes moving away from a winner/loser dynamic regarding sex and towards a collaborative model of sexual interaction among youth.
Here are a few discussion topics that can start you off in addition to the many wonderful resources below.
- Common assumptions about sex, sexuality, and taboos.
- Sexual awakening as a rite of passage.
- Appreciating sexuality as vehicle for spirituality.
- Seeking mentors or trusted peers to rely on for sexual advice, accountability, and support.
- Sexual and physical insecurities and fears.
- Gender Identity, expectation, and inequality; the restrictiveness of gender roles.
- Developing and enforcing physical and emotional boundaries and safe words.
- Clearly defining and practicing consent and requiring it for every step of a sexual interaction.
- Understanding and defining red flags or danger signs in relationships.
- Awareness and history with STD’s and normalizing testing.
- Understanding male and female responsibilities and options for birth control.
- Ensuring access to a trusted OBGYN or primary care doctor.
- Becoming familiar with turn-ons and offs and clearly articulating what is wanted and not wanted
- Appreciating individual differences and preferences.
- Differentiating online from face to face courtships and relationships.
- Dealing with social pressures and anxieties.
- Normalizing sexuality conversations and articulating fantasies to avoid suppression or maladaptation.
- Understanding the ecology of sexual relationships and all their variations, including monogamy, polyamory, bisexuality, etc.
- Coming to clear agreements in relationships: what it means, how it is respected, what constitutes cheating, etc.
- Jealousy, obsession, and reactionary behavior in and outside of relationships.
- The different love languages. The differences in expressions of love and affection.
- The regular practice of check-ins. Encouraging strong and honest intimate communication.
- Bedsider.Org, https://www.bedsider.org
- Sex, Etc., https://sexetc.org/
- Generation5 Youth Zine
- Advocates for Youth: Youth Activists
- Amaze: https://amaze.org/
- I Know Mine: https://www.iknowmine.org/
- Love is Respect: http://www.loveisrespect.org/
- Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
- Awkward or Not: App to find out if parents are ready to talk about sex for teens
- My Little Red Book, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
- Flowering Woman Moontime for Kory, Mary Dillon with Shinan Barclay
- Transitions, Making the Most of Your Campus Experience
- Shameless Magazine
- LGBT National Help Center Youth Talk Line 1.800.246.PRIDE (7743)
- Camp Victory : a private nonprofit organization that strives to create a special place for child and teen survivors of sexual abuse
For Parents and Guardians:
How to talk to your children about sex
- Planned Parenthood
- Advocates for Youth: Parent Resources
- Amaze: https://amaze.org/parents/
- Teaching Sexual Health
For parents of sexual abuse survivors
- For Mothers of Sexually Abused Children
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- National Child Abuse Hotline: 1.800.4.A.CHILD (422.4453)
- Center for Positive Sexuality
- Tamera, Global Love School
Body Love Resources
- Body Image and Acceptance Tools
- Esther Perel- The secret to desire in long-term relationships
- Wheel of Consent, by Betty Martin
- Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Christiane Northrup
- Flesh and Spirit, Jack Zimmerman and Jaquelyn McCandless
- Jack and Jaquelyn: An Adventure in Evolutionary Intimacy, Jack Zimmerman and Jaquelyn McCandless
- Wild Feminine, Tami Lynn Kent
- Vagina, Naomi Wolf
- Cunt, Inga Muscio
- The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort
For Survivors of Sexual Assault:
- Bay Area Women Against Rape 510.845.7273
- San Francisco Women Against Rape 415.647.7273
- GLBT National Help Center Youth Talk Line 1.800.246.PRIDE (7743)
- RAINN- 24 hotline 1.800.656.HOPE
- Love With Accountability
- 1 in 6: for male survivors
- Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- The Survivor’s Guide to Sex, Staci Haines
Sexuality Health Education & Trainings:
- Amaze: https://amaze.org/educators/
- Our Whole Lives, Universalist Unitarian Church
- Advocates for Youth: Resources for Sex Ed Teachers
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- Texas Association Against Sexual Assault
- Guttmacher Institute
- American Sexual Health Association
- Future of Sex Education
- Teaching Sexual Health
Prevention and Healing Work with Youth:
- Darkness to Light
- National Children’s Alliance
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- Stop It Now!
- Connect’s Ending Child Sexual Abuse (ECSA)
- Generation FIVE
- Planned Parenthood
- Circles of Empowerment
- Red Tents in Every Neighborhood
- Fire & Flower: Girls Rite of Passage Program
- Golden Bridge International: Surfing the Creative
- Marisa (Sasa) Taborga Byrne
- Queer Asterisk
- Pınar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd
- Queer Nature
- Queer Odyssey
- Rooted Emerging
- Sacred Groves
- So Faun
- The Sophia Project
What captivates every one of us, defines our life’s course, moves us in profound ways, echoes of both our beginning and our end and brings greater health than nearly any other aspect of being human? Our sexuality.
What has been historically guarded, denied, relegated to the shadows and left for exploitation under the dark of avoidance? Our sexuality.
We are at such a powerful turning point in time, in regards to the presence sexuality may have in our collective awareness. It may be no news to say that, in America, sex is everywhere – in stark and hollow form – yet nowhere that we need it to be. As it has lingered there on the fringe of acceptable conversation or even attention, it has been subject to hijacking by those with motives other than love and health.
How could we have left it lonely and bereft so long?
The #MeToo movement has shone a light on the ways in which sex has been allowed to suffer distortions and trespasses for decades. Or is it centuries? A strong-hold of tolerance, or look-the-other-way is now loosening its grip as a collective claiming of What is Ours steps forward. The buried disgust or frustration of seeing that which is sacred continually exploited has now risen to tipping point levels, and enough is seriously enough.
It is this lack of reverence that suddenly now has such profound distaste in a new and awakening collective conscience. Regardless of any spiritual bent or proclivity – to revere is to hold in respectful gaze and handle from a place of honor. This is universal. It is even rooted in research and science. To regard our bodies, and one another with respect and to honor what is within and before us is a clear path. It leads to a kaleidoscope of health and awakening.
As guides to youth, we have a profoundly important role to play.
Just as ‘having no position’ is always taking a position, ‘saying nothing’ is always sending a message. When we fail to speak and acknowledge or address the significant physical, social and psycho-emotional changes happening in young people through puberty, we are denying a crucial part of them and their reality.
Imagine another creature, whom walks into the same room for many days as a salamander. Day after day, a long, lovely salamander. Then, ever-so-gradually, this salamander starts to shift. Its middle widens and its legs lengthen. Its shape literally changes before our eyes and it even begins to hop! A salamander has become a frog before our eyes. Yet we, as loving family and witness, say nothing.
Can you imagine the cognitive dissonance of such an experience?! To know you are changing. To know you are Visibly changing, and that others must see it too. To go through the loss and the disorientation, the occasional thrill and ever-present uncertainty . . . and have no one even acknowledge this?!
It nearly makes us mad.
Or, more poignantly, it sends a message. What are we saying when we say nothing?
- “This is so terrible and frightening, I cannot even face you; therefore, this part of you is so inherently wrong that you are now unfaceable
- You are not capable of handling what this change means and therefore, you cannot trust yourself as I clearly do not trust you
- This change is so miserable, and associated with unnamable pain, that we can’t even talk about it
Now, love, as the greater forest canopy of our sexual experiences, is truly profound and often holds both the greatest ecstasies and pains in any lifetime. My work with adult clients reminds me of this all the time. These are the experiences that shape us.
Please, dear guides and protectors of children, take my words easily and with heart…
I say all of this, not as criticism, but as a new lens in which to view reactions to sex and the potential impacts of these on the very young people we so adore.
What holds us back?
- a fear of overstepping a sensitive line with families
- a lack of belief in our ability to address this well (raise your hand if you haven’t had a tough experience in regards to sexuality!)
- discomfort and an urge to stick with safer, more familiar territory
We can, realistically, address these one by one. First, 1) I have to report, as a sexuality educator and consultant/coach to adults (particularly parents), we often fall into a trap of thinking, “Oh, the other folks have this”. By that I mean, parents sometimes think, “Well, the school has this covered.”, while the school thinks, “Now, that is the realm of family conversations, and they are tending to it”.
We are just not checking in. Who really has this? We need to start with a collaboration that brings the topic squarely and directly to the table. ‘What are you doing for sexuality education?’ is a question a parent can ask a teacher, and a teacher/guide/mentor can absolutely ask a parent. If we are working as teams for the health of our young people, we need to start having team updates on this point in particular.
Simply enough, this can be followed up with a discussion of needs – which flows into a discussion of dreams and wishes – which, true, can evoke a discussion of fears, pains and embarrassments. It’s ok. You can refer out. Send them my way.
Just know that starting the conversation is the crucial step. Again, I am suggesting that starting the conversation among the other adults caring for/guiding the child is the first step.
2) Are we capable? This is the “powerful turning point in time“ part. We want to do better. We deeply ache to do better and are committed to our kids (mentees/offspring/students) and willing. But, and it needs to be acknowledged, we came up with so little. Or, if we did have guidance around this, it was very likely disturbed, awkward-to-the-point-of-
We can acknowledge, too, that we are in a time of cultural shift around social norms and sexual behavior. Old rules no longer apply and new ones are yet to be established or clarified. Divorce rates have hovered around the 50% point (yet it still carries some nebulous stigma). Increasingly, Millennials are choosing to have their babies before marriage – 57% are unmarried at the time of birthing – if they marry at all. 46% of Millennials and 44% of GenXers say “Marriage is becoming obsolete”. Where we are ultimately Going with all of this (where-sex-leads) is itself in shift.
This is ok too. We still need to talk about it.
The same principles that apply to great guiding/mentoring absolutely apply to sexuality education. We are helping to align them to the greater truth within themselves. We are asking them to find the courage to live that truth. We teach young people to be aware of their actions, the needs of others, while staying true who they know themselves to be… All of this applies directly to sexuality.
So, we simply have self-compassion, perspective and start trusting ourselves anyway. Like many fears, the belief that we may be incapable of addressing this (such a large and significant) topic diminishes as soon as we begin. We don’t move blindly, but we begin to move with it. We model positive intimacy by admitting we might be nervous. We own our uncertainty, and send the message of what we do want. “I’m a little uncomfortable bringing this up because I’m not used to it, but it’s really important to me that you feel safe coming to me with questions about sex or relationships…” We can do this.
3) It is remarkable how some risks seem smaller in the choice to ‘not do them’ category, when in fact, the ‘doing them’ proves to be the smaller risk by far.
In some parts of life, the greater the risk ventured, the greater the reward. This is so true in choosing to bumble through discomfort to becoming a safe guide for kids around sex. Imagine, inversely, that a trusted adult in your world took the risk to be awkward and nervous to give you a space in which to truly process the world of sex as you grew… What might you have gained? How might your path have been different?
Do you think you would have remembered how s/he was nervous at first? Or would you be more impacted by the relief you felt to unpack some of the massive confusion you were carrying?
When you, as guide or mentor, find yourself lingering back in the ‘safe’ and comfortable zone on this, I encourage you to think of the way a small, intentional risk may yield hugely positive rewards for the young person before you. When in doubt, just ask more questions: “What are kids saying about _____?” / “How did you feel when you saw _____ & _____ kissing?” / “What are you hoping for yourself in all of this?”. We all know the power of reflection.
For basic reassurance, I offer these parameters:
- Don’t share about your own sexual experiences. Kids simply don’t need to know details. This in one of the edicts of sex educators: personal information has no place in teaching here. Beyond this – there is always a greater question, such as, “Am I normal?” or “How do I know when I’m ready?” that we can whole-heartedly address, with more effectiveness.
- Know the difference between guiding for health and imparting our own values on the kids. There is a line where behavior and lifestyle choices deserve to be imparted by parents and within families. Our job is not to raise other people’s kids in our values. Our job is to guide kids toward comfort with and acceptance of their bodies, their emotions and desires. We can do this without crossing the line of values. How do we recognize this line? We identify our own sexual values and get clear with parents on what theirs are. This brings reassurance.
- Know that research shows a comprehensive approach has the greatest positive effects long-term. This is where we have a powerful position as guides, mentors, educators (at least, those who are not bound by federally-approved curriculum). Our role is comprehensive. I offer that we have much to learn from our European neighbors, here. Comfort with sex, when shared by a culture, has an immensely positive effects.
I offer a “Raising Sexually Healthy Kids” workbook online; an ongoing professional coaching program for parents sifting through all the richness of this topic as they, too, grow; one-on-one coaching for men and women both to get to integrity and health with their experiences of sexuality. I am here.
My urging comes to you from a vision of the world we will have when we do, even slowly, begin to act from this place of comfort and acceptance. True, the landscape is shifting before us. But love is ever-present and eternal. Intimacy remains one of our greatest needs as humans. Sex is a force we can skillfully meet and move with for the sake of a more loving and vibrant world.
Here we go!
Tracking the Evolution of Modern Adolescence and Delinquency
Through Classic Cinema
For years I have been using movies, or snippets of movies, to help explain adolescent behavior to parents and professionals. Sometimes I would remind people of a classic scene, like where John Bender in The Breakfast Club showed serious thinking orders by continuing to argue with VP Vernon, earning multiple detentions. Or what James Dean might really have been rebelling about in Rebel Without a Cause. With both teens and adults, I have found movies to include some extremely useful illustrations of the adolescent process.
Both youth and adults seemed to enjoy this teaching style. Teens could relate to their peers and issues within the movies, while grownups enjoyed learning adolescent information in something other than a parenting book. I felt like I was a walking, talking DVD commentary with each film or clip, providing useful information on adolescence rather than just the producer or director giving anecdotes about the film. When I initially tried to encourage people to do what I had done, I realized that it was difficult to get many of the movies easily or cheaply.
While researching my first book, From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age, I became fascinated in the historical and sociological changes of the past century or so that impacted teens and led to the US having more teen drama than any other country. The early 1900s caught my eye as a spike in literature from professionals at the time noted that the period of adolescence was becoming longer and more pronounced as we shifted from a rural country to an urban one during the Industrial Revolution.
That made sense as youth tried to navigate the new urban environment, tenement housing, status offenses aimed at controlling teen behavior like truancy and school, and so on. But then I also noted a spike in adolescent discontent during the 1950s documented by the appearance of dozens of books tracking teen behavior, and literally scores of movies about teens. Insatiably curious about WHY teens had become such an issue when for centuries they barely blipped the radar screen, I intensified my search with the expansion of the Internet and acquiring about 150 movies about or starring teens.
The Internet also allowed me to find obscure references, publications and books back to the 1850s that helped me track the growth of mandatory education, limited job options, arbitrary age benefits, government intrusion into parenting areas, reformatories, and the huge cultural shift that happened when in 1918, America officially became more urban than rural. After watching scores of teen movies, I started to see an evolution of teen misbehavior in the cinema, beginning in the late 1930s
Fast forward (pun intended) a few years, and suddenly Netflix, Blockbuster and others began shipping almost any DVD to your home. Then streaming of movies began and I realized my idea was now logistically possible. With a little effort and money, people could easily rent the movie I was talking about, or even buy used DVDs on eBay or Amazon Used Books for a couple dollars. I dusted off my ideas, pulled out my old notes, watched dozens of movies again, and decided to write a commentary to go with good teen-based movie as a platform for teaching about teen issues: drugs, gangs, parent problems, delinquency, and so on. Finally, I figured I would try to use a movie from each decade starting back in the 1930s and moving forward into the 2000s, using each of the final ten movies I chose to discuss a particular issue related to adolescence and help readers see what was going on culturally and socially for context.
What I had come to view as the growing-but-hidden “Undercurrents” of teen problems and cause of their discontent was nicely documented by Hollywood over the century. Whether it was art imitating life or vice versa, moviemakers either consciously or by chance stumbled upon major elements of the shifts in society teens were trying to navigate. I could not adhere to my hope of a movie from every decade for a couple reasons. Twice, in the 40s, preoccupied with WWII, and again in the 60s, perhaps caught up in the shift from Wally Cleaver to Vietnam and hippies, there just wasn’t a good movie to use. But I worked around that by adding another movie from before or after each decade t fill the gap, so to speak.
Here are the movies discussed in Undercurrents…” and a brief idea what the main topic is. Many of these movies were nominated or won Academy Awards, and some caused controversy for their time. Also in each chapter is a look at what was going on in America or abroad to help you get your bearings for where our kids were at in time. Below are links to the original movie trailers for each movie I put in a dedicated YouTube site for you:
(1937) Dead End:
Delinquency was first seen on screen with the Dead End Kids, cute at first glance but on the cusp of crime with dubious gangster mentors like jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Missing parents. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress.
(1937) Angels With Dirty Faces:
America wants more of the Dead End Kids. Further training from more refined gangsters. Good vs. evil. Notoriety vs nobleness. Truancy, stealing, poor adult modeling. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Cagney), Best Director and Best Writing, Original Story.
(1938) Boys Town:
Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan and the first healthy residential setting for troubled youth. Why were there so many homeless kids in 1917 in Nebraska? Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for Best Actor, and the movie for Best Writing, Original Story. It was also nominated for Outstanding Production, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay.
(1955) Blackboard Jungle:
The first of the “troubled youth/idealistic teacher” genre in a trade school for delinquents. Violence against teachers, a female teacher almost raped by her students. Teens not buying into the American dream for the first time. Nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.
(1955) Rebel Without a Cause:
Teens as the cause of the problem, not the symptom. Poor fathering. Teens having experienced two wars (WWII and Korea) and not blindly accepting suburbia. Parents & teachers not understanding adolescent shifts recently. Peer pressure. Nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo), Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Wood), and Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Numerous other association awards.
(1961) West Side Story:
The first time we see gangs in film. What caused the Jets/Sharks problem? WWII immigration of Puerto Ricans who displaced poor white tenement dwellers causes turf wars. Alcoholic parents, prostitution, drugs. Under the great music and dancing is a script of major inner city dysfunction. Swept the Oscars with wins for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Art Direction, Director, Art Director and cinematography, Film Editing and Original Score, Best Sound and Writing, (Adapted Screenplay)
(1973) American Graffiti:
“Where were you in ’62?” George Lucas’ look back at the early 60s and the end of the “Happy Days” teens of the 40s and 50s. The best movie in the post-Vietnam 70s was about the wholesome 60s. Stay home or go to college? Friends or future? Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and Film Editing. Won Best Motion Picture (Musical) and Most promising Newcomer at the Golden Globes, and was also nominated for Best Director and Actor.
(1984) The Breakfast Club:
Cliques and peer groups. Isolation. All social groups have their own rules, expectations and problems. More parental lack of understanding. Schools not adapting to modern teens. Even good kids do drugs. In 2008 it was ranked #369 by Empire Magazine for their All-Time 500 Greatest Movies list. NY Times placed it in best 100 movies of all time, and Entertainment Weekly made it number 1 of the 50 Best High School Movies.
(1991) Boyz n the Hood:
Modern, violent gangs. Inner city gangs. Ethnic battles rather than battling other cultures. Ghettos. No hope, no escape. Teen death is common. Single parents. Lack of options. Nominated for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. Director John Singleton was the youngest director and first African American nominated for Best Director. Numerous other film and music awards.
Young girls cutting themselves, cutting school, peer pressure, modern drugs, single parenting, promiscuity. A quick decline into self-destruction. Too cool to care. Addiction. Holly Hunter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and she & Evan Rachel Wood were nominated for Golden Globes. Teen Nikki Reed, Wood’s co-star, co-wrote the script.
Many myths and stereotypes shape our views of the teen passageway into adulthood. Teens have been characterized as reckless, rebellious, unmotivated and lazy. Yet we know stereotypes and labels such as these are damaging to youth and they distract from the task of meeting the true developmental needs of youth.
For many years we blamed “raging hormones” for the drama and experimentation of the teen years. But what is the truth behind the teenage developmental journey? Is teen behavior biologically or socially determined? Thanks to advances in brain research, generally, and teenage brain research specifically, many of the myths about the biological determinants of teen behavior have been dispelled. Researchers such as Dr. Frances Jensen at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Daniel J Siegel at UCLA are providing the facts about the teenage brain and giving us more positive ways to view teen development. The following are just a few of the myths they are dispelling and how.
Myth: Teens are impulsive because of their raging hormones.
While it is true that there is greater production of hormones in the teen years, there is also critical brain development under way which determines teenage behavior. We know that only about 80% of the brain is developed by adolescence, and that the prefrontal cortex, the area which controls executive function like self-discipline and memory, is the very last part to develop, at around 25 years of age. What is in large supply in the teen years is gray matter, or neurons, while in short-supply is white matter (connective wiring) which helps information flow quickly from one part of the brain to another. As a result, the teen brain is “like a Ferrari primed and pumped but doesn’t know where to go” (Daniel Siegel in Mindsight).
Other research shows that the teenage brain is less able to process negative information than is the adult brain and better wired to process reward. As Dr. Jensen explains, “The chief predictor of adolescent behavior is not the perception of risk but the anticipation of the reward despite the risk.” (Jensen and Nutt, The Teenage Brain). These factors are compounded by the fact that the frontal lobes are only loosely connected to other parts of the teen brain, so teens have a harder time exerting cognitive control over potentially dangerous situations. So the very mental functions of discipline, safe behaviors and good choices that we are hoping teenagers are refining in their high school years are actually biologically still wiring.
Myth: Teens are able to handle stress and drug use because they are young.
Teens do not have the same tolerance for stress as adults. In fact, there is hormone that modulates anxiety in adults but actually raises it in teens. So is said that anxiety begets anxiety in the teen brain. This is compounded by the fact that most teens get significantly less sleep than is needed, an estimated 6.25 rather than the needed 9.5 hours.
The temptation to use drugs should not surprise us then. For the tired and stressed teenage brain, drugs offer a dopamine surge that can literally not be surpassed. Unfortunately, we also know marijuana and alcohol block the process of learning and memory so that users are less able to lay down new neuronal pathways. Because the brain has more space for the cannabis to land, it stays longer than in adults, having an impact on teen functioning for 4-5 days. We also now know that early and chronic marijuana use among teens is also linked to increased rates of psychosis and schizophrenia. So the teen years are the worst years for exposure to drugs and alcohol, as their impact is more detrimental and permanent.
There are several other negative myths dispelled by these and other scientists who are, thankfully, altering our understanding of teen biology and behavior. This work should compel us to look at the power and creativity of the teenage years not as a phase to get through, but as a phase to support and uplift. The engaged, rule-challenging, creative period of the teen years have produced exceptional invention and new ways of thinking for thousands of years, as Dan Siegel points out. Instead of constraining this capacity for creative evolution, we should be uplifting programs that enhance the biological trajectory of the teen. We should be developing programs that engage youth in active, outdoor, reasonable risk-taking that builds functional neuronal pathways and relationships. We should match the needs of the hearts and minds of youth with programs that actually address these biological and social pathways.
In my experience, the truth of the matter is that parents are partly responsible for “creating” sons that are indifferent, lazy or entitled. I say that with “no blame.” You see, I know that parents are extremely motivated to help their sons have the best chance for being happy and successful. But I made this same mistake myself. Years ago, I spoiled my teenage son, which only made it harder for him to learn and grow with self-confidence.
Unfortunately, we often give our sons way more than they need. When then train them to become overly dependent on us. This creates conflict inside our sons as they get older. Here’s what happens. As they become teenagers, they are biologically driven to “individuate” – to learn how to stand on their own two feet. But by providing everything they need, we unnaturally interfere with this normal need to strike out on their own.
On the one hand, our sons are happy that we make it easy for them. On the other, they resent us for treating them like children. They also resent feeling “stunted” as they reach out beyond the family to establish their place in the world. I’ve heard this said by young men countless times when I’ve mentored them at The Young Men’s Ultimate Weekend, a nonreligious, wilderness rite of passage initiation program I cofounded.
Benefits of Volunteering
One of the best ways to get your son out of the house is to have him volunteer for an organization that could use his services. By doing so, he’ll be engaging in an activity that communities have depended on for thousands of years – having young people share their talents for the benefit of all.
I know most of your sons will think that it’s a ridiculous idea and will reject it right away. Your son does not want to be disturbed from his cozy bedroom playing video games and texting his friends. I understand that you’ll be confronted with that.
Getting him to volunteer will force him to get out of his comfort zone to meet new people, and, most importantly, to see that he “has it made” compared with many other people. Most young men need to be humbled in order to feel more compassionate towards others.
When your son volunteers, he’ll experience many of the following benefits:
1) meet new people
2) learn or develop new skills
3) become more compassionate towards others
4) gain valuable work experience
5) feel needed and appreciated (possibly the most important “pay”!)
Helping Your Son Choose to Volunteer
One of the ways I encourage you to get your son to volunteer homework is by making it one of the choices that he gets to make when he needs to engage in a consequence (I define this as an “activity of integrity”).
When your son has behaved in a way that’s out of integrity with one of your household’s virtues and values, The RIGHT Way for Family Unity recommends giving your son choices as to how he can “clean up” his inappropriate behavior. The goal of this method is to have your son start thinking about how his actions affects both himself and others around him. Ideally, he will learn to start thinking ahead when he’s contemplating being irresponsible the next time.
For example, if he violated the virtue of “Responsibility” by not performing one of his household jobs, like cleaning the dishes or clearing the table, you could give him three choices to think about how he’s going to restore integrity in the home:
1) volunteer for four hours
2) take away/turn off his cell phone for two weeks
3) perform additional household chores, like vacuuming and taking out the garbage, for two weeks
The more you highlight the reasonableness of the volunteer choice, the more likely he’ll choose to do it!
It’s critical that your son develop the virtue of Empathy – identifying with the feelings and experiences of others. Having him volunteer and make efforts on behalf of others – not just for himself – is one of the oldest and best methods to help your son become more mature.