Hurting but Hopeful

        by Elaine J. Roark

RECENTLY I ATTENDED A REGIONAL HIGH school conference where student representatives discussed various issues of national and international importance. All discussions took place without adult supervision or intervention. All adults present were strictly observers.

The discussion group I observed was assigned the topic:"How is the Weakening Family Structure Affecting Today's Youth?" Who can answer this question better than our youth themselves. I listened carefully and this is what I learned.

The young people felt cheated. "Our parents have cheated us out of the feelings of security they had in growing up with strong family ties and the sense of belonging and being wanted that were part of American culture in the forties and fifties. Everyone needs some sense of security and every child has the right to feel wanted," said one girl from a large urban high school. "You don't know what will happen to you if your parents split. It's scary. You don't know where you are going to live when the family is split up."

Not only did they feel cheated out of the security their parents enjoyed and every child deserves and needs, they also felt cheated out of a happy home life and sometimes cheated out of relationships with their siblings. No wonder they long for security. Out of about thirty students, the majority had been through at least one divorce between their parents, some had been through two, and one unfortunate member of the group had been through three divorces with her mother.

Youth from strong marriages believed in the institution of marriage. They felt they could make marriage work and last. Youth of divorced parents, though they thought marriage was goodand would like to have children and a happy home, worried that perhaps the institution of marriage could not work. The discussion hopped vigorously from one student to another. "Why should I think I can make marriage work when my parents couldn't? Look at the statistics! I don't want my children to have to go through what I went through."

"My parents are divorced, most of my friends' parents are divorced, and the kids are the ones to suffer. I just don't think it's worth it. I can have sexual gratification without making my children as mixed-up as I am. That's not what I want. I'd like to have children, but children need two parents, and I'm afraid I couldn't make it work."

Because marriage seemed so hard to make work and so many of them were ending with pain to all concerned and .hurt to society, the discussion pursued alternative social patterns-living together without marriage, group marriage, communal living with "free" sex, and homosexuality. Each was discussed and successively rejected as holding any real or lasting solutions. All favored the traditional form of marriage, so they returned to discussing its problems and possible solutions.

Resented Being Used as Pawns

They resented being used as pawns by their parents. "My parents try to turn me against each other or drag me into their quarrels. They put me in the position of having to choose between them. It makes me feel resentment toward both of them. I resent being used as a pawn, I resent having to arbitrate their fights, and I resent being pulled apart because they can't settle their differences."

With this, a dark attractive girl who had been sitting quietly with her head down came to life. Her dark eyes flashed with anger as she said: "I feel sorry for myself, and I feel even more sorry for my younger brothers and sisters. Sometimes Mom gets angry and storms out of the house and I'm left with the younger kids. I have to cook and feed them. I have to be the mother and it's not my responsibility. What you have is parent pitted against parent. Kids shouldn't have to choose between parents."

Today's youth feel rejected and deserted. Hesitantly a tall blond boy spoke, nervously running his fingers through his hair: "Nobody cares what's happening to us kids! We get treated like property. Six months here and six months there. Sometimes you know neither of them really wants you. Someone is always trying to get the parents to go to a marriage counselor. Well, maybe they ought to send us kids to a counselor after our parents split. We're the ones who need help. Where can we go? Nobody sets up counseling for the victims ... us!"

Another young man on the other side of the circle took up the idea: "We got ostracized or labeled because our parents are divorced. Some of my friends' parents didn't want them to be hanging around with me, as though I was contaminated because my dad was running around."

Throughout the discussion, a strong connection was made between strong morals and strong marriages. The group continually expressed a desire to go back to a time when families and morals were strong in America. The young people noted that most strong, happy, and secure families were those in which the parents had strong religious or moral commitments. They concluded that maybe there was something in making a religious commitment that enabled a person to make other commitments. Maybe religion helped to develop the kind of character it takes to keep one's commitment.

How They Cope

These youth cope very well, I'm happy to report! They are helping one another work through their common problems and find solutions. One girl started to blame herself. "My mom would like to get married again. I know she would, but who's going to marry a woman with three kids?"

Immediately, the others countered, "Don't put a guilt trip on yourself. It's not your fault. It's not our fault when parents can't get along." Others who had been quiet now spoke with a sympathy and depth of understanding that surprised me.

"It's important that we feel good about ourselves. We deserve better than we are getting out of our society. Sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves or blaming ourselves isn't going to make things better. We've got to learn from our parents' mistakes. If we don't want our homes to be like the ones we grew up in, we've got to do something about it."

There was a glimmer of a suggestion for self-help groups."Our parents never had the advantage of sitting around and talking about the problems of family life like we're doing now," concluded the pretty blond leader. "Maybe this is a step in finding the answers."

They Seek Solutions

Now they were on their way to finding solutions. They felt that the educational system could offer some help. "We need to learn what makes strong families. We need to know what makes a good wife or husband."

Others grunted consent and added further suggestions."So many of the fights in marriage are over money. We need a course on how to handle money problems in the family." .

Now a handsome, studious looking red-head with dark rimmed glasses joined in: "We need more than just sex education. We need a course on how to build strong relationships. Marriage is about a lot more than sex. We need a course that will teach us what kinds of personalities make good partners and what are the signs of personality problems that are warnings of big trouble."

The discussion ended by one girl saying, "Right now, from where I stand, old-fashioned values and old-fashioned families look pretty good!" Everyone agreed with enthusiasm. The leader summarized by saying that if the American family was going to survive, it was up to them.

I went away from that meeting with a feeling of pride in our young people and hope for their future. But if the American family is to rise as the fabled Phoenix from the ashes of destruction, these young people need all the help we can give them.

Educators, take note! The young people are asking for courses that will help them not only to think, but to make moral decisions. They are asking for the skills that will help them make meaningful, long-lasting relationships and get along with others. They want to learn better ways to communicate. They want skills that will help them make strong homes and strong marriages.

Counselors and Social Services take note! Young people from divorced homes need help in organizing self-help discussion sessions.

Churches take note! Our youth not only need but want the morals and values they see eroding from our society.

This article appeared in the May 1989 issue of Home Life Magazine