BENSOZIA/IDEAS

Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


The Central Park "Wilding" and What do Do with Teenage Boys

John Bedell

The attack by a pack of teenage boys on a jogger in Central Park has sparked many pages of media hand-wringing and much moaning about the decline of morality in America. I have my doubts about whether our level of morality has declined, and I think an anthropological analysis of the place of teenage boys in modern society has more to offer in the way of an explanation.

One of my correspondents, a woman, asked if all young men have these impulses. I do not think is an exaggeration to say that almost all do; I know I did, and I was about as mild-mannered a teenager as ever walked American streets. In that sense the way these hooligans acted is quite natural, or, at least, within the range of natural behavior. Of course, most young men do not act in this way. They don't because they have been trained not to; or, perhaps, incorporated into social structures that constrain their worst behavior.

I have been struck by how much effort the societies I have studied-- ancient and medieval Europe, several Indian groups of eastern North America, and some African tribes that have a lot of classic British ethnography written about them-- put into constraining and channeling the violent impulses of their young men.  These were all warlike societies, so their young men had to be trained in war and their violent instincts preserved, even nurtured, so they could do their part to defend the community.  To keep these violent impulses from tearing the society itself apart, they had to be properly controlled and directed by the older men.  In some cultures this becomes something like an obsession, so that the main social institutions (at least on the men's side) are those devoted to controlling the violence of the young-- this includes Sparta, the plains Indian tribes, and the Zulu nation.  During the 1996 election we were treated to ripping argument about "It takes a Village", with Bob Dole arguing that in the olden days, children were raised by their families, and the state was not involved at all.  But Hillary was right about this one: it is in historical terms unusual for the rearing of young men to be left entirely to their own families.

Another approach, which is what happens in most of middle-class America, is just to train young men not to be violent at all.  We don't have special social institutions for this, so it has to be done by families and schools, more or less on the side.  For the most part, though, it is done rather well, so the average young American man is actually not very violent, by historical standards.

To return to the subject:  consider these American hooligans in the light of this historical detour.  They are generally from fatherless households, and their mothers, who work long hours at grueling jobs to make ends meet, often just don't have the time or energy discipline them.  Nor are there any other adults in their lives who can take the place of parents.  These kids don't belong to churches, they hate school or have dropped out, they don't have meaningful jobs.  They belong to no organizations of any kind.  In fact, they may have very little contact with adults at all.  (I managed to make it all the way through my adolescence, and through college, without ever having a serious conversation with an adult.  Not one.)  If you read interviews with bad kids who eventually made good, you often find that they found one adult-- a teacher, a coach, a social worker-- who took an interest in them, talked to them seriously, and helped them put their wildness behind them and enter the adult world.

If there is one piece of our ancestors' wisdom that I believe, it is that teenage boys should never be left to their own devices; somebody must take them in hand and integrate them into society. Left to themselves, some withdraw into violent fantasy worlds (the Columbine killers), and some form packs that roam the streets looking for trouble. Teenagers need grown-ups, and one of the sadnesses of our society is that many of them are trying to grow up on their own.

June 17, 2000


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