Oedipus Chex

  A recent TV commercial features a father and his teenage daughter eating breakfast. The father is dressed in a suit, in striking contrast to his daughter, who sports Punk-style clothing, multiple body piercings, and a rebellious stare. It's clear the two are worlds apart--on opposite sides of a yawning generation gap. Yet father and daughter do have one thing in common- they both love Honey Nut Chex cereal. Perhaps there is hope: "If they can share this family value," a voice-over suggests, "maybe they'll even start talking." But the commercial ends with father and daughter glancing at each other and shaking their heads: No way. The ad is meant to be a light-hearted jab at the generation gap. Yet the implicit message is not so light-hearted: the suggestion that parents and teens are irrevocably alienated. This is a common enough idea, but very dangerous. It causes many parents to be fearful and anxious about their teenagers--and sometimes even to give up trying to guide and direct them. That's why it's important to debunk the very notion of a generation gap. A recent book does just that. In "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do," child psychiatrist Lynn Ponton says the generation gap is nothing but a modern myth. It grew up around the turn of the century, when researchers like Anna Freud began to characterize adolescence as a period of universal upheaval. The idea really took off in the sixties, when the Boomer generation came of age. Youthful rebellion was celebrated, while adults were portrayed as hopelessly out of touch. Thus was born the youth culture. And ever since, retailers, movie producers, and television executives have increasingly targeted teens with products designed exclusively for them--driving a wedge between them and their parents. What retailers apparently don't realize is that, by the 1980s, most psychiatrists had rejected the notion of a generation gap. A better way to understand adolescence, says Ponton, is that it is a time for developing a separate identity--for experimenting with new ideas and taking risks. In today's culture, sadly, some of the readily available options for risk-taking, such as drug abuse and sexual promiscuity, are very dangerous. But most teens really want positive forms of risk-taking that provide a safe way to face new challenges--like sports, academic competitions, and volunteer work. Christians need to take a stand against marketing targeted directly to teens. We have to teach our kids to evaluate commercials, and be critical of those--like the ad for Honey Nut Chex--that tacitly accept the idea of alienation between parents and teens. At the same time, we must recognize the need for positive risk-taking in the teen years. Christian parents and youth leaders need to find ways to portray Christianity as a challenge, an adventure, not a dull hand-me-down from an earlier generation. The teen years are a time for exciting, out-of-the- ordinary church activities, like going on an overseas mission or tutoring at an inner-city school. We don't have to let a generation gap divide Christian families--and by sharing our faith with our teens, we can enjoy a spiritual unity that is the envy of the secular world.


Chuck Colson


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