In the case of most diseases the symptoms are the manifestations of the cause, and the cause is the presence of something - namely, a virus or germs. In the case of teenagers, the symptoms are the kinds of behavior illustrated in the preceding short stories and the cause is the absence of something.
What is it the absence of? What quality, what property, what element could be added that would eliminate or reduce such varied symptoms as shyness, rebellion, obnoxiousness, laziness, dishonesty, and insensitivity?
Could the answer be something as basic as what we are calling sensitivity?
And if so - if sensitivity has the most magical properties of ultimate solution - can it be taught to adolescents? To early teens and preteens?
At this point, we would like to suggest three principles that may allow us to answer "yes" to all of the above questions:
1. Sensitivity is a new way of thinking: an observing, feeling, communicating way of thinking.
2. When we change the way in which someone thinks, we change the way he acts.
3. When approached in the right way, no age group is more capable of changing how they think than preteens and early teens.
Most of the problems teenagers face, and most of the unhappiness they experience, result from their natural tendency to "look into mirrors." Teenagers tend to see all situations, all people, and all circumstances in terms of how those things will affect them. It is these "mirrors" that cause rebellion, depression, selfishness, insensitivity, self-consciousness, and a host of other symptoms.
Adolescents look at another person, but what they see is the mirror of how that person will affect them. "What can he do for me?" "How will my reputation be affected by associating with him?" "Will it cost me anything to be nice to him?"
They look at a situation or an event, but what they see is the mirror of what they can gain or lose by it. "What can I get out of this?" "How will this make me look?"
They prove the cliché, "Someone who is all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package." And perhaps a rather erratic and unhappy package at that!
There is no depth in mirrors. We see only the surface of ourselves when we look into them. One who stares into them continually is happy only fleetingly and is never stable or predictable because every change of light or circumstance threatens the image and changes the feeling.
Of course, if we are going to accuse our children of looking in mirrors, we had better examine ourselves first. Everyone thinks of himself more than he should, and if we are going to teach our children to be less self-centered, we had better teach ourselves the same lesson first.
As you read on you will see that that is the order of this program: First teach a particular aspect of sensitivity to yourself; then teach it to your children.
Let's look at the solution of "windows." With it, we can revisit some of the "ordinary adolescents" from our stories.
The prescription: "Windows"
Some Solutions for Ordinary Problems
The right kind of sensitivity gives those who have it both personal confidence and personal humility, along with empathy for others. These are tools that fix any break, prescriptions that cure any ill.
Mirrors and Windows
Some older civic and church buildings still have "cry rooms" just off the chapel or meeting area where parents can retreat to with extra-noisy babies. Many of these cry rooms feature a pane of one-way glass, which is a mirror to those sitting in the meeting room and a window to those sitting in the cry room looking out.
Metaphorically all of us are surrounded by such one-way glass. Turned one way, the glass is a mirror, causing us to view all of life as a self-centered reflection of ourselves. But we each have the power to reverse the glass, to turn mirrors into windows. Doing so is an important step in attaining sensitivity. For these windows of sensitivity are the solution to virtually every childhood and family difficulty.
What It Is and How It Works
Both self-centeredness and extra-centeredness tend to be self-perpetuating and self-magnifying. An extra-centered person radiates the kind of awareness and interest in others that makes him or her more interesting to others. Interest and friendliness from others then increases a person's awareness of others and magnifies his or her extra-centeredness still farther. On the other hand, self-centered persons give off signals of unawareness and disinterest in others that wall them off and turn their awareness even farther inward toward themselves.
Someone who learns the skills (observing, feeling, communicating, giving) of sensitivity steadily becomes less aware of self and more aware of others and thus grows progressively more extra-centered.
As one's extra-centeredness increases, something of a personal miracle happens. A person becomes steadily more aware of the nature of others and of their needs, concerns, and situations - and more aware of the differences between himself and them. As this happens, a person sees himself more accurately while thinking about himself less. The result is a greater appreciation of personal uniqueness and less inclination to want to be just like everyone else. A person becomes less interested in following the crowd and more interested in discovering his own best self. He also becomes more naturally inclined toward service and mutually helpful involvement with other people.
As a person develops greater extra-centered sensitivity and gives more service, he or she becomes:
- More aware of others.
- Less aware of self.
- Less inclined to follow the crowd and less dependent on the approval of peers.
- More inclined to perceive and appreciate his or her own uniqueness and to develop self-confidence because of it.
Refer back to the earlier vignettes and consider which of the four aspects of sensitivity noted above are needed by each child. (Actually, all four aspects would help each child, but certain ones would go right to the center of their problem.)
1. More awareness of others. Regarding know-it-all Patsy (#4), cruel Diedra (#7), dishonest Lisa (#11), and sloppy Glen (#12), each of their symptoms is a direct outgrowth of their lack of awareness of others and their insensitivity to the needs of others.
2. Less awareness of self. In the cases of shy, self-conscious Alison (#2), moody, immature Conrad (#9), hyperactive Norman (#10), fad-conscious Jill (#13), a less intense and constant awareness of self is the prescription.
3. Less dependency on the approval of peers. What peer-pressured Kelly (#1), drug-experimenting Larry (#3), rebellious Becky (#5), and depressed Laura (#8) need is less dependency on peer approval, less inclination to follow the crowd.
4. Greater awareness of own uniqueness and self-confidence. Besides an escape from peer approval, Laura (#8) needs more self-esteem and a stronger appreciation of her own uniqueness. Shy Allison (#2), unmotivated Jeremy (#6), immature Conrad (#9), and flighty Norman (#10) could also clear up their problems with the extra self-confidence that increased sensitivity would give them.
Children are not the only ones who need to turn mirrors into windows. Some of the problems discussed in the stories resulted from a lack of sensitivity not in the children but in their parents.
Self-oriented, mirror-gazing parents may become annoyed by minor amounts of normal childhood and adolescent nonconformity because of its impact on their own image or reputation. Or they may become personally hurt or offended by the new independence and strong opinions of a teenager, instead of understanding that such breaking away is a normal and healthy part of growing up.
Parents who had acquired the qualities of extra-centeredness and sensitivity would be able to understand the need for independence being expressed in various ways by the children in these stories. They would think more of the evolving needs of their children and less of their own inconvenience or embarrassment. And as they tried to teach their children the principles of sensitivity, their own empathy would allow them to look for the unique and real characters of their children rather than trying to make them over into their own preconceptions of what they should be.
Sensitivity, then, as it is developed by parents and taught to children, becomes something of a panacea. It becomes a solution for some problems, an eliminator of others, and a preventative for still others.
But this type of empathetic sensitivity, involving the capacities of understanding, seeing, feeling, communicating, and giving, is not easy to learn or to each. It is these hard-to-learn capacities at which this program takes aim, suggesting methods, techniques, and ideas through which they can be given and gained.
How to Read and Implement This Program
The capacities, abilities, or skills that go into sensitivity are like the facets of a well-cut stone. Each supports and enhances the others and contributes to the beauty of the whole.
From here on, the program is organized into months. The idea is to take one aspect or characteristic of sensitivity and work or focus on it for an entire month. Each month contains methods, ideas, and techniques on how to develop one particular element of sensitivity and how to teach it to your children. Some of the methods outlined for each month will appeal to you and will work with your children. Others will not. Pick out the ones that ring true for you and read past the ones that don't. Use a flexible approach: Look at all the ideas, try on those you like, and keep the ones that fit and feel the best. Remember that within each month the methods are arranged with those that apply to younger children coming first.
Many of the suggestions require some individual time with children. Try to find ways to spend time together despite your busy world. Form habits of a brief talk at bedtime or first thing in the morning or right after dinner, or take a child with you in the car as you run an errand.
As you get into the nine-month program that follows, you will discover that each month suggests a "family focal point" - a method to make ongoing and habitual in your family, perhaps done on Sundays. This springs from our feeling that the first day of the week should be a day of renewal as well as rest. We also feel that Sunday is an especially appropriate time to work together on aspects of sensitivity. Therefore activities such as Sunday planning sessions, family discussions, and even a weekly "awards ceremony" are recommended for Sundays as ongoing patterns for steadily developing various facets of sensitivity.
You will also notice that some methods are used in more than one month. For example, certain writing techniques (especially journal writing and poetry), perception games, awards, and even the use of "ancestor experiences" are introduced in more than one chapter. Certain concepts and words, such as mental effort and serendipity, are also repeated. This repetition is intentional, because the methods work in more than one way and the concepts apply to more than one skill. Most importantly they are repeated because they are so relevant to the encouragement of true sensitivity that they benefit us more each time we use them.
Our challenge to you is to implement the rest of the program one month at a time, to use the methods and suggestions that you like and add your own ideas to them, and to invest nine months in the pursuit, discovery, and teaching of sensitivity.
Each month begins with a set of questions for you and your adolescent to answer individually. At the end of the month you will answer the same questions again and will be amazed at the differences.