The Difficulty of Belonging

by Kenneth L. Stewart, Ph.D.  

My 94 year old neighbor took my wife and out for

lunch last week. She wanted to show us a token

of her gratitude for a few things we did for her

over the past couple of years. We should all be blest

with neighbors like her. She is very bright, and still

very sharp from a lifetime of working with people

and helping others. She directed a large human

service agency for 30 years in a time when women

were supposed to stay home and defer to men.

The idea of her deferring to anyone seems ludicrous.

During lunch she shared several observations about families, having worked with them, raised them, and lived in one for 94 years. One of the things she said that I thought was particularly interesting was that kids today "don't belong." Or maybe a better way to put it would be that there are a lot of problems with belonging when it comes to adolescents. If we have created an atmosphere at home where we feel welcome, accepted and cared for, then belong to our family is not a problem. But in many of the families I see, there is a problem of misplaced belonging.

Parents want their kids to do well in school, stay out of trouble, have the right kind of friends, be respectful to them, occasionally be happy, and finally graduate and leave home. The problem comes in trying to get all this to happen when the parent's agenda is not the same as the kid's. In the course of trying to get all this to happen for their kids, parents lose their patience and thoughtfulness and get in their kids face, scream at them, helping to create a gap already getting wider at the kid gets older. And as adolescents turn off from their parents and naturally turn more toward their friends, they people to belong to that don't make them accountable or uncomfortable. The angrier that people become at home with each other, the easier it is to write them off and find someone else outside the family to connect with - to belong to. The greater the alienation at home, the more the kid feels as if he doesn't belong, the greater the attraction to belong to some other group outside the demanding confines of family fighting. Its easier to reject screaming parents when you have a powerful group of peers pulling at you from the other side, inviting you to join them in hanging out, breaking a few rules or a few laws, and otherwise just enjoying their mutual rejection of anyone who tells them what to do. Some of these groups where alternatives to belonging are available to the teenager fed up with domestic demands and rejections even have names like the Crips or the Bloods or the Vice Lords.

These are powerful alternative families who provide a sense of belonging to kids who feel they don't fit in anywhere else. At least they can belong somewhere.

The Joys and Agony of Parenting