Friday, November 19, 2010

The Importance of Identity: Ministering to Generation Z

I have recently been re-reading some books by Dr. Mary Pipher; she is an important author who has brought a unique perspective to adolescent development and issues. Her work combines her training in both the fields of psychology and anthropology and her focus is how American culture affects the mental health of individuals and families. Her most famous work is Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a book describing the contemporary challenges facing teenage girls. If you have a daughter, it is a must read.

One aspect that Pipher discusses at length is that more and more adolescents (girls in particular) are falling prey to depression, eating disorders, parental conflict, addictions, and suicidal tendencies. Pipher contends that there are some basic causes for this development. First, because we live in a culture that puts such a tremendous emphasis on appearance, adolescents are faced with the danger of what Pipher coined as "lookism.”  Lookism is evaluating others solely on the basis of one dimension--appearance. When society bases value on the way people look, dress, behave and present themselves, the implications will be that young people overtime will never be able to live up to those imposed standards of image and beauty. Essentially, Pipher says they will learn to grow up without a personal identity. Pipher asserts that before blaming adolescents or parents, we must first look to see where the culture misleads and puts pressure on adolescents and children to be thin, attractive, unintelligent, sexual, and popular. As she states, “Teenage girls live in a junk culture filled with inducements to consume, to be sexual, to be 'lookiest' and self-absorbed. They are pelted with media much worse than anything my generation experienced as girls.” As the book suggests, our teens today are being corralled in this herd mentality and losing the unique essence in how God made them to be.

Secondly, Pipher maintains that a danger for many adolescents at this point in their lives is that they move from the stability of their families into the broader cultural climate. They essentially let their friends and the media raise them in which they, and not their parents, model for them what they perceive to be right and good. By distancing themselves from their parents, sometimes these young adults sabotage the one place where they can find the aspects they yearn for—a sense of acceptance and constancy.  To remedy these harms, Pipher believes that those who work with adolescents must have a role in strengthening families by helping them relate to the culture at large. Because of the advent of dual-income families as well as other causes, families are broken and fragmented, and therefore someone who works with adolescents needs to focus on building into these relationships. 

Another solution is to focus on the adolescents themselves. Helping both young men and women focus on interests and hobbies, on volunteer work and their learning, rather than how they look or where they are in the chain of command at school, is a start in establishing a unique identity for themselves. By assuring adolescents that it's okay to not be popular and that in fact, it's actually better to not strive for this, can promote a sense of self that is healthy and distinct. She maintains, “One way to help is to praise girls for their talents, accomplishments and character, not their appearance. Another way to help is to be non-lookist oneself. Another way is to limit exposure to media and to process carefully all media the family consumes.”

Being the father of two teens myself, the world my sons are growing up in is vastly different than the one I did. With this, Pipher contends that this generation is being sold a false bill of goods; that they are being told it is okay to be sexualized, that being popular is what is most important and that image is everything. But this is what can be so difficult--when we are ministering to others, we are often doing it out of our own paradigm or experiences. We need to know our children and the culture they live in if we are ever to counter what is happening in that culture. How do we do that? Mainly, getting out of our own comfort zones and really engaging with the culture of our teens. One of the simpliest ways is just grabbing your son or daughter's iPod and listening to the music on it. By looking at what these musicians stand for and by listening to the lyrics that they are expounding, you can glean the message that is being spoken and propagated. By doing so, a parent can engage with their son or daughter and discuss with them the more subtle issues their teen is being presented, whether that is at school, at the movie theater or in your living room in front of the television set. By keeping these communication lines open, relationships such as these perhaps can then prompt this generation to reestablish their own unique perspective and regain control of who they should become--the unique individuals that God has made and called them to be.

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