An interview with Patricia Hersch: A tribe apart

An interview with Patricia Hersch: A tribe apart

Lawrence, Rick

Irrelevance is the kiss of death for your ministry– so what will it take to build real relationships with your teenagers? We talk to the best-selling author of A Tribe Apart, a stunning expedition into the secret lives of teenagers.

In our opinion, the best book on the forces shaping today’s American adolescents is A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence1, written over a six-year period by social researcher and writer Patricia Hersch2 and published in 1999. In an effort to uncover the “secret lives of teenagers,” Hersch spent three years following around junior and senior higher-at home, school, work, and play. The book is a blistering and heart-wrenching account of the damage kids have endured at tie hands of a culture that has often abandoned them.

group executive editor Rick Lawrence talked with Hersch at her home in Reston, Virginia.

group: What led to you picking adolescents as a focus for your research and writing?

Patricia Hersch: When I got pregnant with our first child, my husband and I moved back to Washington, D.C., from San Francisco. Several months after Michael was born, my sister was killed in a car crash. I’m one of three girls. And that was a life-changing event for me. I was experiencing a double trauma-I lost a sister, but I also felt what it was for my parents to lose a child. That made me realize that there was no way we wanted somebody else to raise our child.

This was not a moral decision. The fact is, for all the responsibility involved in raising kids, what work is more satisfying than being around kids that are a part of you? I was very fortunate being a writer. I had the kind of career that I could meld around my family. But it wasn’t easy. I basically got up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to write and then stayed up until 11 or 11:30 at night to be with my husband. I sacrificed sleep all those years in order to try to have both worlds. I also understood that to be trying to work at full-tilt when the kids came home also was of no great benefit to anybody because I would just be in a bad mood. So I wrote around the kids.

When my youngest son went to school, my oldest son was an adolescent. At that point I began to realize that the world was quite different than the one my parents lived in. Our [Boomer] generation of adults have spent their entire lives trying to adjust to a world of changing rules. Mostly the life of this country has been marked by generations marching through time together. But our generation has been very much out of sync, not only with each other, but in a world where the rules between men and women have been totally rewritten, and we haven’t quite figured out how to sort that out yet.

Look at divorce and remarriage. The latest figures3 say that there are more intact families-by a few percentage points. Meanwhile, the not-intact families are even more confused than ever before. I’ve talked to kids who get absolutely baffled trying to explain who’s who in their family. I just talked to a former editor of mine who’s been divorced twice. He had a child by his second [wife] and had to change the care form at nursery school for than child-he had to change 11 names! That’s the kind of complexity I’m talking about.

Well, when Michael was an adolescent I decided it was time for me to start writing about the kinds of things that I really cared about. I had one of those “aha” moments. I said “Here I am sitting in Reston, in this family town, with no [par ents] here all day long. I have this great background in studying cultures. Why don’t I do the looking and thinking and the observation for all of the people like me who aren’t here?” So when Michael became an adolescent, I started writing about adolescents because he was my first and parenting a teenager wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

I also became aware that there seemed to be some cracks in the fabric of society that more kids were falling through. And I didn’t know if it was because I was just looking around for the first time or if, in fact, things weren’t going so well. And that’s when I thought of this notion: Could adolescents be symptom-bearers for society’s rule-changing uncertainty? All I knew was that maybe the ground needed to be firmer for adolescents. And because it wasn’t, more adolescents were having problems.

It began to bother me that kids were alone so much and that adults were gone so much and seemed distracted– they just had so many things on their minds because there was nothing you could really take for granted. It felt as if families were absorbing much of the reverberations of the rapid social changes of the ’60s and ’70s, with little support.

group: We’re used to hearing this message from conservative politicians, but we’re not used to hearing it from somebody who married a Peace Corps volunteer and worked for Head Start. That’s what makes what you’ve discovered so unusual. In your book, I sensed that passion-your filters came through. But I also sensed a sort of indignation….

Hersch: Well, I am indignant. I’m just so frustrated. I just don’t get why it’s so hard to get people to hear these truths. There’s nothing inconsistent about being liberal and being pro-family. I simply see what is real.

group: In a previous conversation, you told me that after you wrote A Tribe Apart and you were on the road speaking about it-you expected people would have a kind of heart-searching revelation: “Oh my gosh-look what we’ve done!” And instead what you got was: “These kids are problems. What are we going to do about them?” You said that made you angry and that’s fueling what you’re doing now. Can you talk about that?

Hersch: I think that the thing that surprises me is the incredible resistance to embracing adolescents. People seem to have a basic inability to see adolescents for the children that they are. Adolescence is a stage of childhood. Young people, technically, are children until they’re 18. There’s a sign that I bet a lot of your readers have in their office: “Be patient, God isn’t done with me yet.” That’s true for adolescents. Sure there were times I wanted to throttle my own kids. I’m no saint. But still, I’m an adult, and I can see past a lot of the posturing that kids do.

group: That makes me think of something I think is a strong theme in your book. All through it you talk about this gap that kids have in their lives, this disconnection between themselves and adults in their lives. They fill that gap by turning to peers, but what they don’t get in turning to those peers is wisdom.

Hersch: One of my favorite examples of that is in the book. One of the girls in the book was 14 years old and she was trying to decide whether or not to have sex with her boyfriend. This was a theme that kept running through her life. I happened to come over to her house one day and she and her 14-year-old friend were having their millionth conversation about sex. I didn’t get involved-I just let the conversation roll for a while and had the tape recorder on. I reproduced the conversation in the book. And, of course, what it reveals is that two 14-year-olds discussing sex can only offer the wisdom of two 14-year-olds.

It’s one thing to say, well duh, of course they couldn’t be any smarter than 14-year-olds. It’s quite something else when you see it in print, knowing the ramifications of that lack of wisdom. This girl eventually, of course, does have sex with this boy. And I put this whole thing in the book. I read that chapter to a roomful of men and women at a book reading in Oregon, and they were all weeping.

group: That’s the kind of reaction you hope for. What I sense in you about all this, and it resonates in me as well, is that for something good and redemptive to happen in this arena there would need to be a bare-faced accounting of adults in our culture about the impact of their choices on their children.

Hersch: I think it’s more a willingness for adults and children to be able to speak honestly and for adults to be willing to admit their own vulnerability. Number one, most parents really love their children and want the best for them. Number two, most adults are looking for meaning in their lives, but there’s been a lack of centeredness in society. There’s been a lot of throwing around of empty verbiage. This is what I don’t like about the conservative point of view. I think it’s a lot of empty, hypocritical verbiage that has nothing to do with anything.

I’ve been doing a lot of work in churches lately. And somebody told me they had this very powerful discussion at their church last week because one of the kids said something about not liking to have to go to church because she’s not sure that she believes. Then one of the parents said, “Well, you know, I’m not sure that I know what I believe either.” And the other kids said, Are you kidding? I thought that you adults always were sure about what you believed.” And it just opened up this incredible discussion between the kids and the parents that will make all of them more comfortable in church.

group: Our passion at group is to serve Christian youth workers. They’ve got a difficult job in many ways– they’re helping to nurture teenagers spiritually while trying to somehow partner with parents to do the job. And some of these parents have totally checked out of the process– the church is like a fast-food restaurant where they drop their kids off for their spiritual nurture. So if you were sitting in a room with six or seven of these people, what could you say to them to help them get these kids what they need?

Hersch: First, I’d tell them to create for the kids an inviting place where they can be open and comfortable to talk honestly about the issues that matter in their lives-a place where the kids feel they matter. I think that’s the beginning– to feel part of a community.

Youth workers can work with the kids to help them define their essential spiritually and bring it to the religion. There is no question that kids have an essential spirituality. And it’s ready to be tapped. People misread my book sometimes and jump to conclusions about the bad things kids are doing. They say, “Oh, I bet those kids have no religion.” And, of course, that’s absolutely wrong. Most of the kids in the book have a religious affiliation. But that religion for most of the kids doesn’t reach them.

Kids tell me that they go to church or synagogue and they want it to work for them. But they can’t be honest about what they feel in those places because they have a lot of things that they’re wrangling with that are considered outside of the purview of what they can discuss. Youth workers have to be willing to discuss everything, I think. And even if the leaders of the church wouldn’t allow it, I think the youth worker should.

group: That’s a message we’ve been preaching in group for a long time.4

Hersch: Yes, I’ve noticed.

group: But it’s a hard message because many youth leaders will say, “That’s fine, but I could get heat or even fired for that, and I have a family to feed.”

Hersch: Yeah, well, don’t tell the church leaders or parents. I just really think that it’s necessary and if the church doesn’t want to lose kids, then it needs to be done. I thinkyou can learn a lot about what moves kids religiously through the things that speak to them spiritually through other mediums… for example, music and art and poetry– things outside of the realm of the liturgy.

group: What about youth workers’ relationship with these kids’ parents?

Hersch: I think you’re better off relating to the parents through things that the kids and the parents can share– through shared memories or positive events, not through “Let’s talk about drugs and alcohol,”5 Let the kids come up with the ideas and lead. I think parents can be more receptive when the youth take the lead.

group: Can you summarize what you’re working on now, and why?

Hersch: The working title of my new book is A Passion of Our Own: The Adolescent Quest for Connection. I think the answer to everything is in community. Adolescents will not be “a tribe apart” when they are embraced by a community. It’s not up to a single family to fix this. We basically need to surround adolescents and families with communities that care, with institutions that work, with a balance of home and work, and community that is humane. Because life is out of whack. What we’re trying to do in this country right now just doesn’t work.

And that gets me back to adolescents as symptom-bearers. The reason that everybody’s fascinated with adolescents, even as they remain distant and hostile to them, is because deep inside we all remember the passion. We all remember how adolescence was a time of possibilities. And yet we kill the possibilities. Right? So that at midlife, we have this burgeoning self-help field of books with names such as Is Work All There Is? and Discover Your Bliss Life. We want to get back the passion of adolescence that we killed.

When I talk to kids all across the country they say all adolescents have a passion. Unfortunately, we only really honor the passions that we see in school. But kids have amazing passions. They all have an interest in something that really lights their fire. It may be cooking, it may be listening to music, or photography, or fossiling. And usually the passions that do the best are those that are nourished by an institution or by an adult. They have to have a connection to something br they just aren’t going to stay alive.

The other thing I know is that all adolescents have a quest for connection. That was really one of the messages that came out loud and clear in my first book-they all wanted more adult attention. My new book is going to combine these ideas. I’m doing my research here in my area. I’m going to Arlington, Virginia, which has a community effort to really reach out to its youth in an international way. I’m going to take some of these kids, uncover their passions, and follow them and see what community means in their lives. I will follow them where they lead me: to their homes, churches, schools, neighborhood haunts, and so on, to understand how their lives are impacted by this living concept of “community.”

I’m also doing some exciting consulting work with the youth and families of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, South Carolina. I’m also working with a corporation that runs Job Corps facilities. I’m not content to simply write-my first passion. I’m driven to act, and have chosen to get involved in projects that are focused on communication between generations, social change in communities, and real transformation for youth in some meaningful way. A Tribe Apart has led me on a journey that continues. Like an adolescent, I’m still becoming.

Editor’s note: Next year, after Patricia Hersch has spent a year helping out with a couple of Christian youth groups, we’ll re-connect with her to learn what she’s learned about the impact of youth group on teenagers. Meanwhile, you can hear her speak and participate in a Q-and-A forum with her at our national convention, January 31-February 3, in Atlanta. For registration information, call 1-800-704-6561.

how my kids learned that sin breaks God’s heart by linda moors spencer

The Bible study was over and kids were gathered in the kitchen for one last brownie. I walked into the room, and there between the stove and the refrigerator, two girls were doing what in my day was called a Bump and Grind, to the obvious delight of four males. To be precise, they were spelling out words, one letter at a time, using that part of their anatomies so well designed to sit upon. “Hello? Excuse me?”

Never shy, I motioned to the two girls to follow me into the living room. “Uh, we thought that might be a sin,” one said too quickly. “Yeah,” the other chimed in, “we weren’t quite sure.”

These are girls who never miss a study. They pay attention and take notes. They quote Scripture and pray every day and tell anyone who will listen that Jesus is their best friend. One girl just returned from a short-term foreign missions trip. The other volunteers each summer in a Christian camp for disabled kids. Two of the boys are off to Panama for five weeks to work in an urban mission.

If we see these kids only in church, we thank God and breathe joint sighs of relief. But if we sit and talk with them on Wednesday nights, we hear them say, “What if this whole Christianity thing is a hoax-something a lot of nice people made up?”

We hear them talk about a local teenage dance club they frequent where other girls wear G-strings to dance and drugs get dropped in soft drink cans routinely. “It’s so dangerous,” one girl says proudly.

They, talk about their favorite soap opera-Passions. I tune in one day to see what it is that captivates them. Within the first five minutes I hear a woman praying “to all the souls of all the damned to curse forever and destroy,” and fire leaps from the corner of the room and tortured faces writhe and cry in torment.

These kids live in a world of sinly influence that is so strong that they have come to keep two separate accounting sheets. #1: God and I. #2: Sin and I.

We’ve talked and talked. We’ve spent whole evenings on holiness. We’ve gone round and round with the phrases, “Sin is trying to be in charge of our own lives. Sin separates us from God.” They call out supporting verses, but there’s a split, a great divide, between what they know and what they do.

Desperate circumstances call for desperate measures. I do something I thought I would never do. We gather for our weekly study time. I lower my voice ’til it’s almost whisper.

“I have to tell you something,” I begin. “I wasn’t going to, but I realize I must. Most of you have been coming here for more than a year, but over the past four months things have begun happening. Small things at first. The day after group I’d find a spoon stuffed down between the sofa cushions, then the next week three or four. Then I started to miss coins from the tray out in the entry way. Then two $10 bills disappeared from the drawer in the desk there. One night after group I went into the bathroom and someone had written, in ink, a very bad word on the wall.”

I feel tears coming to my eyes. I let them come.

“Remember, Stephen, the dish you nearly knocked off the table week before last, the one I told you was a family heirloom, the one I said was so very valuable? That dish is gone. I missed it after group that night. It’s nowhere in the house. Then last week, the morning after group, I found a pornography magazine underneath the Bible on the table.”

If any person in the room is still breathing, you couldn’t tell it by the sound. The faces are astonished, stricken. They look aghast, guilty and angry.

“I’ve tried to be good to you. I make you dinner every week, I prepare the Bible study, make dessert. I pray for each and every one of you. I’ve given and taught. I’ve even loved you, taking you into my home, into my heart. How do you react to this?”

Silly question. Their pained faces forecast the words they’ll say:

“It’s so awful.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Who would do that?”

“I love coming here. It’s my one home-cooked meal all week.”

“I look forward to this group from Thursday ’til Wednesday.”

“I feel like crying. It makes me so mad.”

“You must feel betrayed.”

I lower my voice once more, and speak these words:

“None of this happened. I made the whole thing up. Not a word of it is true. You have done none of this to me, but you do it to God every single time you sin. I give you some hot noodles and a couple hours of my time, and you feel pained for me. God gave his very life for you. Think how he looks upon your sin.”

Two or three kids tear up. One boy says, “Wow.” “Oh,” another sighs out loud. “Please don’t play games,” I continue, “Sin is sin. Do it or not. It’s your choice, a God-given choice, but don’t pretend. Don’t ever fool yourself. God is not okay with sin. Sin is not okay with God. Be honest enough to say this is sin and I am choosing it. Don’t try to trick yourself, not in the face of the God who loved you enough to give his Son to die.”

1 Here’s what Kirkus Reviews says about A Tribe Apart: “On any given day across America, an editor somewhere is offering a rookie reporter this

basic advice: Don’t tell me, show me. Hersch, a former contributing editor to Psychology Today, illustrates the breathtaking impact this kind of reporting can have through her remarkable fly-on-the-wall chronicle of teenage life today. A mother of three adolescents, Hersch spent three years following eight teens of middle- and high-school age in her Virginia suburb. She went to their schools, took them out to eat, and above all listened as they gradually trusted her enough to share their worries, their fears, their stories. The result is an astonishingly candid, poignant, and at times disturbing portrait of life for today’s average teens. Interspersed with the tales are a few statistics from various reports. For the most part, however, Hersch lets the teens make her point-that America has become a society in which far too many adults have reneged on their responsibilities to children. ‘What kids need from adults is not just rides, pizza, chaperones, and discipline; Hersch writes. ‘They need the telling of stories, the close ongoing contact so that they can learn and be accepted. If nobody is there to talk to, it is difficult to get the lessons of your own life so that you are adequately prepared to do the next thing! As a sad consequence, far too many teens have become-as the title suggests–a tribe apart at the precise moment they most need adult leadership t& help them make sense of the chaos they inhabit as they struggle to define themselves and the world they live in. A poignant look into a critical period in a young life, and a powerful exhortation to adults to start paying attention.”

2 Patricia Hersch will be the featured youth ministry speaker at our national ministry convention next January (for more information about

the convention, call 1-800-704-6561). Hersch is a former contributing editor to Psychology Today, and has written for The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsday, The Chicago Sun-Times, and other publications. She was editor of the Women in Development newsletter for the United Nations, and conducted an ethnographic study of homeless adolescents in San Francisco and New York for the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Georgetown University Child Development Center. She and her husband Jay have three sons.

3 If trust were an animal, it’d be on teenagers! endangered species list. A paltry one in five (20%) young people think people are generally trustworthy,

according to a study by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC)– that’s way down from 36% in 1973. Tom Smith, the NORC’s director, says kids “think people are less trustworthy, and human nature less good overall.” Smith points to an obvious catalyst: “One of the things that is different for young people now from those in 1973 is how many of them come from broken homes.” In Judith Wallerstein’s best-selling book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, she lays open again the crushing impact of divorce on kids’ souls by following up on kids she first studied three decades ago. “The whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience,” she writes. “Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise.” The problem, she says, is that kids of divorce have no “internal template” of a successful relationship. The impact of their parents’ split grows stronger over time, contrary to conventional wisdom. And in a quick survey of the driving forces in contemporary culture, you’d find many artists and musicians see their parents’ break-up as ground zero for what they have to say. Everclear frontman Art Alexakis and three-quarters of the new It-band Papa Roach are two prominent examples.

4 For a long look at the problem of teenagers who don’t see the church as a “rear place, check out the cover article for the May/June 2001 issue of

group-.”The Cool Church.” You’ll not only got a diagnosis, you’ll get practical strategies for connecting with kids in real ways.

5 Need great family friendly ideas that will help your kids and parents

develop their relationship? Check out Family-Friendly Ideas Your Church Can Do (Group Publishing)-it has 50 great activities that include family service projects, fun events, learning activities, and worship services. Or get a copy of its sequel-Fun Ideas for the Family-Friendly Church (Group Publishing). It has another 50 fun, family-building ideas and activities plus service project ideas to do outside of church.

Linda Moore Spencer is a free-lance writer and volunteer youth minister who runs a weekly spiritual growth group for 17 teenagers in her home. She lives in Massachusetts.

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. Sep/Oct 2001

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