Religion and SpiritualitySkepticism

Sex Ed with James Dobson: In Which We will Most Certainly Drive the Metaphorical Car of Our Life Off a Cliff Without Reading this Book

We have finally reached the part of Preparing for Adolescence where the good Dr. Dobson is ready to talk to us rather than to our parents, and he’s going to start by convincing us that our lives were perfect but are about to become full of doom.  At first it’s not so bad:

But why make such a big deal about about adolescence? Why should we go to the effort to learn about this period of life?  Well, very honestly, growing up will not be the easiest thing you’ll ever do. It was not easy for those of us who are now adults, and you won’t find it simple either.

I would like this better were Dobson not so inclined to assert universal things.  It’s not unreasonable to suppose adolescence is unpleasant for many people, but of all 7 billion of us, surely someone somewhere found growing up simple.  Also, I seem to recall Margaret Mead making the argument in Coming of Age in Samoa that this idea of adolescence being a time of great struggle is a very U.S. cultural thing and not a universal, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read that, so I could be making it up.

Speaking of U.S. cultural things, did you know that we all had an idyllic childhood where we got to do nothing but play?

You’ve been in the very warm, secure world of childhood. All your needs have been met by your parents: they were there to put a Band-Aid on your big toe when you stubbed it on a rock, and they kissed away your tears when things didn’t go right. You played most of the time, and life was pretty rosy and comfortable.

I had a white and reasonably affluent upbringing, and even with that privilege, I just can’t even with this.   What about a childhood that’s not affluent, or a childhood with parents who beat their children and sometimes their dachshunds (like Dobson recommends) rather than kissing away tears?   Most kids go to school, the stress of which does not magically start only as a teenager.  Even for reasonably privileged people, who I am assuming are Dobson’s audience, I’m not sure we can claim they spend most of their time playing.  School +  lessons/sports + chores can really fill a day.  Sports, even children’s, can lead to lots of non easily band-aidable injuries.  But okay, childhood was amazingly perfect, and trouble will only start in adolescence.

Let’s begin by playing a mental game for a moment. Imagine yourself driving alone down the highway in a small car. You’ve just come through a little town by the name of Puberty, but now you’re back on the main highway, and over on the right you see a sign that says “Adultsville, eight years straight ahead.” You’re clipping along the highway at about 55 miles an hour, heading for this great new city that you’ve heard so much about.

But as you round a curve, you suddenly see a man waving a red flag and holding up a warning sign. He motions for you to stop as quickly as possible, so you jam on the brakes and skid to a halt just in front of the flagman. He comes over to the window of your car and says “Friend, I have some very important information for you. A bridge has collapsed about one mile down the road, leaving a huge drop-off into a dark canyon.  If you’re not careful,  you’ll drive your car off the edge of the road and tumble down that canyon, and, of course, if you do that you’ll never get to Adultsville.”

Don’t worry, Dobson will always explain his parables.

Now let me explain the meaning of this story. The automobile you’re driving represents your own life.  It has your name on the door. In fact, it has all of your characteristics, and you’re driving this sports car down the highway of life towards adulthood. And you see, am that flagman beside the road. I’m waving the banner back and forth, and holding up a warning sign, and motioning for you to stop.  I want to warn you about a problem that lies down the road–a “canyon” that most teenagers fall into on the road to adulthood.  This is not a problem that affects just a few teenagers; nearly everybody has to deal with it one way or another during the adolescent years.

After I’ve motioned you to stop, I lean in the window of your car and tell you that many other young people have wrecked their lives by plunging down this dark gorge, but I can show you how to avoid it–by going around the danger.

Now that we are sufficiently frightened of the path to adulthood, and possibly also creeped out by Dobson leaning in the window of the metaphorical cars of our lives and telling us about people wrecking their lives, we get to learn what this metaphorical canyon is.

What is it that causes so much hurt and pain to young people between twelve and twenty years of age?  It’s a feeling of hopelessness that we call “inferiority.” It’s that awful awareness that nobody likes you, that you’re not as good as other people, that you’re a failure, a loser, a personal disaster; that you’re ugly, or unintelligent, or don’t have as much ability as someone else. It’s that depressing feeling of worthlessness.

What a shame that most teenagers decide they are without much human worth when they’re between thirteen and fifteen years of age!  It may have happened to some of you even earlier, but in most cases the problem is at its worst during the junior high years.

This sounds suspiciously like clinical depression, if so, he’s wrong since that more commonly develops in the mid-twenties.  I am not a psychologist, so maybe there’s something else going on, or maybe the data we currently have that places depression as mostly a thing developing in the twenties was not available at the time. Dobson, however, never cites sources for his claims so it’s hard to figure out if he’s talking about some medical condition or mapping the Christian dark night of the soul/slough of despond tropes into the ideas of adolescence being terrible and stormy that was and is very popular in the U.S.  What I am noticing is that it’s the teenagers who “decide” that they have little human worth, and thus far, there is no mention of any outside influences that could be contributing.  Bullying, for example.

Fortunately, in the absence of sources, Dobson has anecdotes!  He tells us about Ronny, a high school boy who tells Dobson he feels like nobody cares about him, Charlotte, a high school girl who tried to kill herself.  They don’t actually get to tell us their problems themselves, rather Dobson informs us that “Charlotte and Ronny are among many thousands of students who are overwhelmed by their own worthlessness, and sometimes this even takes away their desire to live.”

Have you ever had that big lump in your throat that comes when you feel that nobody cares–that nobody likes you–that maybe they even hate you? Have you ever wished that you could crawl out of your skin and get into another person’s body? Do you ever feel like a complete dummy when you’re in a group?  Would you ever like to descend into a hole and disappear?  If you’ve ever had those kinds of feelings, I hope you’ll finish reading this book, because it’s for you!  I wish Ronny and Charlotte could have read what I’m writing when they expressed such feelings. I wish they could have recognized their true worth as human beings.  They had, you see, driven into the canyon of inferiority and were groping in the darkness below.

Read Dobson’s book or you’ll become a pathetic and possibly invented anecdote about how teenagers decide they have no human worth.

This is getting long, so we’ll wait until next post to discover why exactly we are all going to fall into the canyon of inferiority (spoiler: our options for feeling worthless include and are limited to three things.)  In the meantime, be terrified of the road to adulthood, because that will help.

Featured image credit: Will_Cyclist via flickr

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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