Idealism in adolescence

Concern over moral values and standards is an important and related part of adolescence. The adolescent’s increasing mental ability allows him or her to deal with moral questions in a more sophisticated way than during childhood. However, better understanding does not always lead to more moral behaviour. The latter is based on intrinsic moral standards, or conscience. A mature conscience can be instilled by parents who reason with their offspring and provide explanations for rules and standards. Similarly, the religious beliefs of young people become more abstract between the ages of 12 and 18; there is likely to be a decline in the stated importance of formal religion during this time. Although beliefs in some form of God may be rejected, values and standards instilled by previous moral or religious teaching may remain. Adolescents often retain the values of the religiously-based Ten Commandments without expressing belief in the Bible.

During late adolescence the individual is often more concerned with morality than at any other time of life. It can be a period of strong idealism, rejecting many of society’s norms. However, rather than being pure rebellion, this can be an extension of ideals expressed by parents – although not necessarily using methods parents would approve of. Many adolescent protesters and student activists have traditionally come from well-off professional families with parents whose views include great concern for the plight of others but less emphasis on self-control. Although idealism is prominent in adolescence, only a small minority of adolescents are politically active -usually those striving to find their own identity. A few adolescents, however, appear to reject wholesale society’s norms and standards, such as working for a living and having a family. Such ‘drop-outs’ – fewer in number now, perhaps, than in the 1960s and 1970s -may live in a commune or some other unconventional setting, leaving family and normal society behind. For many adolescent drop-outs, the situation is temporary and reversible; their alienation from family and society is short-lived.

The German culture-psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) described the relation between children and their parents in terms of primary and secondary bonds. A young child loves its parents for traditional reasons becomes wider. This gap is particularly apparent when an adolescent’s lifestyle or upbringing is very different from that of his parents, largely as a result of the parents’ own achievements in society. According to some views, rapid changes in society that have included the wider accessibility of drugs, the birth control pill and increased sexual permissiveness, have created problems for today’s adolescents that their parents did not have to face. These and other factors such as the large number of major scientific and technological advances have led some experts to conclude that there is a great divide between the values and attitudes of parents and adolescents. Recent nationwide surveys of 13- to 19-year-olds have, however, reduced this alarm, concluding that the distance between the two generations is not as great as much of the media would have us believe. These survey studies indicate that most adolescents generally have a close and warm relationship with their parents. The results of one study revealed that 88 per cent of adolescents interviewed respect their parents, 73 per cent enjoyed being with them, and 78 percent felt that their relationship was warm and affectionate. Only about one-third, however, said that they felt they shared common attitudes on sexual values with their parents.