Danger Signs: Families Headed for Trouble

by James B. Stenson

Kids in trouble

Clearly, something is seriously wrong in today's society. For some reasons, large numbers of parents around us are failing to form character in their children.

We look around in our workplaces and neighborhoods and see young people in their 20's who are immature and irresolute, soft and irresponsible, uneasy about themselves and their futures. They may be technically skilled in some field and hold down decently paying jobs, but their personal lives and marriages are a wreck. In their conduct and attitudes, these young people seem permanently stuck in adolescence, that dangerous mixture of adult powers and childlike irresponsibility. Some are crippled or destroyed by substance abuse. But even if they remain drug-free (what a strange term!), many see their professional work as mere ego gratification or (an adolescent attitude) just drudgery endured for the sake of "spending money." Great numbers of them live as heartless narcissists, caring little or nothing about their parents or their children, if they choose to have any. They retain within themselves, sometimes tragically, the flawed attitudes and habits of childhood. For some reason, they never quite grew up.

It's clear, certainly, that many young people like this were wounded by a childhood spent in dysfunctional families: drug and alcohol dependency, physical and sexual abuse, hopeless poverty.

But what is striking today, and more to our point here, is the huge percentage of seriously troubled youths from normal families. It seems that in our society the distinction between normal and dysfunctional has blurred. Or, to put it another way, some sort of subtle dysfunction is corroding large numbers of typical, middle-class homes.

We see this the results of this all around us. Children today grow up in busy families where father and mother live together, life is comfortable and physically secure, everyone enjoys the bountiful pleasures of a prosperous suburban lifestyle. Yet later on in adolescence and young adulthood, their lives are ravaged by alcohol and other drugs, grievous and ongoing marital discord, childish irresponsibility, lack of ideals or even goals in life, professional aimlessness and instability, reckless pleasure pursuit, trouble with the law, shapeless self-doubt and self-loathing, even murder and suicide.

Consider this disturbing fact: The suicide rate among young people in the United States is directly proportional to family income. It is kids from our wealthy and middle-income suburbs, not our poorest inner-city neighborhoods, who most often take their own lives.

What is going wrong in our supposedly normal middle-class families today that could account for these problems? What is happening at home--or not happening--such that children grow older without growing up, that they arrive at adulthood without enough judgment and will and conscience to set their lives straight?

Let's approach the problem this way:

Normal American families seem to fall into two broad categories. One we could call the self-absorbed consumerist family; the second is the character-forming sporting adventure family.

In the self-absorbed family, parents do not set out, on purpose, to form character in their children. They treat family life like a picnic, a passive pleasure-centered experience, and their kids often meet with later trouble.

In the sporting adventure family, by contrast, parents do set out to form character, and they work at this for years. As a result, their family life becomes an ideal-driven adventure, a great sport, and their kids largely turn out well. Why is this?

Let's look at the self-absorbed family first. In the following chapters [of Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership], we'll contrast it with life in the sporting adventure family--where things, it seems, are done right, where the parents direct themselves and their children with a moral compass, where character is imparted for life.

Consumerist parents are self-absorbed and unconcerned with growth in character strengths (i.e., virtues), whether for themselves or their children. So they make family life mostly a steady series of pleasant diversions. Life for parents and kids centers around leisurely enjoyment, fun-filled entertainment--a seamless array of sports, abundant food and drink, t.v. shows, computer games, movies, music, parties, shopping.

Boredom, it seems, is the consumerist family's enemy, to be shunned at all costs. So children in families like this are kept relentlessly busy, constantly amused. The parents' rules in the house, if any, aim mainly at damage control: keeping squabbles and hassles to a minimum, keeping the kids out of trouble, keeping the kids from wrecking the place.

Consequently, in consumerist homes children are steadily apprenticed through childhood as consumers, not producers. Every day, they avidly practice living as self-absorbed enjoyers and shoppers.

Not surprisingly, youngsters from such picnic-like homes see life as mostly play, a lifetime entitlement to happy amusement. The life of grown-up work (as they dimly understand it) is solely for piling up "spending money"--we work in order to spend, we produce in order to consume. Who can blame them for this life-outlook? After all, this is all they experience in family life; and, as we've seen, children learn character mostly from personal example and repeated experience.

Sooner or later, of course, any picnic dwindles down into boredom; people get up and amble on to more alluring diversions.

And the same happens in the picnic-like consumerist family. Starting in their middle-school years, an appalling number of self-absorbed kids grow bored with juvenile amusements and avidly turn to novel kinds of powerfully pleasurable sensations: alcohol, drugs, the erotic and increasingly violent rock culture, vandalism, reckless driving, recreational sex. Kids raised to see life as play will treat the automobile as a toy, and so will be prone to kill or cripple. Because their life has centered on things, they're disposed to put things ahead of people--to treat people as objects, mere tools and toys for their use or amusement. Related to this, they see sex as a toy, a high-powered form of recreation, and so fall headlong into promiscuity, cohabitational "relationships," unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and disastrous marriages. This is no exaggeration. It happens literally every day.

The consumerist family: a composite picture

It's worth our while here to look more closely at the consumerist family's typical traits. What follows below is a composite picture of those unfortunate normal homes where children are poised for later trouble. That is, if you looked back to the childhood of many troubled adolescents and young adults, as described above, what traits of their family lives would you see over and over again with striking regularity?

Even with plenty of variations in detail, this is the pattern of consumerist families. Let's look at the parents first, then the children.

Parents Headed for Trouble

Children Headed for Trouble

As explained already, this picture of a family headed for trouble is just a composite sketch, not a comprehensive description. Certainly there are gradations among families; some families will show some of these characteristics, but not all of them. Nonetheless, over and over again, the features listed here show up in the personal histories of troubled adolescents and young adults who have come--we must stress this again--from apparently normal homes.

[So, what can parents do to turn things around and give health to their family life? See Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership by James B. Stenson, available through or]

Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this material for private use.
It is taken from the Website of James B. Stenson, educational consultant: