A World of Half-Adults

It’s the worst of times; it’s the best of times. That’s how we feel
as we navigate from a paternal society, now discredited, to a
society in which impulse is given its way. People don’t bother to
grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults. The
rule is: Where repression was before, fantasy will now be; we human
beings limp along, running after our own fantasy. We can never
catch up, and so we defeat ourselves by the simplest possible
means: speed. Everywhere we go there’s a crowd, and the people all
look alike.

We begin to live a lateral life, catch glimpses out of the
corners of our eyes, keep the TV set at eye level, watch the scores
move horizontally across the screen.

We see what’s coming out the sideview mirror. It seems like
intimacy; maybe not intimacy as much as proximity; maybe not
proximity as much as sameness. Americans who are 20 years old see
others who look like them in Bosnia, Greece, China, France, Brazil,
Germany, and Russia, wearing the same jeans, listening to the same
music, speaking a universal language that computer literacy
demands. Sometimes they feel more vitally connected to siblings
elsewhere than to family members in the next room.

When we see the millions like ourselves all over the world, our
eyes meet uniformity, resemblance, likeness, rather than
distinction and differences. Hope rises immediately for the
long-desired possibility of community. And yet it would be foolish
to overlook the serious implications of this glance to the side,
this tilt of the head. ‘Mass society, with its demand for work
without responsibility, creates a gigantic army of rival siblings,’
in Alexander Mitscherlich’s words.

Commercial pressures push us backward, toward adolescence,
toward childhood. With no effective rituals of initiation, and no
real way to know when our slow progress toward adulthood has
reached its goal, young men and women in our culture go around in
circles. Those who should be adults find it difficult or impossible
to offer help to those behind. That pressure seems even more
intense than it was in the 1960s, when the cry ‘Turn on, tune in,
drop out’ was so popular. Observers describe many contemporaries as
‘children with children of their own.’

‘People look younger all the time.’ Photographs of men and women
a hundred years ago–immigrants, for example–show a certain set of
the mouth and jaws that says, ‘We’re adults. There’s nothing we can
do about it.’

By contrast, the face of Marilyn Monroe, of Kevin Costner, or of
the ordinary person we see on the street says, ‘I’m a child.
There’s nothing I can do about it.’

People watching Ken Burns’ History of Baseball remarked that
faces of fans even in the 1920s looked more mature than faces of
fans now. Looking at those old photos, one sees men and women who
knew how to have fun, but they had one foot in Necessity. Walk down
a European street these days and you will see that American faces
stand out for their youthful and naive look. Some who are 50 look
30. Part of this phenomenon is good nutrition and exercise, but
part of it is that we are losing our ability to mature.

Perhaps one-third of our society has developed these new sibling
qualities. The rest of us are walking in that direction. When we
all arrive, there may be no public schools at all, nor past
paradigms, because only people one’s own age will be worth
listening to.

We know that the paternal society had an elaborate and
internally consistent form with authoritative father reflected
upward to the strong community leader and beyond him to the father
god up among the stars, which were also arranged in hierarchical
levels, called ‘the seven heavens.’ Children imitated adults and
were often far too respectful for their own good to authorities of
all kinds. However, they learned in school the adult ways of
talking, writing, and thinking. For some, the home was safe, and
the two-parent balance gave them maximum possibility for growth;
for others, the home was a horror of beatings, humiliation, and
sexual abuse, and school was the only safe place. The teaching at
home and in school encouraged religion, memorization, ethics, and
discipline, but resolutely kept hidden the historical brutalities
of the system.

Our succeeding sibling society, in a relatively brief time, has
taught itself to be internally consistent in a fairly thorough way.
The teaching is that no one is superior to anyone else; high
culture is to be destroyed, and business leaders look sideways to
the other business leaders. The sibling society prizes a state of
half-adulthood in which repression, discipline, and the
Indo-European, Islamic, Hebraic impulse-control system are
jettisoned. The parents regress to become more like children, and
the children, through abandonment, are forced to become adults too
soon, and never quite make it. There’s an impulse to set children
adrift on their own. The old (in the form of crones, elders,
ancestors, grandmothers and grandfathers) are thrown away, and the
young (in the form of street children in South America, or latchkey
children in the suburbs of this country, or poor children in the
inner city) are thrown away.

When I first began to write about this subject, I found it hard
to understand why a society run by adolescents should show so much
disregard for children, who are, in the mass, worse off under Bill
Clinton than they were under Theodore Roosevelt or Warren Harding.
And yet, in an actual family, adolescents do not pay much attention
to the little ones or to the very old. Newt Gingrich’s Contract
with America is adolescent.

The deepening rage of the unparented is becoming a mark of the
sibling society. Of course, some children in our society feel well
parented, and there is much adequate parenting; but there is also a
new rage. A man said to me, ‘Having made it to the one-parent
family, we are now on our way toward the zero-parent family.’ The
actual wages of working-class and middle-class parents have fallen
significantly since 1972, so that often both parents work, one
parent the day shift, another at night; family meals, talks,
reading together no longer take place.

What the young need–stability, presence, attention, advice,
good psychic food, unpolluted stories–is exactly what the sibling
society won’t give them. As we look at the crumbling schools, the
failure to protect students from guns, the cutting of funds for
Head Start and breakfasts for poor children, cutting of music and
art lessons, the enormous increase in numbers of children living in
poverty, the poor prenatal care for some, we have to wonder whether
there might not be a genuine anger against children in the sibling

If we think of catching these changes in story form, ‘Jack and
the Beanstalk’ immediately comes to mind. There a fatherless boy,
Jack, living alone with his mother, climbs the stalk and finds
himself in danger of being eaten by a cruel and enormous giant.
Jack, from his hiding place in the kitchen, ‘was astonished to see
how much the giant devoured, and thought he would never have done
eating and drinking.’ That’s the way the rest of the world thinks
of the United States.

More specifically, the boy, as helpless and vulnerable as the
young ones are today, finds himself faced with an enemy much
stronger than he is. We could say that the giant represents the
current emphasis on greed, violent movies, and pornographic
advertising. The giant is television. It eats up more and more of
childhood each year. In the original story Jack learns to steal
back some of his family treasures–the gold and silver coins, the
divine hen, the golden harp–from the giant. But we have not gotten
to that part of the story in our time. We have no idea how to steal
back ‘gold’ from the giant. Rather than keeping the children
hidden, the adults in the sibling society call the giant over to
the cabinet where the children are hidden, open the door, and say,
‘Here they are!’ In the sibling society Jack gets eaten alive.

Television is the thalidomide of the 1990s. In 1995 American
children spent about one-third of their waking hours out of school
watching television. The National Assessment of Educational
Progress reported that only 5 percent of high school graduates
could make their way through college-level literature. Dr. Bernia
Callenci of New York University asked fifth graders about the time
they spend each day outside of school reading: four minutes a day
or less for 50 percent of them, two minutes a day for 30 percent,
and none at all for 10 percent. The same group of children watched
130 minutes of television each day.

A recent 1,200-subject study, supported by the National
Institute of Mental Health and guided by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
and Robert Kuby, found that more skill and concentration were
needed to eat a meal than to watch television, and the watching
left people passive, yet tense, and it left them unable to

Television provides a garbage dump of obsessive sexual material
inappropriate to the child’s age, minute descriptions of
brutalities, wars, and tortures all over the world: an avalanche of
specialized information that stuns the brain. Even lyrics of songs
come too fast for the brain to hear.

Grade school teachers report that in recent years they have had
to repeat instructions over and over, or look each child in the
face and give instructions separately, which interrupts class work.
We know that the sort of music children hear much of–characterized
by a heavy beat–is processed mainly by the right brain, which
hears the tune as a whole and doesn’t see its parts or question it.
The brain goes into an alpha state, which rules out active thinking
or learning.

American movies in the late 1950s vividly brought forward an old
theme of adolescence: the impulse not to defend common projects,
common stories, common values. James Dean and Marlon Brando played
the roles of young men who demonstrated this rebellion, and the
theme began to have an edge on it. ‘What are you rebelling
against?’ a Brando character is asked. ‘What do you have?’ is the
witty reply.

Human beings often struggle to preserve a given cultural group
through the stories it holds in common, its remembered history or
fragments of it, and certain agreed-on values and courtesies. A
gathering of novels, plays, poems, and songs–these days wrongly
called ‘the canon,’ more properly ‘the common stories’–held
middle-aged people, elders, and the very young together.

That most adolescents these days reject the common stories is no
surprise. More often than not, they reject them without having read
or heard them. When adolescence lasted only three or four years,
the youths’ refusal to support the commonly agreed on novels and
poems did not affect the long-range commitment of the group to this
reservoir; but now, as American adolecence stretches from age 15 or
so all the way to 35, those 20 years of sullen silence or active
rejection of any commonality, in literature or otherwise, can have
devastating results. One can say that colleges and universities are
precisely where the gifts of the past are meant to be studied and
absorbed, yet those very places are where the current damage to the
common reservoir is taking place. Men and women in their 20s take
teaching jobs, and if they are still adolescent in their 30s, their
hostility to the group’s literature and to the group itself becomes

We know it is essential to open the cabinet of common stories to
include literature from other cultures besides the European, and to
include much more women’s literature than the old reservoir held.
That is long overdue. But inclusion, one could say, is a job for
adults. When the adolescent gets hold of it, a deep-lying impulse
comes into play, and it says, ‘I’m taking care of people my age,
and that’s it! My needs are important, and if the group doesn’t
survive, it doesn’t deserve to.’

What is asked of adults now is that they stop going forward, to
retirement, to Costa Rica, to fortune, and turn to face the young
siblings and the adolescents–the thousands of young siblings we
see around us. Many of these siblings are remarkable and seem to
have a kind of emotional knowledge that is far older than they are.
Some have sharper intuitions into human motives and people’s
relationships with each other than any of us had at that age. Some
who expect to die early–as many do–see with a brilliant clarity
into the dramas taking place all around them.

One can imagine a field with the adolescents on one side of a
line drawn on the earth and adults on the other side looking into
their eyes. The adult in our time is asked to reach his or her hand
across the line and pull the youth into adulthood. That means of
course that the adults will have to decide what genuine adulthood
is. If the adults do not turn and walk up to this line and help
pull the adolescents over, the adolescents will stay exactly where
they are for another 20 or 30 years. If we don’t turn to face the
young ones, their detachment machines, which are louder and more
persistent than ours, will say, ‘I am not a part of this family,’
and they will kill any relationship with their parents. The parents
have to know that.

During the paternal society, there were ‘representatives’ of the
adult community: highly respected grade school and high school
teachers, strong personalities of novels and epics, admired
presidents and senators, Eleanor Roosevelts and Madame Curies,
priests untouched by scandal, older men and women in each
community, both visible and capable of renunciation, who drew young
people over the line by their very example. But envy and the habit
of ingratitude have ended all that.

The hope lies in the longing we have to be adults. If we take an
interest in younger ones by helping them find a mentor, by bringing
them along to adult activities, by giving attention to young ones
who aren’t in our family at all, then our own feeling of being
adult will be augmented, and adulthood might again appear to be a
desirable state for many young ones.

In the sibling society, as a result of the enormous power of the
leveling process, few adults remain publicly visible as models.
Because they are invisible, the very idea of the adult has fallen
into confusion. As ordinary adults, we have to ask ourselves, in a
way that people 200 years ago did not, what an adult is. I have to
ask myself what I have found out in my intermittent, poem-ridden
attempts to become an adult. Someone who has succeeded better than
I could name more qualities of the adult than I will, but I will
list a few.

I would say that an adult is a person not governed by what we
have called pre-Oedipal wishes, the demands for immediate pleasure,
comfort, and excitement. The adult quality that has been hardest to
understand for me, as a greedy person, is renunciation. Moreover,
an adult is able to organize the random emotions and events of his
or her life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story.

It is an adult perception to understand that the world belongs
primarily to the dead, and we only rent it from them for a little
while. The idea that each of us has the right to change everything
is a deep insult to them.

The true adult is the one who has been able to preserve his or
her intensities, including those intensities proper to his or her
generation and creativity, so that he or she has something with
which to meet the intensities of the adolescent. We could say that
an adult becomes an elder when he not only preserves his
intensities but adds more. In the words of the Persian poet Ansari,
an adult is a person who goes out into the world and ‘gathers
jewels of feeling for others.’

The hope lies in our longing to be adults, and the longing for
the young ones, if they knew what an honorable adulthood is, to
become adults as well. It’s as if all this has to be newly
invented, and the adults then have to imagine as well what an elder
is, what the elder’s responsibilities are, what it takes for an
adult to become a genuine elder.

I will end with a Norwegian story. A man walking through the
forest and in danger of dying from cold sees at last a house with
smoke rising from the chimney. He sees a 30-year-old man chopping
wood and says to him, ‘Pardon me, but I am a traveler who has been
walking all day. Would it be possible for me to stay overnight in
your house?’ The man says, ‘It’s all right with me, but I am not
the father of the house. You’ll have to ask my father.’ He sees a
70-year-old man standing just inside the door, and the man says,
‘Pardon me, but I am a traveler and have been walking all day.
Would it be possible to stay overnight in your house?’ The old man
says, ‘It’s all right with me, but I am not the father of this
house. You’ll have to ask my father, who is sitting at the table.’
He says to this man, who looks about a hundred years old, ‘Pardon
me, but I am a traveler who has been walking all day. Would it be
possible for me to stay overnight in your house?’ The
hundred-year-old says, ‘It’s all right with me, but I am not the
father of this house. You’ll have to ask my father.’ And he
gestures toward the fireplace. He sees a very old man sitting in a
chair near the fire. He goes up to him and says, ‘I am a traveler,
and I have been walking all day. Would it be possible for me to
stay overnight in your house?’ In a hoarse voice this old old man
says, ‘It’s all right with me, but I am not the father of the
house. You’ll have to ask my father.’ The traveler glances at the
boxed-in bed, and he sees a very, very old man who seems no more
than four feet tall lying in the bed. He raises his voice and says
to him, ‘Pardon me, I am a traveler, and I have been walking all
day. Would it be possible for me to stay overnight in your house?’
The little man in the bed says in a weak voice, ‘It’s all right
with me, but I am not the father of this house. You’ll have to ask
my father.’ Suddenly the traveler sees a cradle standing at the
foot of the bed. In it, there is a very, very little man, hardly
the size of a baby, lying curled in the cradle. The man says,
‘Pardon me, but I am a traveler. I have been walking all day. Would
it be possible for me to stay at your house tonight?’ In a voice so
faint it can hardly be heard, the man in the cradle says, ‘It’s all
right with me, but I am not the father of this house. You’ll have
to ask my father.’ As the traveler lifts his eyes, he sees an old
hunting horn hanging on the wall, made from a sheep’s horn, curved
like the new moon. He stands and walks over to it, and there he
sees a tiny old man no more than six inches long with his head on a
tiny pillow and a tiny wisp of white hair. The traveler says,
‘Pardon me, I am a traveler, and I have been walking all day. Would
it be possible for me to stay overnight in your house?’ He puts his
ear down close to the hunting horn, and the oldest man says,

We know there is a Seventh Mother of the House, who is also very
small. Perhaps she is far inside the womb, or sitting in the
innermost cell of our body, and she gives us permission to live, to
be born, to have joy. Her contribution is life. The contribution of
the Seventh Father is a house. Together they grant permission from
the universe for civilization.

From the book, The Sibling Society.
Copyright ? 1996 by Robert Bly. Reprinted by permission of
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc. All rights reserved.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.