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Family Circle (October 1957)

"What Teen-Agers Expect from Parents"

By James MacArthur as told to Jack Long

To the 19-year-old actor son of actress Helen Hayes come letters from troubled youngsters all over the country. What he says about adolescent dilemmas and their solutions -- based on his life with his own parents -- has punch and point.

I guess every generation has trouble figuring out the next one, but today there seems to be more misunderstanding than ever.

Since I’ve been in one movie, have just finished making another, and have had my name in the papers, teen-agers all over the country are writing me letters about the problems they have with parents. They pick me partly because I played the role of a mixed-up teen-ager in The Young Stranger. But the main reason is that a lot of youngsters feel their families don’t really try to understand them. So they tell their troubles to somebody else.

Some of the letters sound desperate. “When my dad got elected to Congress three years ago,” writes a 16-year-old boy, “the nation may have gained a statesman, but I lost a father. He doesn’t have time for me. It’s just lucky I have good judgment.”

A 15-year-old Texas girl tells me that she learned from her best friend all she knows about how to act with boys. “I realize that what she’s told me should have come from my parents,” she writes.

“Parents don’t know we’re human!” says one boy ... “You have to have someone to idealize and confide in,” writes a cute blonde who sends me her picture ... “My folks won’t listen to me, and they make fun of my friends.” another girl complains.

Most of these teen-agers don’t expect me to solve their problems, and I’m no one to give advice, even though I try to answer the letters. They just feel a need to communicate with someone. Maybe the following letter sums up the difficulty as well as any of them. It’s from a 17-year-old high-school boy in Illinois:

“Dear Jim: My folks tell me I’m not old enough to drive to Colorado next summer. Then they turn around and tell me I ought to get a vacation job -- now that I’m grown up. Boy, is that confusing! Am I grown-up or aren’t I? When I point out the inconsistency, nobody pays any attention.”

That’s the complaint I get most often from both boys and girls: Parents tell them they’re grown-up one minute and treat them like children the next. “When they want you to do something, you’re grown-up,” a college buddy of mine said recently. “When you want to do something, you’re still a child.”

I know that’s true from my own experience, even though I was lucky in my choice of parents. Take the car problem in our family. Last year, when I was a senior at Solebury School, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Mom and Pop told me that if I were graduated with satisfactory marks, they would give me a sports car. That really bucked me up, and I managed to get through all right and pass my college-board exams.

Shortly before I was graduated, my father died. He was the writer Charles MacArthur; you’ve probably seen some of his plays and movies. I got the car I had been promised, but it wasn’t until recently that Mom told me she and Pop had had a big discussion before buying it. They knew I could handle a car, because I’d chauffeured them around a lot. But Mom worried about my driving by myself. Somebody advised her to have a governor put on the car so it couldn’t go more than 40 miles an hour. “What do you think of that idea?” she asked my father.

“Look --” Pop said, “you can’t give a young man a chariot and then turn it into a baby carriage.”

That was the end of the discussion. It proved that Pop had confidence in me and didn’t think I was still a child. Knowing that has made me drive sensibly.

A classmate of mine actually was given a car with a governor. He went to a garage and had it taken off and a supercharger installed. He drives like a maniac and thinks he’s putting over a good one on his folks. I feel it’s partly their fault, for they were treating him like an infant and an adult at the same time. I think any teen-ager who has had good driving instruction and has passed his license test should be trusted by his parents to have some judgment. If he hasn’t, it must be due largely to their failure.

Here’s a letter I received from a girl who’s a high-school junior in a New York suburb: “What really makes me mad is my folks’ constantly laying down the law and then, when you ask why you must not do a certain thing, replying ‘Because I say so.’ That really is the end!”

A lot of teen-agers, feeling that adults’ passing out thou-shalt-nots without discussing the reasons behind the rules is strictly for six-year-olds, expect parents and teachers to give them credit for a little sense. In your teens you know there still have to be family regulations, but often it’s like telling a baby not to put beans up his nose. He’d never think of doing it if he hadn’t been told not to.

When I was in boarding school, many of us got the idea that rules were made to be broken. Anything we were ordered not to do immediately became attractive. We weren’t allowed to smoke before we were 16, so naturally I did smoke -- and got put on bounds and given extra work. Drinking, of course, was forbidden, so a few boys tried that. I don’t think they would have cared about it, except that drinking was about the worst thing you could do and meant expulsion. The severity of the punishment didn’t matter. Some teen agers just have to rebel, and I notice this is especially true of those who come from strict homes. Parents ought to understand that being dictatorial with teen-agers is sure to cause trouble.

Here again I was lucky. Naturally my mother knew I’d been caught sneaking smokes at school. When I came home, she said, “If you want to smoke, do it in front of me. Don’t go and hide.” After that I didn’t care so much whether I smoked.

Pop used a different approach. “I’ve smoked since I was 21, and I wish I’d never started,” he said. “You ought to consider what some authorities claim may be the possible effect on your health 20 years from now, not just the fun you can have smoking today.”

Then he let me make my own decision. And so I smoke. But I don’t do it just because my parents forbade smoking. I thank my father for not just saying, “Don’t do as I do -- do as I say” -- and letting it go at that. He and Mom were always willing to explain things -- and to listen.

That’s one thing teen-agers feel they have a right to ask -- that their parents pay attention to what they think and feel. A lot of parents are like the father in The Young Stranger -- always too busy to talk to a son except when the boy is in trouble.

My mother Helen Hayes MacArthur is one of this country’s greatest actresses. (A lot of people smarter than I am agree about that.)

Sometimes at our home in Nyack, New York, she locks herself up all day studying a role. Once, she deserted a houseful of guests and hid in the garage with the script of Victoria Regina. When she’s busy, she’ll answer the phone in a different voice, pretend she’s a maid, and say, “Mrs. MacArthur isn’t here.” But she’s never too busy to talk to me if there’s something on my mind.

Our conferences usually take place with me sitting on the edge of Mom’s bed, either in the morning when she’s having breakfast or at night over a snack. We’re quiet and relaxed then, and nobody else is around -- which is important. We talk over serious problems, such as we did a while ago when I was discouraged about my work as a freshman at Harvard University. My grades weren’t too good, and I wondered if I should quit and go to work. I had movie offers, and I was also busy part of the time editing a teen-age magazine. “Why do I really want a diploma?” I asked Mom. “You can’t do anything with one except frame it.”

Mom didn’t give me a pep talk or make fun of my doubts. “I didn’t go to college,” she said, “and I don’t know whether it helps anyone become an actor -- if that’s what you decide to be. But I’ve always believed in trying to win your battles in life. Perhaps you should win this one and finish your first year. Then you can decide whether you want to go back.”

I won the battle and got through. I worked on my second movie -- Walt Disney’s The Light in the Forest -- last summer, and it’s back to college for me this autumn. Perhaps if I wind up as an actor, I’ll be a better one for knowing history and economics and literature and a little more about the world we live in. If Mom hadn’t listened to my troubles and given me good advice, I might have made the wrong decision.

I’m surprised by the number of letters I get from youngsters who say “Don’t quit college” or “An education is something no one can take away from you.” I wonder where people get the idea that teen-agers aren’t concerned about getting educated.

A 16-year-old girl wrote to me recently from Maryland, saying, “Parents don’t realize that adolescence is not a happy time of life. There’s so much we have to learn in such a short time: All the decisions -- where to go to college, what kind of career to aim for, jobs, dating, and maybe getting engaged -- that have to be made in order to plan your whole life. Yet my folks don’t take any of this seriously. They say ‘Do this’ and ‘Don’t do that,’ but they’re talking at me, never discussing things with me.”

From Illinois a 17-year-old boy wrote me that he was going to quit school and run away from home because, he said, “My folks won’t trust me to do anything on my own. They’re trying to protect me from life.”

I’m no psychologist, but from knowing myself and other teen-agers, I’ve learned that the more we’re treated as children, the more we’ll carry on a war for independence. I was pretty obstreperous myself, and my folks and I had disagreements over the hours I had to get home, my friends and their conduct, schoolwork, clothes, fresh talk, manners, and all the other problems of growing up. But we managed to work these things out because I never felt there was anything I couldn’t go to my parents and talk about. I believe that’s the confidence a teen-ager needs most of all.

One thing we didn’t have any trouble over was money. I was given a regular allowance, and we agreed on the things I had to pay for -- which is the way most teen-agers want it. Usually I came out ahead at the end of the week because I just naturally pinch pennies. I didn’t learn that from my mother. She’s been known to start for 5th Avenue to buy herself a new winter coat and to come home with a French painting. She adds up her yearly accounts and finds she spent a terrific amount on her garden, and nobody can figure out where the money went. I’m thankful, though, that my parents never gave me the idea that money was something to throw around for show.

When I began to go out at night, my folks were smart about regulating my hours. They didn’t make hard and fast rules and say, “Home at 10 Fridays. Home at 11 Saturdays.” Instead Mom or Pop would ask me where I was going and when the dance or movie would be over. “When will you be home?” one of them would ask, and I’d explain the plans. We arranged the schedule, by common agreement, and I never felt they were dictating to me. I believe that’s the way teen-agers like to be treated.

Of course, I realize it’s not always parents who are wrong.

Youngsters, too, can be pretty impossible. One afternoon when I was 13, I asked Mom if I could go downtown in Nyack, and she said no, that she wanted me to do something at home. I went upstairs where Pop was writing and said casually, “I’m going downtown to meet some of the fellows. Okay?”

“Sure,” he said. “Be back in time for dinner.”

When I came home, they were both waiting for me. “Jim,” Pop said, “did it ever occur to you that it’s wrong to try to make fools out of your father and mother?” He explained that when either of my parents told me to do something, he or she was speaking for both of them. He was real cool about it, but Mom blew her stack the way she does. I never tried a trick like that again. Sometimes I’d ask Mom to try to get something out of Pop for me, but she’d always say, “We’ll talk it over together.” There was never any further misunderstanding among us.

Many teen-agers tell me they resent the way the folks treat their friends. A lot of youngsters used to hang around the street corners in Nyack because they couldn’t have a good time at home. At our house on the other hand, the crowd was always welcome. If I wanted a bunch in, I could have the basement recreation room, or if Mom and Pop wanted to watch television down there, I got the living room. One of them always stayed somewhere in the house when I had friends in, but the folks were never nosy -- just careful.

One night all the lights were turned out in the living room, and Mom opened the door and stuck her head in. “Is anyone here?” she asked, and some wise guy said, “Nobody but us mice.” Mom flipped the lights on and said they’d stay on. I didn’t blame her.

When I was about 13, I had one pal who was fresh to Mom. Pop told me not to invite the boy home any more. “If I can’t bring him here, I’ll see him outside,” I said. “I ought to be allowed to pick my friends; I don’t mix with yours.”

Pop thought that over. “All right,” he said, “see him outside. But anyone who comes here will have to show some respect for your parents.”

Strangely enough, I soon dropped that particular friend. If Pop had put his foot down and forbidden me to see him, I’d probably have kept on doing so just to show how big I was. That’s the way teen-agers are.

Many youngsters tell me that their parents won’t let them go away during vacations and take summer jobs. I’m no authority, but from my own experience I’d say that was a mistake. Mom first sent me to a summer work camp in Colorado when I was 13. Before that she often took me with her and my late sister Mary when they worked in summer stock. When I was 16, I got a vacation job at a summer theatre on Cape Cod. I made $35 a week for working about 11 hours a day, seven days a week. I ran the parking lot, painted stage sets, and was assistant electrician. By the time I had paid for my room and board, my net profit was zero.

But I don’t think you can count the value of a summer job in dollars and cents. In my own case I learned something about the theatre, and the experience may have helped me choose a career. Summer work can help anybody develop judgment and figure out what he wants to do.

Believe it or not, youngsters write me that their parents sometimes discourage them from taking vacation jobs and tell them they ought to enjoy life while they can. I wonder if these parents just don’t want their offspring to grow up.

During my final year at Solebury our anthropology teacher offered to take a bunch of us on a summer safari to Africa after graduation. He had lived in Africa, and he made it sound exciting. A lot of fellows wanted to go and asked their parents’ permission. Mine said yes, but most of the others said no because they didn’t think teen-agers could take care of themselves in Africa, even under the leadership of an expert.

I was proud that my folks had confidence in me, and I was sorry the safari never got organized. Instead I went to Hollywood to act in The Young Stranger. It was the best-paying summer job I ever had.

Many teen-agers write me to ask what I think about rock ‘n’ roll. They tell me their parents consider the craze a symptom of juvenile delinquency that should be stamped out. Personally I like rock ‘n’ roll. I was discussing it recently with one of my professors at Harvard. He told me that 20 years ago, when Benny Goodman’s band brought to Cambridge something called swing, the teen-agers of that day almost stomped a dance hall into the Charles River. It must be some of those same teen-agers, 20 years later, who are telling their own youngsters that rock ‘n’ roll is degenerate.

Another thing that teen-agers and parents argue about is the question of going steady. When I was in boarding school, there was a rule against it -- which is an example of the way adults think any problem can be solved by making rules. I was president of the senior class, and I meant to abide by the school regulations. But I also had a girl I’d been going with for two years. The solution was fairly simple: Joyce and I didn’t go steady after it was forbidden to do so; we just didn’t go out with anyone else.

I got a letter on this subject the other day. “Why can’t parents be consistent?” a girl in Georgia asked. “My folks opposed my older brother’s engagement because he’d known the girl only a month. Now, I’ve been going steady with a boy for two years, and they oppose that. I say that our getting to know each other well is the best insurance for marriage. If we can’t get along, we’ll find out now and not after we’re married. But the folks don’t seem to understand.”

I don’t know the answer, but in my case I think Mom used the right tactics. As soon as she knew I was interested in Joyce, she invited her to our house. The first summer I went to Hollywood, I asked Mom if I could drive my car from Nyack, and she said yes. Them Mom decided that she, too, would go to California, and she invited Joyce to go along in her car. They got to be good friends on that trip across the country. Mom says they know each other as well as people of different generations can.

A girl in Kansas wrote me: “I want someone to explain that we aren’t all juvenile delinquents, that we have problems and need understanding -- but most of all that we are people!”

I’ve never had that problem with my own parents. My folks always assumed I was an individual with a life of my own to lead. They made the road to maturity -- which I’m still traveling at 19 -- as short and straight as possible. If I get off the track, I can never blame Mom and Pop. They gave me the most important thing a teen-ager needs to prepare himself for life and marriage: A happy home to grow up in.

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

James MacArthur

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