Letting teens confront their own fears

Geraldo Rivera did more than his fair share of fear-mongering, convincing parents that heavy metal would harm their kids. Photo by Flickr user John Brian Silverio.

Being a kid or a teenager today is, in some ways, very different than it was when I was growing up. Many fewer kids walk to school (or ride the bus) on their own. Eating, television, computers — every aspect of their lives are closely monitored. Instead of simply teaching kids not to give out personal information, we write software that does it for them. We read something in the paper or see it on TV and get scared. We stop trusting the world to keep our kids safe, and in turn we stop trusting our ability to teach our kids to navigate an unsafe world — and we stop trusting our kids’ ability to learn to navigate it independently.

But kids still pick up on the fact that it’s a scary world. STDs, gunfights, terrorism, war, dictatorships, massive fires and floods — you don’t arrive at adolescence without at least a vague awareness that the world is a pretty messed-up place. But if you’re shut off from the music and media that can help you process those impressions, then what happens? There’s little left to do but internalize it.

Fortunately, many teens find their way toward catharsis — even if it’s forbidden. Justin Norton wrote this piece for Invisible Oranges about heavy metal music and its role in helping him — and other teens — confront their fears.

The family across the street had a reputation for fighting and arguments that ended in screaming and door-slamming. While my parents were at work, the imposing live-in boyfriend slept through the day like Nosferatu (vicious hangovers were the likely culprit). A giant record store standee from Iron Maiden’s Killers dwarfed his window. The victim’s arms reached up at Eddie, but it was obviously too late. I looked up at Eddie every day, scared.

Everyone my parents wanted me to avoid seemed to have a tangential relationship with metal. The tough who flailed his nunchucks on the front lawn – he would have been perfect in a Mike Judge film – played Judas Priest on his boombox. Troublemakers had metal stickers on car bumpers. The music, while taboo, seemed a readily accessible way to enter a world that oozed strength and defiance.

The fear and power associated with metal became alluring. I was 13. Junior high was more brutal than elementary school, and I looked for ways to set myself apart. My bowl haircut damned me to comparisons to another nerd who had since left the school. I wanted to be something and someone else. I needed to change.

At the same time Justin was discovering heavy metal, television personalities like Geraldo Rivera and political influencers like Tipper Gore were telling parents to be afraid of this music. They said it caused children to become victims of Satanic plots, or caused them to become violent, even sexually violent. (We’ve since seen the same tactic applied to certain video games.) Teen metalheads were portrayed as the victims of a monstrous record industry who only wanted to prey on their curiosity and innocence, selling them toxic messages packaged as entertainment.

If you listen to metalheads, however, you discover that they were — and are — not unwitting victims. They know what they’re getting into with this music. They think a lot about the music and lyrics, and how those messages reflect against their own life experiences. They know when something in the music scares them. Sometimes they put it down, other times they investigate that fear until they conquer it. You can see that in Justin’s piece, which speaks for the experience of many teens who discovered metal in the 1980s, or who are discovering it now.

On the other hand, parents bought into the scary messages they heard:

Geraldo Rivera’s “Satanic panic” special was the worst. “This is not a Halloween fable, this a real life horror story”, Geraldo said before claiming teenagers could be “driven to commit terrible deeds”. The report immediately cut to video clips of Venom and Mötley Crüe, likely boosting record sales. Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” played in the background. Geraldo mentioned that most kids who listen to the music won’t end up killers, but the implication was clear: heavy metal will turn your kid into the equivalent of Jim Thompson’s sociopathic narrator Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me.

Watched decades later, the piece is laughable and frightening in a real way. These kinds of stories can ruin lives. Megadeth is called a Satanic band, despite never writing a Satanic song and the eventual conversion of their frontman to Christianity.

It’s hard to say for sure why so many parents fail to see through this kind of anti-metal propaganda, particularly when their kids — the very kids they assume are blank, undiscriminating slates — are the ones thinking hard about this music, its messages, and its relevance to their lives. It’s so important to trust kids, to trust their instincts when it comes to media. Sure, talk to them about it and make sure they’re actually listening to those instincts. But then let them explore. Take the training wheels off. Let them ride off on their own, fall down, pick themselves up again, and ride on.

Did your parents ever “protect” you from anything they thought was an unsafe influence — something that really enriched your life? Share your stories in the comments.


4 responses to “Letting teens confront their own fears

  1. D&D: early 80’s, stories of freaks (http://ptgptb.org/0006/egbert.html) and a healthy fear of Satan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Screwtape_Letters) had their way w/ my parents. It didn’t help that some local kid held his high school hostage w/ a handgun and a +4, invisible, magic shield of invulnerability. If my parents had gone to GenCon at the Dumfey Hotel, they would have tried harder (and had reason).

  2. Egbert article from Wikipedia. Haven’t read. I’m sure my parents read the Geraldo version at the time.

  3. Heavy metal was the music choice of my youth and remains so today. Metallica, Nightwish, Pantera, Whiteskull, AC/DC and many others help me through the rough spots.

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