In the American society as in most societies, the child is under the authority of his parents by informal custom and by formal law. The cultural mores are reinforced by no lesser sanctions than the religious norms of the Judeo-Christian heritage, threatening whoever disobeys parental dictates with damnation. The problem of this arrangement, which has significant implications for the process of adolescence, lies in the fact that the individual, conditioned to one kind of behavior in childhood, must shift to the opposite as an adult. This, obviously, raises the question of the time and manner of transition from one to the other -- a question that remains largely unanswered in the American society.
As would be a natural inclination in probably every culture, Americans tend to accept as universal the custom of viewing the adult-child, or specifically the parent-child, relationship in the light of a dominancesubmission arrangement. The ethnocentrism of this assumption is illustrated by anthropological data pointing out that other cultures have employed different patterns of intergenerational relations. As a typical example, a Crow Indian father was reported to express his pride over his son's independent and, from our cultural point of view, almost insolent, behavior in spite of the fact that his own wishes were frustrated by the son's intractability. 28 The child-training practices among the Mohave Indians are also strikingly nonauthoritarian, and an anthropologist has reported the following episode:
The child's mother was white and protested to its father (a Mohave Indian) that he must take action when the child disobeyed and struck him. "But why?" the father said, "he is little. He cannot possibly injure me." He did not know of any dichotomy according to which an adult expects obedience and a child must accord it. If his child had been docile he would simply have judged that it would become a docile adult -- an eventuality of which he would not have approved.
It appears, thus, that a number of cultures are strikingly free of patterns of authoritarianism and observe a symmetrical relationship that precludes the "freezing" of the child-adult relationship into a dominance-f submission relationship. In some of the so-called primitive cultures, the very terminology of address between father and son reflects this reciprocal relationship. The two individuals essentially are equals whose terms of relationship never change through their lifetime, similar to the reciprocal privileges and obligations which in our society exist only between age mates. When the son becomes a parent, he will establish the same reciprocal relationship with his child. Usually, in societies with this type of equalitarian father-son relationship, the actual paternal figure with disciplining function is a close male relative, such as the mother's brother among the Trobriand Islanders. The father-son relationship is, therefore, a continuous unchanging relationship which is enjoyed throughout life. For the purpose of this discussion, the significance of such kinship conventions lies in the fact that the child is allowed to practice from infancy on the same form of behavior upon which he may rely as an adult. Childrearing practices of this nature make it unnecessary for behavior to be polarized into first submission and then dominance.
In conclusion, the American culture contains a number of important child-adult dichotomies which exert considerable strain on both the interpersonal process and the personality system. The main impact of this situation is felt by the young individual at the time when he finds himself between the two relatively well-defined roles, since the cultural blueprint lacks clear directives as to the exact time of termination of one role and the assumption of the next. The American adolescent is thrown in between the cultural dichotomies and is not clear in which situations and to what degree the nonresponsibility of the child and the complete responsibility of the adult apply to him. Likewise, he experiences feelings of frustration or guilt concerning his sexual needs and activities since the culture has not yet accorded him adult status, which presumably coincides with sexual maturity. Finally, he faces the serious problem of readjustment to a new position in the authority pattern of the society. During the time of transition, he experiences ambiguity in respect to freedom of activities, responsibilities, and allocation of power.