A revealing read for parents of un-reasonable teen rebels

Don’t over-react when your teen doesn’t give a hoot. Things change.

Want to better understand the teen rebel under your roof? Look no further than Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1959).

Colin Smith lives in an English working class neighborhood and turns to petty crime after the death of his father. His actions are, in part, a reaction to the niggardly death benefit provided by the factory where his father toiled for decades. He’s also enraged at his mother, who’s lavishing the newfound money on her “fancy man” (whom she was seeing well before her husband’s demise). Poor Colin has no productive way to channel his ire, let alone understand it.

For Colin, the world is divided into two categories: (1) “in-laws” (law-abiding, property-owning citizens and bosses); and (2) “out-laws” (people like himself who detest the system because it shortchanges them).

Arrested for the night time burglary of a bakery cash box, Colin is sent to a “borstal,” the English equivalent of a juvenile home. The school’s governor (akin to a headmaster) discovers that his new arrival has a phenomenal gift for long-distance running. Seeing a chance to boost the bortsal’s reputation (as well as his own), the governor offers Smith an easy sentence if he’ll win the Blue Ribbon Prize Cup against a school of upper-class students.

Colin agrees. He’s allowed to leave the high-security borstal for training runs, and his early-morning jogs through the English countryside give him rare pleasure. The reader hopes that the cynical, crafty Smith has finally found something that gives his life meaning. Indeed, the governor informs him that the lives of modern-day athletes are high on pay and prestige.

The staring pistol is fired! Smith takes an early lead and puts plenty of distance between himself and the upper-crust star runner. We soon realize the race is going to be a piece of cake! Nearing the finish, Smith appears all alone. The cup is certain!

Ten feet before breaking the tape, however, Colin stops cold in his tracks. Refusing to cross the finish line, he allows the other runners to pass him. The governor looks on in humiliation and rage.

The question my high school students ask is, Is Smith a rebel with or without a cause?

Would winning the prize have marked him as a sell-out to the establishment?Or, by rejecting the advantages the governor has offered — a way out of a hardscrabble life — has he stayed true to himself?

Sillitoe’s tale resonates with teens because they themselves are often unsure of why they’re breaking rules or bucking the system. They only know they have a strong urge to do it. To them, Smith is a hero; to parents, he’s an anti-hero.

As a parent of three children, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” helped me accept the mysterious nature of teen rebellion. Sometimes, with my daughter and my two sons, their motivation to renounce, resist, and revolt was simply a clumsy attempt to differentiate themselves from their parents. I decided that if the consequences of their rebellion weren’t life threatening, it was better to ride it out than to make them explain, for example, “Why aren’t you trying harder in math class?” or “Why don’t you want to play varsity soccer anymore?” or “Why can’t you finish your college applications this weekend?”

I can assure you: Demanding that your teen provide logical reasons for his or her rebellion puts you in the position of the evil “in-law.” Showing forbearance and patience while she acts like an “outlaw” will help your relationship in the long run. Teens aren’t dumb. They soon figure out that playing the rebel for rebellion’s sake is a dead end.

ONE FINAL NOTE: If reading fiction isn’t your cup of tea, try the movie version (1962) of the book. It is excellent!

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