Television shows for American teens are ripe with sentimental moments. Over the years I’ve watched plenty of them, and part of the pleasure is being able to discuss the storylines and characters with my teenage patients. Onscreen fictions often provide us with an entry point to conversations that are personal, about relationships, fears, vulnerability and self-esteem.
This year a favorite of mine has been “Glee,” a show that is nothing if not sentimental. It takes sometime sappy coming-of-age themes and pairs them with musical numbers. The New Directions glee club is the ultimate fantasy choir, for most high school students can only dream of singing so pitch-perfectly and pulling off such difficult dance numbers. Add to that the fact that New Directions is multicultural and equal opportunity. Everybody’s in.
The show’s season finale, which aired last week, left me thinking about the nature of our children’s need to belong somewhere — and how, as parents or mentors, we can be responsive to such need. The finale’s storyline can be summed up fairly easily: New Directions is in danger of losing its funding and being disbanded. If its members can win the regional Midwest championships, however, they can go on singing together for another year. So leading up to the high-stakes competition, the glee clubbers are worried, emotionally on edge, and ready to do anything to keep their group together. The tension comes from their — and our — uncertainty as to whether everything will work out.
Just when it seems as if New Directions has no future, its members gather with their director Mr. Schuester for a heavy, heartfelt talk. One student says, “In the beginning of this year I was just another football player.” Another says, “I was afraid to dance outside my room.” Another: “I wasn’t honest about who I was.” And finally Finn, who is probably the club’s most popular guy, says to everyone in the room, but especially to Mr. Schuester: “I didn’t have a father, someone I could look up to, model myself after, someone who could show me what it really meant to be a man.”
It’s easier to parody the show’s lessons than take them to heart. But “Glee,” for all its sentimentality, is a case study in what teenagers want. It shines a light on their enormous desire for acceptance and validation, and mentors who can guide them, invest in their talents and help them leverage weaknesses to fulfill their potential. Finn and the other members of New Directions testify to Mr. Schuester that belonging to glee club and having his mentorship is revelatory, transformative.
So the idea of losing the glee club? It seems a tragedy to these teens — and for many reasons, not the least of which is that glee club has become the organizing principle in their lives. When they contemplate what the loss of the club might mean, they’re forced to acknowledge much of what they’ve gained. This is a very, very useful exercise. For anyone.
Which is to say that the teens who go into glee club are not the same ones who are faced with the possibility of leaving it. They’ve been changed, irrevocably. And what they’ve acquired, among other things, is a deeper understanding of their values, what’s important to them, and how they’d like to live.
This is the wonderful thing about watching shows like “Glee” with our teenagers. We can use these fictions as a springboard for important conversations about real-life issues. When characters work through difficult challenges, we can ask: What has changed in them? What might that mean? And how does their experience relate to ours? In talking to our teens this way, we not only foster in them greater self-awareness, but we also teach them social values, empathy and personal integrity.
Many parents are surprised to hear research has consistently demonstrated that teens want to spend more quality time with their parents. They want to share meals, take walks, play games and watch television. This is the least we can do as parents. Besides, it’s always a good idea to know what our teens are watching.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D. , is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and founding president of the Child Mind Institute.