Do you have a Jonas Brothers fan in your family? Or maybe a fanatic?
Some parents have found their children’s devotion to the latest pop stars a little disconcerting. One father suggested that his daughter’s enthusiasm might merit a discussion of idolatry.
There’s a reason that they are called “idols.” Going back to Frank Sinatra and the bobby soxers before that to fan favorites like Oscar Wilde (whose fans were parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in “Patience”), the individuals holding the position have been highly transitory but the idea of the teen idol has been enduring.
Certain themes are consistent. They may be a little edgy — sometimes a mildly transgressive element of their appearance like the Beatles’ long hair or a pierced Backstreet Boy. But overall, they tend to be reassuringly safe, slender, non-threatening, often almost pre-pubescent. Names like “Bobby,” “Ricky,” “Donny” suggest that they are almost children. Groups like the Jonas Brothers, ‘N Synch, and New Kids on the Block are popular because they give fans a chance to join in affection for the group but keep a sense of individual connection to “the cute one” or “the smart one” or “the funny one.”
It is very important for parents to recognize that these idols are a “transition object” for tweens and young teens that is an essential step in their emotional development. In between the time when their primary focus is the home and family and the time when they will leave to begin their lives as adults, teen idols give them a chance for a dress rehearsal of some of the emotions they will feel. That does not mean that these feelings are not love or that they are not completely real. It does mean that there is an element of fantasy. Think of it as love with training wheels.
No matter how obsessively they may study the lives of these young men, they do not really know them. What they know is the carefully manufactured creation of corporate marketers. But that is just right for this stage of development because it enables them to project their own feelings onto them. It is exactly this fantasy that helps kids begin the journey to emotional maturity, the same way that playing dress-up was a way for them to begin to make sense of the adult world just a short time ago. Indeed, the love of teen idols is a form of dress-up, experimenting with some of the feelings of adulthood without the messiness of actual relationships.
Just as important, these feelings provide a bond with friends at this crucial moment when those connections are just assuming a much more significant role. Fanship gives tweens something to talk about, a private language, training wheels for what will become in their adult years the ability to talk to each other about the things that matter in a way that will strengthen their trust and respect.
Parents should respect these feelings and use them as a starting point for some important conversations. Ask them which brother they like best and why. This may be a chance to share some of your own experiences (you know that Bay City Rollers poster is still tucked away somewhere) but the focus of the conversation should be on the fan. They should reassure the child that these feelings of love are very real and an essential step toward building their ability for love and appreciation of family, romance, and even the divine.