So's Your Old Man

Snapshots of family life.
Nov. 5 1996 3:30 AM

So's Your Old Man

The problem with teen-bashing today.

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Teen-agers are notorious for taking things very personally, for blowing them way out of proportion. But they could be forgiven for feeling that they were given an unusually tough time of it during this presidential race. Curfews, V-chips, harsher penalties for juvenile crime, school uniforms, drug tests to get a driver's license: Both candidates were, like, really on their case.

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The get-tough-on-teens strategy was only picking up on the mood of the hour. When the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the largest "retail and entertainment complex" in the country, announced a curfew and chaperone policy for adolescents in September, teen-agers seemed well on their way to becoming national pariahs. Every Friday and Saturday night, from 6 p.m. on, no teen-ager under 16 may enter the mall unless accompanied by a parent or adult over 21--this at a place where kids aren't watching TV, aren't driving recklessly, aren't having sex or committing prosecutable crimes. (Sure, they sometimes fight, but "let's be clear," a police chief said, "we're talking about noncriminal conduct by a bunch of snotty-nosed kids.") What they are doing is hanging out and engaging in that national pastime, spending money on junk.

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I t is a 20th-century American habit to portray adolescents as incipient juvenile delinquents, when not idealizing them as "the future of our society." But it doesn't take a pollster to see why alarm has suddenly intensified, as it did in the late 1950s when another bulge of kids began to hit puberty. (Publicity about urban gang violence aroused a sense of panic then.) Baby boomers, a generation whose self-conscious identity was forged in the crucible of adolescence, now have adolescents of their own. That's not an easy stage to live through, even in the most orderly family or era. You have to show a big kid--one who may be bigger than you--who is still boss. And baby-boomer parents are bound to find this phase especially daunting. After all, as adolescents 25 or 35 years ago, they gave the boss a very hard time and had a pretty wild time themselves.

Shouldn't parents just relax, on the grounds that they lived to tell (or not tell) the tale? They faced far fewer restraints in their teen-age days than teens do now. You could get a nicotine fix by just opening the door of any decent student lounge in high school. Between 1970 and 1975, 29 states lowered the legal age for buying alcoholic beverages. Dress codes were dumped. Drug panic and AIDS fears didn't crimp youthful fun--and peer pressure couldn't have been stronger to go ahead and do more than experiment.

But panic over youth is a natural reflex of middle age, when the oat-sowing past comes back to haunt one. As a newly affluent "youth market," it was baby boomers who helped usher in a commercialized popular culture that has become more powerful and awful than they could have imagined. You don't have to be Bob Dole or Dan Quayle to believe that virtues such as self-restraint and discipline are getting harder to sell, and ever more socially desirable. Adolescent drift and empty hedonism can't be brushed off merely as a phase, readily outgrown. For some vulnerable teen-agers, these traits can't be outgrown. Think of all the inner-city girls who have babies, and all the inner-city boys who are dead.

What is frustrating about the current crusade to rein in teen-agers, though, is that it seems so, well, adolescent. The high-decibel concern about wayward youth is full of defensive bluster and muddle-headed ambivalence, and it is strikingly lacking in realism.

A couple of well-timed new books about teen-agers usefully criticize the distortions of today's anti-teen rhetoric, though they also succumb to distortions of their own. Mike Males, the author of The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents, tends to be overzealous when he argues that adults attack kids as a way of coping with their own problems, but he has a point. In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece surveying the grim drug and crime statistics for youth, he made a persuasive case that could be summed up as, "So's your mother." Yes, the violent crime arrest rate among adolescents has increased by 65 percent since 1980, but it has risen by 66 percent among adults between 30 and 50. Yes, reports suggest that teen-age marijuana use has risen five percentage points since 1992, but the big news of the 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse is that people over 35 have the most severe drug problems.

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Anecdotal support of Males' view is easy to find in Sydney Lewis'A Totally Alien Life-Form: Teenagers, an oral history of contemporary American adolescence. Almost all of the messed-up kids she interviews have messed-up parents. Jason Hudgins, a chronic runaway who has done every drug imaginable, been molested, and assaulted members of his family, grew up with two alcoholic parents who violently beat him and a mother who was herself battered and raped. Even the kids who report to Lewis that they're doing OK speak of parents who've been in real, often long-term trouble: with drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, crimes. In the life stories the teen-agers so eagerly share, it's hardly rare for fathers--or even mothers--to run away.

Both Lewis and Males go overboard, he by playing loose with statistics that demonize parents, she by romanticizing teen-agers. Males invokes Department of Justice findings that show "parents and caretakers inflicted a half-million serious injuries on children and youths in 1993, quadruple the number reported in 1986." Surely that reflects altered reporting standards, not a seven-year surge in sadistic adults (just as the implausible Justice Department discovery that teen-age drug use doubled in one year reflected a radical rewriting of the survey that year, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out). And where Males reduces teen-agers to mere victims of adults, Lewis is inclined to make them all struggling victors in spite of adults. Her interviews routinely end with hope running high. Even Jason Hudgins gets to soar. "I look in the mirror and I think to myself: 'Look at the person that you're coming to be.' "

It's a little hard to believe that the Jasons of the world end up "straightening out," as Lewis titles the section about the worst-off cases, just as it's hard to buy the extreme view that parents are hopeless screw-ups. What the current fixation on teen-agers really shows is that adults are just as confused and ambivalent about their rights and their responsibilities as their kids tend to be.

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