The Kids Are All Right

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"It's not racism. They just don't like kids." The words came from 13-year-old Paul, a streetwise Latino boy from Manhattan, but the insight was echoed by other young adolescents, black, white, and Latino. "Sometimes grown-ups will cross the street when they see us coming," another youth observed.

"Youth" is the operative word, because Paul and the 13 others we shadowed for nine months for a television documentary series range in age from 11 to 14. That is, they're not hulking 18-year-olds. In fact, at 5 feet, 6 inches, Paul towered over several of the boys, and yet adults kept their distance.

Teacher Alec Mahre supports his students. "I've heard policemen refer to the kids as 'animals,' just because they were laughing and talking loudly on the street," noted Mr. Mahre, a science teacher at a Manhattan middle school.

What these kids are seeing and feeling, it seems to me, is the widespread anti-youth virus that's polluting our society. Consider the media--particularly television, magazines, and talk radio. The past 22 months have seen a spate of sensational coverage of youth crime, coverage that suggests that the nation is in the grip of a teenage crime wave of unprecedented proportions. Virtually every publication on the magazine food chain has put adolescents on its cover: Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, People, The National Enquirer, and on down the ladder. While the isolated crimes chronicled are reprehensible, with last week's horrific events at a high school in Littleton, Colo., one grim reminder, the overall effect of such prolonged coverage has been to suggest that young people in America are often anti-social, depraved, and dangerous.

A greater danger is our demand for instant solutions, our search for the mythical "silver bullet" that will make all our problems disappear.

Today, it seems to me, adult reactions to adolescents are negative and counterproductive. Or, as a foundation president puts it, adult attitudes can be "toxic for teens." Even those adults who care most about young people are adding to the problem, because, by emphasizing the uniqueness of adolescence, those sympathetic observers inadvertently contribute to the view that adolescent problems are caused by adolescents themselves.

A greater danger is our demand for instant solutions, our search for the mythical "silver bullet" that will make all our problems disappear. So we find a state legislature debating the death penalty for children, for example, as if that would solve complex social problems. Just as it is illogical and wrong to assume that adolescents are the problem, so too is it wrong-headed to think that the solution is to punish, restrict, curtail, or refuse to support them.

Our own reporting for PBS provides a powerful antidote to the anti-youth virus. For nearly a year, we shadowed 14 young adolescents, ages 11 to 14, as they made their way around New York City. These young adolescents are typical kids, the 99 percent who never make the nightly news. Their lives contradict the myths about adolescents that seem to dominate adult thinking, and adult rule-making.

Reporter Laura Sessions Stepp of The Washington Post argues persuasively that society accepts, without much examination or reflection, 10 popular myths about adolescence:

  • The "generation gap" is inevitable. Adolescents yearn to be independent of adults, particularly their parents. And we must let go of them, so they can establish autonomy. Here are the facts: Only a minority of teenagers engage in wholesale rebellion against their parents. What most young people seek is not separation from their parents but opportunities to renegotiate their relationship as time passes. Most teenagers describe their parents as supportive and caring, and they add that they know other adults they can talk to.

Adolescents need connections to adults in order to refrain from dangerous habits, do well in school, and find their place in the world. These connections are primarily defined by love, respect, and high expectations.

  • Adolescents are dangerous. Again, here are the facts: Adults are responsible for three-fourths of any increases in violent crime. Four out of five juveniles murdered are likely to have been killed by adults, including family members. The rise in juvenile arrests for violent crimes exactly parallels the increase in gun-related crime.
  • Adolescents don't need regular health care. Generally, they're pretty healthy. The facts: Smoking, drug use, suicides, and homicides are up among teens; somatic health complaints are on the rise, as are incidents of stress-related diseases, such as asthma. In short, young people today are adopting health patterns that will have serious repercussions in later life: Smoking, overeating, and not getting enough exercise are good examples.

Moreover, adolescents experience major distress in about the same proportion as adults do, that is, one in five.

  • Adolescents are lazy and irresponsible. The facts: Young people have an enormous desire to be useful and needed. They often seek tasks that challenge them and can make a difference. We need to create and expand opportunities that tap into their energy and idealism.
  • Adolescence starts with the teenage years. The facts: It begins with puberty, which can begin as early as age 8 or 9; moreover, the hormonal changes associated with puberty can start a couple of years before physical changes.
  • Adolescents are merely "raging hormones," walking around thinking about sex every waking hour of the day. The facts: While the secretion of sex hormones affects every tissue of the body, including the brain, the effect is not as potent as most people believe and does not make adolescents inherently difficult. Adult expectations and behavior toward young people affects kids as much as, if not more than, biology.
  • Adolescents are vain and egotistical; all they care about is how they look. The facts: Adolescence is a time of physical, emotional, and cognitive growth unmatched in the life cycle, with the possible exception of infancy. What appears to be vanity is often an attempt to understand one's rapid development. In adolescence, for the first time, young people are intellectually able to contrast themselves with others, which can result in a deep sense of insecurity and loneliness.
  • Brains shut down during adolescence. They are incapable of learning anything serious. The facts: Adolescents develop the ability to think abstractly, reflectively, and critically. Young adolescents, age 10 to 15, enjoy a curiosity about the world unmatched in the life cycle. Older youths develop the capacity for moral thought.
  • Adolescents take risks because they think they are invulnerable. The facts: The proportion of kids who think "it can't happen to me" is no higher than the proportion in the adult population. They know they're not invulnerable: Many have been either victims of crime or know victims; they know people with AIDS and people who sell guns or drugs. Adolescents take risks because exploration and risk-taking--inherent to the species--are means of testing and learning about themselves.
  • Adolescents are negatively influenced by their peers. The facts: In matters of dress, music, and language, adolescents look to their peers, but on the big issues--what is important in life, how to relieve stress, how to have healthy relationships, what kind of job to look for--adolescents are far more influenced by parents and other adults. And peers can be beneficial: They listen, care, and encourage playfulness and exploration. They also can contribute to a young person's self-esteem and desire for achievement.

"Growing Up in the City," the three-part series airing on public television this month, contradicts these cliches. Fourteen young adolescents and five families opened up their lives to a team of journalists from "The Merrow Report" for nine months. Their stories are both timely and timeless. The adolescents' issues--including peer pressure, sexuality, personal identity, friendship, and the struggle for independence--will be familiar to anyone who has struggled with adolescence.

One lesson to be drawn from "Growing Up in the City" is that good schools make a difference. The three public middle schools that Miguel, Villorii, Raymond, and the others attend work hard to support, nurture, and educate--no small challenge in a society that doesn't seem to offer much support for either families or children. Teachers who care, working in a system that supports their mission, increase the odds that adolescents will develop into healthy and productive adults--despite our pervasive anti-youth culture.

There's a second important lesson: Adolescents, particularly young adolescents, need and want adult guidance, support, and companionship. We cannot continue to disinvest in young people, turn our backs, and then dismiss them as dangerous or worse. That's both a self-fulfilling prophecy and a sure-fire recipe for social disaster.

John Merrow produces and anchors "The Merrow Report," a television documentary series on education that airs on PBS stations nationwide. This month, its focus has been on themes from this essay, in a three-part presentation called "Growing Up in the City."

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Pages 32, 35

Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as The Kids Are All Right
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