Hey, Kids! Don't Read This!

I don't have children, so I can't say I know much about them. I defer to my many friends in the baby boom generation who are parents. They know everything about children. In fact, they know more about children than was known by all previous generations of parents combined, as becomes clear when you talk to them for more than 60 seconds at a stretch.

I do sometimes wonder, though, if baby boom parents, and baby boom politicians, are always right about absolutely everything. In particular, I wonder if they are right to frame public policy as though adolescents do not exist. My own view -- that of a complete amateur, of course, but indulge me -- is that this understanding of the world is imperfect. Adolescents exist. It might be better to notice this.

If all you did was read the newspapers and the Congressional Record, you might suppose that in America there are two kinds of people, children and adults. The children are all about 8 years old, and they are very impressionable and vulnerable, beset on every side by physical and moral perils. The adults are all about 45, and their job is to protect the children (though not, as a rule, to discipline them).

Legally, the sharp distinction between majority and minority, although crude, is necessary. Politically, it makes sense to talk about minors as though they were all in kindergarten, since anything done for children is difficult to oppose, and anything done to them is apt to seem constitutional. Still, when baby boom parents and their elected representatives in Washington set out to protect "children" of, say, age 16 or 17, things get peculiar.

After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the country was treated to a fit of articles and agonies about children who kill. "When Children Kill, Clues Usually There," said a headline in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. On the floor of the House, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., justified his pro-Ten Commandments bill as a step toward "an end of children killing children." Democrats said they wanted more laws to keep guns out of the hands of children. "Children don't need to be held accountable for misusing guns," editorialized the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "they need protection from guns." At the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "Guns and children are two words that should never be put together in the same sentence."

What seemed odd about the babble about children and guns was that Eric Harris was 18 years old, and Dylan Klebold was 17. "Children"?

On the "protect the children" model of social-policy making, an adolescent is a 6-year-old with acne. The way to prevent a "child" of 16 or 17 from getting something is to tell him he can't have it, and the way to deflect his interest from the thing is to tell him he's not old enough to handle it. On the "adolescents exist" model, by contrast, such infantilizing tactics may not be ideal. A better way to teach a teenager about responsibility is to give him some.

In 1994, the Justice Department published initial findings of a cluster of studies that tracked delinquency among several thousand children and adolescents in Denver, Pittsburgh, and Rochester. Where youths and guns were concerned, the results seemed to support the "adolescents exist" model. Illegal possession of firearms was a strong predictor of delinquency. For example, 74 percent of boys who illegally possessed guns committed street crimes, compared with 24 percent of boys who had no guns. No surprise there.

Rather more surprising was this: Boys who owned a gun legally (that is, with the advice and consent of their parents) were even less delinquent than boys who had no gun at all. Only 14 percent of boys who legally possessed guns committed street crimes, and 0 percent of them committed any sort of gun crime. "For legal gun owners," the study said, "socialization appears to take place in the family; for illegal gun owners, it appears to take place 'on the street.' " One wonders, then, whether demanding that access to guns be increasingly restricted to adults is a wise policy in a country with about 12 guns for every adolescent.

In the mid-1990s, when he was in charge of the Food and Drug Administration and looking to expand his agency's reach, David A. Kessler made a startling announcement. Nicotine addiction, he said, "is a pediatric disease that often begins at 12, 13, and 14, only to manifest itself at 16 and 17 when these children [sic] find that they cannot quit."

For some years before Kessler sought to redefine the debate, tobacco policy in America had been conducted, roughly, on the "adolescents exist" model. Every effort was made to ensure that Americans of all ages understood that smoking was harmful, and, according to a 1994 report by the Surgeon General, researchers developed a handful of in-school antismoking programs that seemed to have some marginally useful effects. Between 1976 and 1992, the proportion of 12th-graders who reported smoking one or more cigarettes in the past month declined gradually but steadily, from almost 40 percent to under 30 percent.

In 1992, something happened. After years of progress, the trend reversed. Since 1992, even as adult rates held stable or fell, smoking by 12th-graders has risen by almost 10 percentage points (and smoking by younger adolescents has also increased, though not as much). No one knows the reason. Antismoking activists sometimes blame Joe Camel, but he came along in 1988. I have what I think is at least an equally plausible theory: As antismoking education graded into something more like antismoking hysteria, adolescents stopped listening. A further speculation is that a campaign to "protect children" from tobacco is likely to miss the mark, for a few reasons.

One is that, _pace_ Kessler, smoking is not like measles, striking innocent tots out of the blue. "Very few 12-year-olds have even tried a cigarette," writes Mary Grace Kovar, an epidemiologist with the Opinion Research Center in Washington. "The modal age for trying a cigarette is 16." Smoking is not a disease of children; it is a choice made by adolescents, often to distinguish themselves from children.

Moreover, not just anybody smokes. Kovar's analysis notes that smokers age 15 to 17 are very much more likely than nonsmokers to be alcohol users and to skip school. Adolescents who smoke tend to be risk takers and rebels. "I think you'll find the same thing through early adulthood, and maybe beyond," Kovar said. "There is a group of risk-taking people. I've always disliked approaches that target an age group instead of targeting people who need certain kinds of help -- but that's what we do."

Presumably, adolescents who are attracted to risk and rebellion -- the ones who are most likely to smoke -- are also the least likely to listen to adults who bluster about making America a land of "tobacco-free kids." Or, worse still, they may listen, and then decide that not being tobacco-free is a good way to show that they aren't kids.

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