Teen-Demon Tracts

Why baby-boomer parents fear their children.


The Myth of Maturity: What Teenagers Need From Parents to Become Adults, by Terri Apter, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 288 pages, $24.95

Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child's Life, by James Garbarino and Claire Bedard, New York: Free Press, 240 pages, $24

Kids these days. We all know the basic jeremiad: They're media-addled, affectless, nihilist, subliterate, a Clockwork Orange-style army of "superpredators," teen gunmen, and garden-variety sociopaths waiting to happen. Advertising has hypnotized them. Video games have conditioned them to kill without feeling. And pop culture has hammered every conceivable kind of coarseness—from anonymous sex to Satanism, from glorified violence to Internet passivity—into their poignantly echoing little craniums. Is it any wonder that most of them are but a bully's slight or a chatroom flame away from raining hot-lead vengeance on schoolrooms or playgrounds?

Well, yes, actually. It is, indeed, a considerable wonder that any part of this hysterical caricature should command serious discussion in the first place. As almost no media outlet is going to tell you, kids these days are astonishingly well-adjusted, nonviolent, educated, and polite. Nearly all the leading indicators of social ills among American adolescents—drug use, violent assault, teen pregnancy, drop-out rates, you name it—have been declining for at least 10 years now. More teens are graduating high school and attending college than ever before. A record number of American teens volunteer their time to charitable causes—twice as many as their counterparts of 20 years past. Math SATs are at a 30-year high. Hell, even teen literacy is increasing: A recent survey conducted by the National Education Association found that 41 percent of teen respondents said they read 15 books or more a year. How many adults can claim a comparable intake?

Meanwhile, social scientist Mike Males of the Justice Policy Institute—one of the only honest inquirers into the condition of American adolescents—has cataloged the remarkable degree and scope of the recent turnaround in teen conduct. (His most recent research is available online at alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=10904.)

In 1999 the number of homicides committed by teens was down 62 percent from what it had been in 1990. Over the same period, rapes in which adolescents were charged declined 27 percent, teen-perpetrated violent crime generally was down 22 percent, the incidence of sexually transmitted disease decreased 50 percent, births were down 17 percent, abortions were down 15 percent, and drunken driving offenses plummeted 35 percent.

The only behaviors registering upticks over the same period—smoking (up 13 percent based on average monthly intake) and drug fatalities (up 11 percent)—have been the targets of the most aggressive adult-sponsored "zero-tolerance" interventions, a development that Males soundly suggests is no coincidence.

Nevertheless, the dominant discourse on teen affairs is one of never-ending crisis—a sort of campfire parade of ghoulish shadowplay projected onto adolescence. Indeed, despite all the good news about American kids, a sprawling array of books, videotapes, and consulting seminars would have us believe that just the opposite is true. So would opportunistic politicians, from Bill Bennett, who specializes in Spenglerian prophecies of doom, to Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton, who trade in saucer-eyed paternalism. Whatever its source, the message is the same: Kids are out of control, beyond the reach of adult authority, losing all purchase on civilized behavior. And of course, always, always getting worse.

There's a simple force behind the fuss here: raging boomer narcissism. The alleged anguish adult Americans feel over the imperilment of our young is not really about young Americans at all. It is, rather, about the chronic inability of the boomer generation to own up to its own lack of moral authority, its steadily eroding cultural influence—indeed, the basic fact of its own mortality. This impulse courses through our popular culture at virtually every turn, from the boomers' odd, reverse-Oedipal reverence for the "greatest generation" (i.e., the very buttoned-down squares against whom the boomers launched their own storied youthful rebellion) to the embarrassingly sclerotic condition of our rock eminences, as chronicled in John Strausbaugh's recent Rock 'Til You Drop.

Nowhere can you apprehend this unlovely dynamic more plainly than in the wildly profitable cottage industry of parental advice literature. Anxiety over child-rearing is, of course, a perennial source of tension within any culture. It's the cultural reckoning that psychologist Erik Erikson, in a typically inelegant formulation, termed "generativity," by which he meant the imperative of instructing the next generation in the pursuit of useful lives. (The opposite of generativity, in Erikson's developmental scheme, is "stagnation," i.e., morbid self-absorption, a term that applies with equal force to boomer parenting practices and musical tastes.)

Even a cursory glance over this self-enabling landscape registers how oddly incidental actual childhood experience proves to be in the new parenting. Two new manuals purport to engage different aspects of adolescence, but nevertheless remain mired in the same warm, sticky, and unmovable center of boomer self-adulation. In Terri Apter's The Myth of Maturity, the very definition of adolescence is pressed into the service of this all-consuming mandate. Apter, a Cambridge social psychologist, seeks to persuade us that the tragedy of our age is that young adults are in deep denial about their incorrigible arrestedness. Amid the many trials of their maiden adulthood, she avers, they feel perversely compelled to refute the proper sovereignty of boomer parents in their lives.

Apter makes a half-hearted attempt to illustrate some decline in the condition of young adults, but she falls woefully short of the mark. She absurdly contrasts contemporary rates of eating disorders, drug use, and alcoholism among 18- to-24-year-olds to rates reported in 1940, when neither these domains of public health research nor the general culture of therapy were anywhere near as developed as they are today. Hard-pressed to verify allegedly alarming suicide rates, Apter resorts to a still sneakier bit of legerdemain: She grimly announces that the number of young adult suicides has risen fourfold over the past 20 years—but upon consulting the pertinent footnote, we learn that the data for this claim comes from a parliamentary report in Apter's native England, and hence has little discernible bearing on the largely American research group from which she draws her anecdotal tales of woe.

That research group, too, is a work of staggering, if deftly packaged, self-involvement. The core of Apter's research is culled from a set of interviews she conducted with 32 young people—who came, another footnote informs us, from an "opportunity sample" made up "from the younger brothers and sisters who participated in my 1990 study Altered Loves…and the daughters and sons of women who participated in my study of midlife women." It may take a village to raise a child, but it evidently takes but 32 subjects left over from earlier projects to define a generation.

The bulk of Apter's book marshals together interviews, alternating between the testimony of this score-and-a-half of anguished "thresholders" (if you haven't gathered this already, Apter is a master of euphemistic coinages) and their tragically conflicted parents, who are seeking to express their soulful, encompassing concern, but are unsure whether their fumbling offspring are ready to feel the love. Much of the book reads like a transcript from some woozy, cross-generational segment of MTV's The Real World. As with that mother of all reality shows, The Myth of Maturity can be voyeuristically diverting, until you're suddenly pulled up short by some fresh bid to further infantalize the hapless struggling young adult in question—the sociological equivalent of seeing the new housemate from Brigham Young University puking in the kitchen sink. "New research shows that the brain itself often keeps its adolescent characteristics until the age of twenty-six," Apter announces at one point with near-palpable glee. She then assures her smartly turned-out army of invading parents, "This means that some young people are not prepared, physiologically, to take on adult responsibilities, involving self-control and self-management."

This, it turns out, is the common trajectory of contemporary kid-baiting: Take an extreme outbreak of pathology (e.g., the infamous 1999 massacre at Columbine High School) or a speculative, ambiguous factoid (as in this neurology aside, which fails to specify either what the brain's "adolescent characteristics" may be or how, if at all, such physiology translates into actual behavior), and generalize wildly. One can all but picture Apter placing an outsized bib, or a prototype of an adult-scale kiddy leash, into the grateful hands of her ill-understood, filially deprived readers, with a rousing "Go get 'em!" for good measure.

More often, though, Apter proceeds by the more familiar, if no less insidious, logic of obsessive self-reference. Gently part the veils of most young adult malaise—be it career or money trouble, marital-cum-relationship strife, depression, or suicidal feelings—and there, majestically, is the calm deliverance of parental love, a magically intact All Powerful Oz. Even hostility or resentment explicitly directed at one's parents is really a masked plea for more nurturance: "Parents often respond to constant criticism of what they do and what they say as a form of rejection," she counsels. "But young people want to feel their parents' involvement. Quarrels are a way of soliciting a parent's help in being centred. They involve a plea for acknowledgment of feelings….It would be an enormous help to look on these quarrels in a new light, to take new pride in their battles, to feel more positive about the contributions they are making to a young person's development."

This prodigious cognitive bait-and-switch—whereby statements of dissent and criticism become cry-for-help speech-acts signifying the diametrically opposite point—contrasts sharply with Apter's de rigueur tour of pop culture, that shape-shifting, omnipotent, seductive force that reduces young brains to bare functionalist rubble. Plunge these complex, parent-longing souls into the giddy ferment of celebrity culture and they suddenly become quite distressingly uncomplicated. "The lives younger people compare theirs to are not the lives of people they sit next to in church, on the train, in the office," Apter writes, donning the well-worn hairshirt of the moral scold, "but rather those that they read about or watch on television….Awareness of these distant and idealized figures sets up comparisons that leave [some young people] feeling unimportant and left out of the first rank of human beings."

Got that? Young adults transmit secret messages of desperately longed-for submission beneath their consciously expressed frustrations and resentments, but can't be counted on to grok that media celebrities are not, you know, real. It's actually this very sort of psychic profile—a weak, decentered self, sporadically awash in the superluminary thrills of mass spectacle—that forms the nexus of what that arch-disciplinarian Theodor Adorno termed the authoritarian personality. Lest you think this a rhetorical exaggeration, consider the curious cult of parental personality that Apter urges on the confused young adult: "Thresholders often have an epiphany about a parent that forever changes their perspective. Suddenly the complaints and recriminations that formed the repertoire of teenage conversation ('She always wanted me to be something I'm not' or 'She never listened when I said what I wanted') dissolve into thin air, and a young adult is left staring at the simple, dazzling love a parent has always had." The tableau furnished by this life-transforming "epiphany" is discomfittingly close to that experienced by a raw Party recruit before the towering authority of a Great Leader; we should remember, in the face of such self-flattering cant, that the final horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four was that Winston Smith loved Big Brother.

Actual maturity, on the other hand, proceeds along the bumpier, conflict-ridden path of testing such authority—even when doing so incurs new psychic costs, financial hardships, or blows to one's cherished self-esteem. These are the rather unexceptional trials awaiting any inchoate self making the acquaintance of a basically indifferent world; one of the first, unforgettable lessons of maturity is that, far from redounding to your own needful child-self or your parents' "simple, dazzling love," the cosmic order of things proceeds with little concern for your well-being. Only a generation as terminally solipsistic as Apter's could cast itself as saviors in this situation—or deride both the idea of maturity and the notion of the spoiled child as a "myth." The not-so-hidden message beneath these pronouncements is just as troubling as Apter's calmly polemic vision of arrested development as the norm, nay the desideratum, of young adult experience: a transparently hysterical rejection of the maturity of the boomers' children as an augur of the boomers' mortality or (worse, from their perspective) their own historical obsolescence.

Yet for truly rudderless, kitchen-sink hysteria, drunk on its own unassailable righteousness, it's hard to beat James Garbarino and Claire Bedard's Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child's Life. Garbarino and Bedard, proprietors of Cornell University's Family Life Development Center and partners in what can only be one of the most jittery and suggestible marriages on the planet, dutifully hit most of the key points of dial-a-scare bombast that fuel the long-running culture war on American kids: the glib treatment of pathology as the governing model of youthful behavior; the lurid demonization of all pop culture, video games, and the Internet (or, in the authors' preferred shorthand for all of the above, "the dark side"); the purely anecdotal tales of teen misconduct (lacking even the notional honesty of a researcher like Apter, they don't even appear to have spoken with any actual teens here); and of course the steadfast conviction, conveyed in their subtitle, that parents, in their grandiose moral serenity, possess in their very persons the stirringly simple solution to all this fictively skyrocketing pathology and anarchy.

Like every other contemporary teen-demon tract, Parents Under Siege is empirically challenged. Garbarino and Bedard's laundry list of phony behavioral epidemics is even more cursory than Apter's: "The 1990s threatened the American Dream of Parenting as never before," they announce in typically grammatical unrestraint. "The problems surrounding our children and youth became increasingly more serious: rising suicide rates, drug abuse, explosive youth crime and increasing rates of depression." None of these charges is specified to any age group or region or income level. None of it is sourced, for the simple reason that, as Mike Males has tirelessly demonstrated, none of it is true.

Indeed, quite tellingly, Garbarino and Bedard's only mild concession to evidence is a citation of a 1999 USA Today poll of American parents. The authors report in all due shock that a resounding 90 percent of this poll sample, when asked whether raising kids to be "good people" was more difficult now than it was 20 years earlier, replied yes. Never mind, of course, that 20 years past the respondents themselves were either in their teens or recently departed from them, and that the effective brunt of this particular question was, "Were you successfully raised as a good person?" The faint whiff of hysteria has been serviceably raised, so we're off and running.

Why fuss over numbers, in any event, when Garbarino and Bedard can speak with utmost authority on the most solemn phrase in the whole kid-baiting catechism: "post-Littleton"? As they rather breathlessly inform their readers, Garbarino published his last jaunt through the adolescent "dark side," Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, on April 20, 1999, the day of the Littleton massacre. Eventually, the family of Littleton shooter Dylan Klebold came to them for assistance; for these boomer parents, this is equivalent to having been at Woodstock, and the authors are certainly not above milking it for all it's worth.

Parents Under Siege is, indeed, dedicated to "Tom, Sue, and Byron Klebold and….all the families who have lost children." The book's preface opens by announcing, in an outburst of weirdly pornographic nonsense worthy of Alfred Jarry, "On April 20, 1999, the world of American parenting changed forever….That day, as never before, parents learned that their kids could begin their day normally, as just kids going off on the bus, but end it shattered—physically or psychologically—or dead."

There's something more than a little shameless in such flourishes. Indeed, the authors demonstrate a taste for the lurid and the shocking that rivals that of any trenchcoated, Goth-addled teen. They recount in extended detail, on two separate occasions, a horrifying episode in which a 7-year-old Chicago child was gunned down by a gangster as he left his parents' supervision and walked the 75 feet to his school doorway, where his teachers were waiting to escort him. (Never mind that the episode occurred in 1992, or that their context-free account, in any time frame, tells us precisely nothing about the state of present-day parenting or teens: It's a frightening story, and will command the rapt attention of anxious parents.)

They also reprint an entire extended e-mail report, running five pages in Parents Under Siege, from a mother whose middle-school child was being stalked by a classmate who kept an obsessive log of his activities and reportedly maintained a Web site called "Ten Ways to Kill Tyrone M." They also see fit to make repeated reference to this episode, as evidence of rapidly spreading (and Internet-enabled!) social predation among teens. Of course, they are compelled to acknowledge, in passing, that no authorities managed to find the alleged inflammatory Web site, but you get the idea: Kids are scary!

And those computers! Most of the time, the mere existence of the Internet seems intolerable to these culture marms. They repeatedly recount the horrifying revelation that Whitehouse.com is a gateway to a softcore porn site. Beside themselves over the Net's continual overtures to the culture's "dark side," they offer up this thumbnail account of how things have changed: "Thirty years ago, if you were the most alienated kid on your block…you would have a hard time finding other kids like yourself. As a result, there was a pull back to the mainstream, the normalizing influence of social support. But now? Today you can log on to any number of Web sites and chat rooms and find validation for your alienation, your rage, and your antisocial fantasies. How about logging onto alienation.com? It's a real site we visited in an effort to see just how bad things are. They are that bad."

Set aside, for argument's sake, the fact that 25 years ago, I was the most alienated kid on my block, and I had no trouble whatsoever finding others like me, seeking out crude music, being titillated with popcult prurience, skipping school, and worse. (And rest assured that this was not because of any especially energetic effort on my part, since I was also spending much of my time getting high.) Set aside, as well, the small epistemological difficulty that once you have your alienation and antisocial fantasies "validated" by other alienated souls, they pretty much, by definition, cease to exist, at least in their most painful forms. Even set aside the consideration that seeking something out "in an effort to see just how bad things are" is not exactly a preferred model of social scientific inquiry.

Consider instead the shudder-inducing site Alienation.com, whose name alone apparently has the talismanic power to summon forth visions of endlessly indulged evil teen impulses. Garbarino and Bedard may have "visited" Alienation.com, but they clearly didn't stay long enough to read the thing. Log onto it and you will be greeted by a posse of blue-tinted spirit-beings, cross-legged and meditating around an orb suspended at eye-level. This, evidently, is an iconic representation of the seekers invited to share their all-too-literal reveries of alienation: "spiritual people whose interests may include new age spirituality, channeling, reincarnation, 4th density, 3rd density, paranormal, metaphysical, altered states of consciousness, spirits, inspiration, psychic ability, prophecies, revelations, spiritual growth, and possibly alien interests such as abductions, ETs, extraterrestrials, ufos, sightings, star child, and starpeople." In other words, not a baggy-trousered or Goth-addled teen in sight—unless, of course, you count the star children.

There's a very particular irony to this clumsy oversight (in addition, that is, to the troubling one of a pair of self-styled researchers in a prestigious Ivy League school not bothering to deploy their own powers of literacy). All of the pseudoclinical forays into alleged teen ghastliness in Parents Under Siege are set quite didactically in relief beside the authors' serene Buddhist spiritual pretensions. Garbarino and Bedard have much more in common with the keepers of Alienation.com than they would ever imagine: It seems that they spent two weeks in a workshop with the Dalai Lama, and are deeply impressed with the notion of applying the Buddhist principle of "mindfulness" to the rounds of parenting and family life. This is one of the less objectionable detours in Parents Under Siege, though it does inspire a certain inadvertent sympathy for the Dalai Lama, who, Lord knows, has troubles enough of his own.

Yet you desperately wish, across the many alarmist pages of Parents Under Siege, The Maturity Myth, and their many literary cousins, that there was a different sort of "mindfulness" at work on behalf of younger Americans. Teens and young adults do have legitimate troubles, after all, but most of them have more to do with the behavior of the adults in their world. In addition to child poverty, two of the most salient "risk factors" that can determine teen maladjustment—child abuse and divorce—show no signs of a long-term downturn.

For all the hysteria over schoolyard shootings and the death-dealing culture of Goth rock and video games, 16 school-age victims were killed in violent crime incidents (including suicides, and one victim of something called "Fragile X Syndrome") on or near schools over the 2000?2001 academic year; 19 violent deaths, including suicides, occurred on or near school grounds the year before. Meanwhile, abusive adults still kill children at the remarkably high rate of five fatalities a day—and even so, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found in 1999 that deaths stemming from child abuse were being underreported by an estimated rate of 60 percent. A curious time, all in all, for Garbarino and Bedard to insist that the "socially toxic environment" of North America mandates that kids be subject to "more rather than less adult supervision, more rather than less intensive parenting, to reduce susceptibility to negative peer influences, to negative mass media influences, to the low self-esteem generated at school." To quote a non-Buddhist homily, charity begins at home.