Friday, May 27, 2011

Do Parents Know Their Kids?

1 Students of many different types may sit at separate tables in the cafeteria, but they all belong to the same generation. There are now 31 million teenagers, and demographers predict that there will be 35 million teens by 2010, a population bulge bigger than even the baby boom at its peak. In many ways, these teens are uniquely privileged. They have grown up in a period of sustained prosperity and haven’t had to worry about the draft (as their fathers did) or disastrous global conflicts (as their grandparents did). And the Internet have given them access to an almost infinite amount of information.Most expect to go to college, and girls, in particular, have unprecedented opportunities; they can dream of careers in everything from professional sports to politics, with plenty of female role models to follow.
2 But this positive image of American adolescence is a little like yearbook photos that depict every child as happy and perfect. In survey after survey, many children—even those on the honor roll—say they feel increasingly alone and alienated, unable to connect with their parents, teachers and sometimes even classmates. They are desperate for guid- ance, and when they don’t get what they need at home or in school, they cling to cliques or immerse themselves in a universe out of their parents’ reach, a world defined by computer games, TV and movies, where brutality is so common that it has become mundane.
3 Many teens say they feel overwhelmed by pressure and responsibilities. They are jug- gling part-time jobs and hours of homework every night; sometimes they are so exhausted that they are nearly asleep in early-morning classes. Half have lived through their parents’ divorce. Sixty-three percent are in households where both parents work outside the home, and many look after younger siblings in the afternoon. Still others are home by themselves after school. That unwelcome solitude can extend well into the evening; mealtime for this generation too often begins with a forlorn touch of the microwave.
4 In fact, of all the issues that trouble adolescents, loneliness ranks at the top of the list. One sociologist has been studying 7,000 teenagers for five years and found they spend an average of 3 hours alone every day. Teenagers may claim they want privacy, but they also crave and need attention—and they are not getting it. Another researcher in- terviewed eight teens who live in an affluent area of northern Virginia and she said every teen she talked to at length eventually came around to saying without her asking that they wished they had more adults in their lives, especially their parents.
5 Loneliness creates an emotional vacuum that is filled by an intense peer culture, a critical buffer against children’s fear of isolation. Some of this bonding is normal and ap- ropriate; in fact, studies have shown that the human need for acceptance is almost a bio- logical drive, like hunger. It is especially intense in early adolescence, from about 12 to 14, a time of “extreme self-consciousness”. They become very self-centered and spend a lot of time thinking about what others think of them. And when they think about what others are thinking, they make the error of thinking that everyone is thinking about them. Dress- ing alike is a refuge, a way of hiding in the group. When they are 3 and scared, they cling to a security blanket; at 16, they want body piercings and expensive T-shirts.
6 If parents and other adults abdicate power, teenagers come up with their own rules. Often, when there is no instruction or interference from parents or teachers, young people become involved in bullying. Bullying has become so extreme and so common that many teens just accept it as part of high school life.Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke recently asked 110 students in one of his classes if any of them had ever been threatened in high school. To his surprise, they all raised their hand. In the past, parents and teachers served as mediating forces in the classroom. William Damon, director of the Stanford Uni- versity Center for Adolescence, recalls writing a satirical essay when he was in high school about how he and his friends tormented a child they knew. He got an “A” for style and grammar,but the teacher took him aside and told him he should be ashamed of his behavior. “That’s what is supposed to happen,” Damon says. “People are supposed to tell young chil- dren that they have gone too far.”
7 When they are isolated from parents, teens are also more vulnerable to serious emo-tional problems. Some surveys of high-school students have indicated that many have actually tried to kill themselves of high-school. Often the parents or teachers don’t realize it was a suicide attempt. It can be something ambiguous like an overdose of nonprescription pills from the medicine cabinet or getting drunk and crashing the car.
8 Late adolescence is another transition, this time to leaving home altogether. Parents have to be able to let go and have faith and trust that they have done a good enough job as parents that their child can handle life. Parents need to share what they really believe in, what they really think is important. These basic moral values are more important than math skills or standardized tests. Parents have to seize any opportunity to talk—in the car, over the breakfast table, watching TV—and work harder to get their points across.18 As one 16- year-old child says, “I am proud of the fact that my mother deals with me even though I try to push her away. She’s still there.” So pay attention now. The children can’t wait.

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