A country so long complacent about young death in the ghetto has finally been jerked awake by the terrible news out of Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and Washington state, where freckle-faced kids too young to drive are old enough to gun down their classmates. Suddenly, the argument about parental responsibility has a dark urgency that slams academic debate to the sidelines.
Experts have long maintained that parental actions - or the lack of them - are central to shaping a child. This is an awesome mandate in the best of times, but when dysfunction increasingly means violence, there's a rush to diffuse responsibility.
"The Nurture Assumption" by Judith Rich Harris (Free Press, 480 pages, $26) shifted the mantle from parents to peers, and millions cheered. (See "Children at Risk" on the next page.) Some were celebrating the poetic justice of its publication: Harris, banned from Harvard's psychology program for inadequate research, won the scholarly award, 36 years later, that was named for the guy who threw her out.
But the greatest noise came from parents so addled about "doing it right" that they quote Shakespeare to their offspring in utero, yet plant their kids in front of baby-sitter boxes and expect V-chips to replace moral instruction. Most are baby boomers, the first generation to fully embrace therapeutic blaming - at least until they became parents themselves.
The blame game is endless, since it's impossible to quantify the impact of parents or peers and certify which is greater; in lieu of proof, people embrace the latest consensus to arrive on the ever-swinging pendulum.
But this is no longer enough once the problem metastasizes from simple rearing to deadly risk - images of bloody schools, combined with drugs, AIDS and the frightening, nihilistic sounds of their music, all suggest that adolescents are in more danger now than ever before.
Five new books address the danger, four by examining individual lives and one by providing solutions. "Things Get Hectic: Teens Write About the Violence That Surrounds Them" edited by Philip Kay, Andrea Estepa and Al Desetta (Touchstone, 256 pages, $13) compiles writings by young people about their clumsy, heartbreaking efforts to normalize life in a war zone. One attempts to decorate murder like Martha Stewart: "I'm tired of trying to figure out colors and designs for my friends' memorials," he says.
"Everyday Courage: The Lives and Stories of Urban Teenagers" by Niobe Way (NYU Press, 310 pages, $55) is about "average, ordinary, low-income urban teens coping with racism and paranoia." Way's feminist framework shapes her research into psychological "themes" like the dynamics of trust and betrayal - interesting, but a rather languid approach when the sirens wail louder every day.
A similar insularity pervades Patricia Hersch's "A Tribe Apart" (Ballantine, 391 pages, $25).
Although subtitled "A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence," it never leaves the tidy, planned community of Reston, Va., where the author lives with three teens of her own. The book's central premise - that adolescents create their own communities - is hardly revelatory, since the major task of adolescence is to forge a separate identity apart from parental definition.
Hersch's three years of hanging out in classrooms and McDonald's made her privy to many secrets, but the alleged bombshell that "good kids from good families do experiment - sometimes in risky or dangerous ways" is a top hat without a rabbit.
If anything has changed, it's the extent of latchkey aloneness: Hersch suggests that since rebellious baby boomers wanted space from their parents, they assume their kids do too - and give them far more than they'd like to have.
Boomers are also indicted in the beautifully written "Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country" by William Finnegan (Random House, 432 pages, $26): "I hold the fecklessness and self-absorption of my generation substantially responsible for the darkening, fearsome world that Americans face today." Finnegan focuses on four poor families from New Haven to L.A., but also considers the larger social influences of economy and media.
Reporting that the average child is exposed to 380,000 commercials by age 18, he outlines "the [ferocious] impact of inescapable affluent lifestyles" and "the oppressive sense of reduced opportunity" that contribute to risk-taking and despair. Again, the missing ballast is the weight of a grownup: "Without significant adult involvement in their projects, many kids tend to enact ... hometime versions of 'Lord of the Flies.' " But they have to hit prime-time before society reacts.
Even then, insights are not action. These authors, while passionate, are strumming Nero's song when a battle hymn is required. Any society where the homicide rate among 14- to 17-year-olds triples in a decade can ill-afford the leisurely contemplation of teen-age angst. We need clear blueprints for intervention, which Joy Dryfoos supplies in her "Safe Passage: Making It Through Adolescence in a Risky Society" (Oxford, 288 pages, $27.50). Crisply written and thoroughly researched, it not only analyzes the major risk factors, but details five programs that successfully confront them.
As far-flung as Iowa and Puerto Rico, the programs differ in organization but are all "painstakingly planned" to address critical issues from vocational needs to domestic violence, integrating parents, schools and police in the effort.
Caring, reliable adults are a crucial component - in one program, staff wear beepers with 800 numbers so they're never out of reach (this works because none is married or has kids). And while the proliferation of guns is a fierce new villain, the potential hero is familiar: "The best-documented fact in the extensive U.S. literature on youth is the importance of social bonds between a young person and an adult."
Unfortunately, adult contact is decreasing just when it's most needed: the pool of volunteer youth workers has been drained by second jobs, and the number of stay-at-home moms is down from 61 percent in 1960 to 25 percent today.
Protecting kids requires more than clever marketing. Dryfoos describes a teachers' conference in which someone gave a bouncy speech, full of rousing tales of his own success, and ended by getting all the teachers to hug each other.
In general, the only lasting impact of such empty exhortation is on the income of those who peddle it; as Dryfoos says, "self-regard and self-competency derive from actual achievement, not from mouthing nostrums about feeling good about oneself." "Safe Passage" should be required reading in Congress, as well as homes and schools.
Teen-age confusion and defiance are traditional rites of passage; as Finnegan reminds us, "wild, lost, misunderstood youths have been a main feature of the American social landscape since the invention of adolescence."
The difference is that guns have raised the stakes and pulled everyone into the game. It's too late to duck responsibility when stray bullets are flying. A favorite '60s lyric of idealistic flower-children was "teach your children well"; today's parents, now deflowered, should exhume that scratchy LP and remember the immense power they have, even by example.
Finally, several authors cite recent surveys by the Josephson Institute of Ethics warning that more high schoolers are lying, cheating and stealing than ever before.
But kids don't live in a vacuum - they learn by watching adults, whose current messages are conflicting, at best: plagiarism is bad in school but OK for famous columnists; media sex is more appalling than media violence; pro-life means that a baby is worth more than a doctor.
We have a terrible problem when so many entertainment icons become felons yet remain role models, and our president juggles the meaning of "is" on national television, just as sulky and facile as any teen forced to define "curfew."
We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Judith Schlesinger is a psychotherapist who holds a doctorate in psychology. A professor at Pace University, her biography of Humphrey Bogart was published in October 1998 by Metro Books.
Pub Date: 12/13/98