Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The 'Village' Is a Moral Slum : Blame selfish parents and the disintegration of social sanctions for the sexual activity of American youth.

February 21, 1996|KATHERINE DOWLING | Katherine Dowling is a family physician at the USC School of Medicine

He was about 17, a handsome guy who could have been in one of those "Be all you can be" commercials. He'd been listening to a talk on the superiority of abstinence to condoms as a way to avoid all those annoying consequences of requited love, but he was way beyond that. He'd already had sexual relations with a significant number of partners, some of whose identities he couldn't recall. He was at the clinic to find out how to get an anonymous HIV test. In short, he was like a growing percentage of American teens: He'd been morally and emotionally abandoned by his parents and by society.

My generation has lots of excuses for our execrable parenting. The economy has forced most women into the workplace. An elder boom has added another layer of dependent humans on the shoulders of the thirty- to sixty-somethings. No- fault divorce unraveled lots of families, some of whom may have worked through their problems when divorces were a bit messier to come by. But basically, we're pretty selfish. Little kids are labor intensive, and many of us are pretty pooped when our kids are finally old enough to attend school full time. Far too many of us are glad to release the traces of parental control when our youngsters plead for more freedom. As they approach adolescence, we listen to the gurus who tell us, "Don't be naive. Your child, just like every other teenager in America, cannot possibly put off the pressures to have sex. You will just have to get with it and buy him (her) some condoms"

But wait. A parent may feed and clothe his child, give her pricey toys, lessons in everything, but if he fails to pass on a sense of right and wrong, he is guilty of spiritual neglect. Teaching kids morality is tedious. Babies are born with an instinct to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. As they grow, they must be taught to delay immediate gratification for a greater good, one that's probably far in the future. Now fast-forward to adolescence. A teenager, in his new body, just wants to have fun, but the stakes are now much higher. He's big enough to destroy property, maim or kill or create a baby. A generation that cared for its children would instill morality from the earliest years and would not shirk from being unpopular with its teenagers by demanding certain ethical standards from them. But the current generation of parents just doesn't collectively seem to be interested enough to go to all the trouble of teaching honorable behavior. It's so much easier to throw up one's hands and just give the kids prophylactics. After all, teaching chastity takes time, and who has time these days?

Now, some will object that teenagers always have been sexually active and that this era of AIDS demands that we protect our youth from the modern consequences that were not an issue yesterday. But statistics tell a different tale. In 1940, fewer than one in 600 recorded births was to a girl under 15. By 1991, despite legalized abortion, this rate had doubled. Births to unmarried women rose 700% from 1950 to 1990, in spite of the increased availability of contraceptives.

The hormones are the same, but the "village" raising today's youth has turned into a moral slum, and behavior formerly discouraged through time-honored social sanctions is now subtly encouraged. The average sperm is a good deal larger than the human immunodeficiency virus, and condoms fail around 15% of the time. So if babies are being made in increased numbers, guess what else is happening?

Besides splitting in record numbers--a quarter of kids are without in-house dads--families have shrunk, leaving many children without the lifelong support system of siblings. We adults get to "do our thing" while our kids spend more of their time alone or with TV for company. In our search for the perfectly comfortable life, we've failed to convey to our youngsters that their own lives have any value.

I hope that young man in the clinic hasn't acquired the AIDS virus or given some girl a germ that has rendered her infertile. Because if he has, we wimpy, morally relativistic adults are also to blame. We owe a mea culpa to his generation. Then we must start being responsible parents.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|