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90'S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

What's the Matter With Kids Today? Their Parents

May 19, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Are our sons and daughters really teenage "time bombs" as a recent U.S. News and World Report cover proclaimed?

Are half of our 10- to 14-year-old children really "at high or moderate risk of impairing their life chances through engaging in problem behaviors" as a recent Carnegie Council report concluded?

Are today's teens really impulsive, unthinking risk-takers, having unprotected sex like bunnies, smoking because a cartoon camel tells them to, ingesting life-threatening drugs, and taking their own lives at skyrocketing rates as academics and officials routinely tell the media?

Or, could there be a wildly exaggerated "teen scare campaign" diverting attention from the real problems facing today's youth--desperate economic conditions and misbehavior of adults around them?

Mike Males, a doctoral student at UC Irvine, has amassed an impressive array of statistics proving that adults are the cause of our social problems. Nevertheless, almost everyone--from liberals to conservatives--is willing to blame and punish kids for nearly every problem from unwed motherhood and welfare dependency to gun violence, drug abuse, smoking and the breakdown of family values, he says in his book, "The Scapegoat Generation," published this month by Common Courage Press.

While juvenile arrests and psychiatric confinements have more than doubled since 1980, the Clinton administration, Males notes, has also demanded a crackdown on adolescent violence, drunk driving and cigarette smoking, and designed welfare reform around getting teenage mothers to move home with their parents.

Yet research shows that fewer than 5% of teen mothers live in homes without adults and that most sexually active girls under 15 were initiated into sex by rape by older males. Race, class, gender, family background, locality--and mostly, poverty--are far greater predictors of violence than youth. Teen drug use has increased 3%, nowhere near 1970s levels, and the rate of teen drug fatality is 10 times less than that of adults.

The plain fact: Children act like the adults who raise them.

As Males points out, unwed birth rates rose 78% among teenagers from 1975 to 1990 and 79% among adult females. In 1993, boys accounted for 87% of all violent crime arrests among youths; men accounted for 87% of all violent crime arrests among adults. Most teen smokers are children of smokers. Three-quarters of the children who are murdered are killed by people older than 18. But most adults would prefer to forget their own behavior.

Teens are easy targets because they do not vote. Males contends that researchers spin their conclusions to please politicians. The press goes along, Males says, because it wants to please readers and "people want to read terrible things about adolescents."

At best, the scapegoating is hypocritical, he says. At worst, it results in defunding education and poverty programs that have worked in Western European countries to improve the conditions of youth--programs that we once had in this country. Says Males: "We as a society are unwilling to give our kids the same chance our parents gave us."

Perhaps the saddest result of scapegoating kids is that it winds up separating parents from their own children, when what teens could use most is more meaningful contact with caring adults.

Males, a former journalist, says he is driven by the young people he meets and by the clear injustice perpetrated by officials and revealed by the figures he has gathered.

Why he is angry is self-evident. The main question, he says, is why isn't everybody?

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include a telephone number.

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