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The Criminalization of Youth Culture


As teenagers, baby boomers forged a reputation for being free spirits. As parents, they are becoming increasingly authoritarian.

The constant here is that the protest generation is highly principled, focused on ideology, as it always has been. It's just that, now that boomers have babies on board, the principles have changed: Drugs no longer are tolerable, teenagers no longer should be out late at night, students no longer should be able to wear whatever they want.

Indeed, boomer parents are making the '90s look like the '50s.

"There is an irony in a way, these onetime recreational drug users are coming down hard on the very things they used to do," quips generational historian Neil Howe, 46. "A generation that used to trust no one over 30 now wants to teach morals to everyone under 30."

Cities and states are restricting everything from skateboarding to boomboxes, and experts say boomers are the main political force behind this criminalization of youth culture. A recent survey by the Public Agenda policy institute in New York found that two-thirds of adult Americans describe teenagers with such negative adjectives as "rude," "irresponsible" and "wild."

Another survey, by Princeton Survey Research Associates, found that almost three-quarters of Americans feel that young people with low educations, dim job prospects and poor values are a greater risk to this country than any threat from a foreign power.

"There seems to be a wide breach between teenagers and adults," states the Public Agenda report, "with adults looking at teens--preferably, in their minds, from a safe distance--with anxiety and disappointment, not at all certain that this generation bodes well for their communities or for the country."

The recent history of parenting has been marked by contradiction: Newfound parental freedom (the notion that parents are people too and should enjoy life) has coincided with evolving science about how profoundly childhood affects adulthood.

While the '50s and '60s painted the quintessential picture of conservative American family life (albeit with dysfunction lurking beneath the surface), psychologists and historians point to the '70s as a modern low point, when divorce became an easy out and popular culture held little regard for children.

In the '70s, movies depicted children as monsters and prostitutes ("Pretty Baby") and public school funding began to unravel. (Proposition 13 in California limited taxation for school funding.) By the '80s, psychologists were widely critical of the effects of divorce and the freewheeling lifestyle of some parents of the '70s.

But by then it was too late for an entire generation of young people raised in one-parent families with too little love. Some of those very children grew up to be demonized in the popular media (they were dubbed "child predators") as they discovered drugs, guns and a new form of family life--gangs.

But when baby boomers began having children en masse in the mid-'80s, things changed.

Minivan placards announced "Baby on Board" as parents woke up to child abuse, school funding and child care.

"There is a sense of trying to protect kids, shelter them, entertain them," says historian Howe.

"Young people really need certain parameters," says Sunny Cloud, a 47-year-old mother who gained notoriety by marketing a home drug-testing kit for parents. "It helps them grow up with a sense of responsibility and respect for laws in society."

With television ratings, music warning labels and the coming of the V-chip, "there is a feeling that boomers are fighting the culture," says Howe. "But in way, they own the culture."

Still, as boomers have used their muscle as leaders in politics and media to reign in childhood freedoms, some prominent voices--many of them from boomers themselves--say the new rules go too far. Others say the rules have become a cop-out for good old discipline, and that the it-takes-a-village mentality needs to be supplanted by a former generation's attitude: that good parenting starts at home.

Baby boomers are "producing a generation of bratty and out-of-control kids," argues Wade Horn, a 42-year-old family psychologist who is president of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Md., a suburb of Washington. "They're good at laying down rules for other children, but not very good at laying down rules for their own."

Horn also disputes the notion that boomer fathers are more in tune with their children than fathers past. "When four out of 10 children don't even have a father in the household, how can you be optimistic that we're doing it better than any other generation?" Wade asks. "It's simply not true. In no other period have fathers been more disconnected to their children, except in times of war and deadly disease."

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