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Adults Upbeat About Kids, but Teens Don't Return the Favor

People express a greater sense of shared responsibility for children, study shows.

June 23, 2004|Jia Lynn Yang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The percentage of Americans with a positive view of children has doubled since the mid-1990s, but teenagers give abysmal marks for how well adults understand them, two studies released Tuesday found.

There has been a marked shift in the public toward a greater sense of shared responsibility for the nation's children, according to a report by the Advertising Council. A majority of adults polled said that one person could make a difference in a child's life, and 78% expressed a willingness to help.

In contrast, a study from 1996 described a less empathetic public that was more inclined to place the blame for children's problems solely on parents.

In the earlier Ad Council study, 23% of Americans used positive words to describe children. In the most recent report, 46% used terms such as "wonderful," "great" and "smart."

And this year, when respondents were asked whose responsibility it was to raise children, 28% said it was the parents' alone. The rest of those polled -- 72% -- said it was not only the parents' responsibility but the community's as well.

Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive of the Ad Council, a New York-based organization that creates public service advertisements on critical national issues, said a number of factors could be fueling the optimism toward children and more enthusiasm for civic duty.

Before the national welfare reforms in the mid-1990s, there was a greater stigma attached to indigent parents and children, Conlon said. Many among the general public suspected that parents on welfare were not providing for their children because they were squandering money on alcohol and drugs.

Another factor, Conlon said, is that government and nonprofit groups have placed more emphasis on educating the public about children's needs. The events of Sept. 11 may also have inspired a more generous civic spirit in Americans, she said.

"We all feel a little more responsible, a little more protective," Conlon said.

Just as there is evidence that adults are becoming more receptive to supporting children, a new poll of America's youth shows that teenagers are feeling disappointed by adults. Asked in the form of a report card to grade adults in 20 different categories, more than one-third of the teenagers polled gave failing grades when asked if adults were stopping teens from smoking, drinking or using drugs, and if adults "really listen to -- and understand -- young people."

"The thing that should jump out at society is that there is no mark here higher than a B," said Shay Bilchik, president and chief executive of the Child Welfare League of America, the Washington-based association that sponsored the report with the Uhlich Children's Advantage Network, a Chicago agency that aids troubled children and their families. "There's nothing where kids say, 'When it comes to this, adults really do get it with us.' "

Teens gave their highest average grades, Bs, when asked if adults provided a quality education for them and if they provided safe homes.

This is the sixth year the poll has been conducted, and the responses on the lower and higher ends of the grades have been consistent, except in the category of "running the government." In 1999, adults received a D-plus; in 2002, just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they received a B-minus; this year, the grade was a C.

The poll also showed that television was by far the most popular source of information for teens, and the one that influenced them the most. Of those asked, 56% said they relied on television for their news; 11.5% said newspapers. In a surprise to those analyzing the results, only 9% cited the Internet.

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