On the drive to work today, I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition (as is my ritual, along with the #2 breakfast value meal and Mc’D’s). It seems some medical and social brains have come to an interesting conclusion. In studying the behaviors of teens that are considered troubled (meaning those that take high risks with drugs, sex, or crime), they found that there was less continuity in the cases where the focus was geared on single vs. dual parent homes and the teens’ socioeconomic bracket. They found that these factors did not give reliable statistics on the issue, but two other flags proved to be better indicators of risk taking teens: the amount of spare, unsupervised time allowed and poor academic achievement.

It makes sense to me. If a child is living in an affluent community, has a family not fraught with divorce or domestic violence, but is also not being given enough attention as he matures and suffers poorly in school, what leads us to think that the former will cancel out the latter? If the same child grows up a little more poor with even just a single parent but is also given a lot of time from that parent both in supervision and support, could we say that his chances of avoiding drug pressure, crime involvement, and sex at too young an age are better? It slightly surprises me that the professionals have taken this long to figure out that risk taking in adolescence is less contingent upon social structures and more upon simple things like parental roles (however the structure exists) and academic success (usually an attribute of corrupt teens when it is failing and of exemplary teens when it soars).

When a teen doesn’t do well in school and continues to maintain poor grades, that is one area where he will not be seeking his identity. In addition, when his parents are distant and seemingly unaffected by him, that area too will fail him in the search for his self-expression. If he is not challenged in these two very important areas of his life, where else is he to turn? His peers and the world around him. I think the pros have been looking in the wrong places for blame for too long as it is. I do hope that parents will listen.

Most of the teens in a survey conducted on this issue lamented that they often wished that their parents were more demanding, that they laid the law and took a stand. The teens who fit the profile of both academic failure and loose parental supervision were 20 to 50 percent more likely to have engaged in drug use, premarital sex, and crime than those teens who were put on shorter leashes in these areas. Teens in the former settings have the ironic power that younger children have not yet mastered; they are aware of what they are doing and that they are often doing it to get whatever attention it allows them, and yet, despite this awareness, they see no reason to stop or alter their choices. Some of them deliberately do outrageous things that they themselves do not always want to do, but do them to get a reaction from the people in their world.

There is little success in neglect. There is no pride in avoiding your responsibility as a parent to the teens of this time. Which is why neglect like this occurs in silence, seldom addressed directly by those, like teachers or social workers, who see the end product of parental folly. And now, in America, it has become a white collar crime, working its way into all areas of society so that no longer can we blame the poor middle and low classes for our failing education system, our high teen pregnancy rate or our rise in under 18 crimes. The only hope I have now is that if these issues can be seen for what they really are instead of a racial/class stigma, change can occur. As usual, and sad as it is to admit, it will only be rectified when it infects the dreams of the future for white, suburban America.

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