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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 1999 Issue #57

(What do we really tell parents and children?)
By: Lon Woodbury

The most recent tragedy of kids killing kids which recently occurred in the 1,800 student Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado with 15 dead and about 20 suffering gunshot wounds, has re-ignited the national public debate about adolescents and the violence that seems to be increasing in their sub-culture. The main questions raised by the media are who should be blamed, and what can we do to help our children? All the usual knee jerk culprits have been raised: blame and prosecute the parents; and/or increase restrictions on or eliminate public ownership of guns, being two of the most common.

However, it seems to me the level of public debate sparked by this incident is broader, and has less of the simplified knee jerk demands we’ve seen in the past. There finally is serious talk in the mainstream media of adolescent alienation, and how adolescents create their own world, which tends to see the adult world as irrelevant to their problems. In reality, adolescent alienation is almost a given to describe the students enrolled in the network of Emotional Growth Schools and Programs. It is refreshing to see the mainstream media start to realize alienation describes a large minority of adolescents, both those enrolled in these special schools and those that had no one to intervene for them in their frustration and pain.

The assertion that large schools of mass education like Columbine High School might be unhealthy for some students is starting to be discussed a little bit in the mainstream media. This has been a common observation for years among alternative schools, including Emotional Growth Schools and Programs. It is refreshing to see the question finally being addressed by the public, who have long assumed the economies of scale in building large schools was the most important value in public education.

The series of public school shootings are only the tip of the iceberg. Any person working with adolescents realizes there are huge numbers of children who are hurting and in various degrees of alienation. We desperately need to broaden the scope of the discussion to better understand adolescent needs and find effective ways to help and support each and every adolescent. That the search for answers seems to be widening is good. We need to expand the public discussion further, and allow no sacred cows or unstated assumptions to avoid penetrating questions.
For example:

Is it reasonable to criticize parents for invading a child’s privacy, and then condemn parents for not knowing about it in advance when their child does something harmful?

Is it reasonable to expect parents to effectively monitor their teens’ activities, when society has created a culture and tax structure that frequently forces both parents to work long hours outside the home?

Is it reasonable to accept low expectations for teens, and demand high expectations for parents?

Is it reasonable to demand rights and assign blame, but minimize talk of responsibility?

Is it reasonable to foster and encourage teens to create their own sub-culture, and then deplore the power of negative peer pressure?

Is it reasonable to expect government programs to solve the youth problem, when teens need personal mentors and positive adult role models more than anything else?

Is it reasonable to continue to expand children’s rights as absolute rights, when some use those rights for destructive activities? Is it reasonable to criticize frantic parents for enrolling their teen in a residential school or program as abandoning them, when local resources have proven ineffective and/or insensitive to parents pleas for help?

Is it reasonable to insist parents let experts (educators, therapists, etc.) “fix” their child, when “experts” themselves cannot agree among themselves on what to do?

Is it reasonable to consolidate small neighborhood schools into large mass education schools, and expect most students to have meaningful and personal relationships with teachers?

Is it reasonable to turn adult type responsibilities over to children in an effort to “prepare them for the real world,” when children most need the protection of safety, consistency and well defined boundaries in which to grow up?

We seem to have grown a “youth class,” isolated from the larger civil society, and it is becoming painfully obvious that although a majority of children still grow up fine, some of the alienated minority are becoming dangerous, and the rest desperately need help. Tinkering with standard ways of viewing and working with adolescents is no longer enough.

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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