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Opinion & Essays - June, 2002 Issue #94 

By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

When parents call our office, one of the most common requests is for a “Military School,” or sometimes for a “Boot Camp.” The idea that a military experience is a solution for acting-out, rebellious and out-of-control young people is a deeply held belief among many American citizens. But as a way of dealing with out-of-control young people in early 21st century American society, this idea has basically become a myth! Both the military and military schools are no longer what they used to be. They still can offer a discipline and guidance for the young person who simply is floundering and needs some direction. The military and its schools fail, however, to provide effective help for those out-of-control young people who stubbornly insist on doing what they want, when they want, however they want.

What military service for young men used to be, both in this country and in most societies throughout history, was a societal safety valve, used to introduce adolescent males to concepts of responsibility, cooperation and self-discipline. Military service was used not only for a nation’s defensive and military purposes, but also as a tool to take floundering boys and turn them into men by teaching them discipline and how to work cooperatively and constructively with others. It has often been a means by which society has “socialized” those boys who otherwise would focus their intense but undisciplined energy into anti-social or self-centered activities. For example, in our early history, there are numerous reports of English parents sending their boys into the military to serve in the colonies of North America or India, welcoming them back only after they had “grown up.”

The military in this country served a similar purpose up until about the 1960s. For example, until the early seventies, judges throughout the country commonly told juvenile males who got into a little trouble with the law that they could either “spend 30 days in jail or enlist in the army.” Many draft boards at the time filled their draft quotas through these judicial decisions. In other words, military service was used to “knock the stuffing” out of arrogant and rebellious boys by involving them in a maturation process of that often included helping them get their high school equivalency and vocational training, thus providing tools for adulthood.

Starting in the 1960s, at least four developments lead to a change in our in our country’s attitudes. First, the anti-war movement of the1960s caused military service to garner much less respect from many citizens. Second, as our society became more risk adverse, injuries and deaths from military training exercises that used to be accepted as part of the price of having an effective military, became politically intolerable. Third, the Feminist movement, seeing opportunities being gained by males through successful military careers, pushed for equal military opportunities for females. And fourth, advances in technology required soldiers to have the education and ability to understand and use technologically advanced equipment. One result under President Nixon, was a voluntary army which competed for the best of the young, rather than attempting to develop soldiers out of rough, raw material. Another result was the goal best expressed by President Bush (Elder), for a “kinder and gentler” military.

The military is no longer interested in young people with mild anti- social and/or immature behaviors who desperately need the discipline that a firm “socializing” experience like military service, used to provide. The modern American military provides discipline and a quality growth experience, but only for those who are properly prepared, that is, high school graduates who can demonstrate the emotional maturity to “carry their weight” in the “new” military.

Military schools have followed the lead of the armed forces, now focusing more on college preparation. Some military schools and programs can work very well with those children who are floundering but who can accept the need for structure and discipline. The military format is effective for these youth, who respond well to a system of clear expectations, consequences and rewards. But these military schools have learned to have little tolerance for a student who is rebellious and angry. Where a military based school might once might have turned a rebellious and manipulative student over to a staff member who would firmly and perhaps physically confront the rebellious student, they now simply turn the student away through expulsion. If a parent with a highly rebellious teen looks to a military school as an answer, they are courting an expensive failure.

Despite these changes in our society that have radically redefined our military and military schools, the myth of the military being a solution for out-of-control and mildly anti-social adolescents continues. Perhaps this idea was perpetuated by, and passed on to, the children of the generation who won World War II. Many of these WWII Veterans claim that when they were younger, they had been jerks, and it was their military service, and especially boot camp, that forced them to grow up. Their children, now middle aged, heard this repeatedly while growing up and perhaps experienced it themselves as a result of their own military service. So, this myth, born in a different society with a different military, with different manpower needs, continues through individual personal memories from a bygone era.

Although Military Schools rarely work with the out-of-control child anymore, the idea of a military environment as a solution for struggling teens lives on in the popular idea of boot camps for troubled teens. This concept received a major emphasis in President Clinton’s Crime bill of 1993 [Woodbury Reports August 1993, #23, http://www.strugglingteens.com/archives/1993/8/news06.html]. This legislation provided the funding to establish dozens of new boot camps for juveniles throughout the country. Boot camps are also capturing our culture’s imagination via a television media that loves the tough image a boot camp provides, finding it ideal for news stories and special documentaries. Although in my experience these boot camps seem to help some children, just as military boot camps of yesteryear helped many young men, statistics have shown these boot camps for struggling teens are no more effective than the questionable success of traditional juvenile correctional facilities. Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence that what works with early 21st century rebellious young people is different from the military environment that used to work well a couple generations ago. [For an expanded discussion on boot camps, see the Woodbury Reports article on Boot Camps in the August 2001 issue #84 http://www.strugglingteens.com/archives/2001/8/oe02.html].

In other words, many of the contemporary young people who are rebellious, need a different approach than what rebellious young people responded to in the past. Part of the reason might be that where a rebellious child in the past often knew what the right thing to do, but choose to do differently, where now we have rebellious children who can’t even choose, because they don’t have a clue about what is the “right thing” to do, to be successful in life.

The use of Military schools as a solution for acting out teens in the early 21st century is an outdated solution, developed by previous generations, to fit the needs of the past. Solutions developed in response to problems of earlier generations do not work well with our current generation. Modern society has evolved in ways, which require different approaches in order to properly “socialize” those who could be considered out-of-control and mildly anti-social. A more effective approach, especially for those youth who are angry and insist they have all the answers, is frequently referred to as “Emotional Growth.” Over the past 20 years, this approach has evolved ways that are effective with rebellious young people who desperately needing “socializing” experiences. It is not that these wilderness and Emotional Growth schools and programs are easy and pamper their students. They are every bit as tough as the military approach. The main difference is that the staff will help orchestrate “consequences” for the students, often utilizing natural consequences, rather than just simply “punishing” the misbehaving students. From dealing with consequences, a student learns the right thing to do, because it makes life better. All too often, these same children in a military environment will at best only learn how to avoid punishment, by whatever manipulation or secretive behavior it takes.

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