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Posted April 8, 2003 

Her Parents Look at Her As a Problem
(By David L. Marcus)

[David L. Marcus, an Education Correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, is on leave to write a book about adolescents in trouble. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, he is now a Research Associate at Smith College. More Information]

Who cares about a few spoiled kids getting into a jam with Mummy and Daddy’s credit cards? That’s what I thought when an editor at U.S. News & World Report asked me to write an article about boarding schools for adolescents struggling with drugs, alcohol, and other problems. It would be an understatement to say that I was skeptical. I knew from my days as a teenager at a suburban New York public school that troubled teens have been around as long as there have been teens. Back then, in the 1970’s, drinking, pot smoking, and careless driving - or a dangerous combination of all three - were fairly common pastimes. Really, how much worse could things be now?

My initial research surprised me. There are at least two dozen so-called therapeutic boarding schools, and several are so deluged with applications that they reject most prospective students. From the outside, the schools look like Spartan versions of traditional boarding schools, but their daily schedules are packed with therapy and behavioral modification exercises. After interviewing educational consultants, parents, and graduates of the programs, I decided to visit the Academy at Swift River, a school in the hills of western Massachusetts. Swift River interested me because it starts with a wilderness program on the 630-acre campus and concludes fourteen months later with a service-learning project in Costa Rica. In addition, it is owned by a for-profit company, which raises questions about who is treating our teenagers.

After my U.S. News article appeared in fall 2000, teachers, parents, and even high school students called to talk about the difficulty of raising, or being, a teenager. I started to sense there was a vast subculture around us - in basements, in school cafeterias, and in malls - that most adults didn’t fathom. Things are changing so fast that one of the best books around, A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence, is already outdated. The author delved into the teenage tribe in prosperous Virginia suburbs, but she doesn’t even mention Internet addictions, something that is increasingly worrying parents.

I decided to take a leave from my job to write a book about teenagers in twenty-first century America. Last summer, I returned to Swift River to observe a group of fifteen students in the wilderness camp. Since then, I’ve joined them in group therapy and classes, wiffleball games, and careening down icy slopes on sleds. I spent five or six days a week at the school, and I’ve met the parents of the fifteen kids. Twenty years of journalism had trained me to be fairly dispassionate in war zones and cities torn up by earthquakes and hurricanes, but it’s not easy being detached on this project. I like these kids - they’re witty and sensitive; they can be savvy and naïve at the same time. Quite a few are also lucky they’re alive.

Sometimes it seems like teens are floating along, oblivious to everything as they wait for the next feeding, or the weekend, or spring break. But the kids are keen observers. Get them talking - about their parents’ relationships, burned out middle school teachers, social-climbing neighbors - and you’ll be in a seminar with some truly insightful anthropologists. While volunteering as a teacher at Swift River, I’ve asked students to write about friends back home who are floundering. They’ve channeled their fears into heart-wrenching essays. One student succinctly got to the heart of the matter when describing his heroin-abusing ex-girlfriend: “Her parents and teachers look at her as a problem, not as someone who can be helped.”

Often, hearing the summaries of troublemakers being sent to Swift River, I expected to see knife-wielding ogres. But the old saw held true: these aren’t bad kids, they’re kids who behaved badly. I spent time with a seventeen year-old whose grades plunged as he took ecstasy and made the rounds of late-night rave parties. Only after I’d known him for four months did I hear him play an incredible riff on the piano. Who, I asked, was the composer? “Oh, I wrote that,” he said. While hiking with another boy, I learned that he had hacked a telephone company computer, then turned off the switchboard of a municipal police station. I kept thinking it was too bad that someone hadn’t found a way to encourage him to use his computer skills productively.

Every few weeks I bring my own rambunctious children, ages two and five, to Swift River campus. I marvel when I watch them drawing or pretending to play Monopoly with the teenagers - teenagers who have committed credit card fraud, hocked the family jewelry, abused every drug imaginable, and even hit their parents. Not long ago, a fourteen-year-old who was no angel back home calmly explained to rebel-with-a-stuffed-rabbit son why it’s important to obey rules. My son was transfixed. And I wondered about the way we Americans segregate the different generations. Wouldn’t it be smart to insist that teens read regularly to toddlers at day-care centers near high schools, or help build playground equipment, or do something to either inspire little kids or pay back old folks? (Oh, how naïve! I’ve been told that would create all kinds of insurance and liability issues. I guess we ought to forgo creative problem solving and simply let teens live in their own world.)

Swift River, like other therapeutic boarding schools, starts by removing kids from their wheeling-and-dealing friends, impersonal high schools, or tension-filled homes. The school has dozens of rules, beginning with the three fundamentals: no sex, no drugs, no violence. The kids don’t have access to e-mail, video games, cell phones, pagers, or other gadgets that American adolescents take for granted. It’s no coincidence that when the school launched a literary magazine it was called Fourteen Months without Cable. No one is locked in the school, so several times a year someone decides to run away - though, in a region of dairy farms, there’s not a lot to run to.

Friends who hear about my project often wonder whether it’s worth generalizing about all American teenagers from the experiences of the relatively small number who get into serious trouble. Besides, some people ask, aren’t most teens doing fine in school, thriving in after school clubs or pouring their energy into sports? Despite all these months of immersion in the world of teenagers, I am still far from an expert. But I can say that many teens are trying to cope with depression, learning differences, academic pressures, sexual identity issues, and family situations that are dysfunctional or down right dangerous. Given the chance to take hard drugs, misuse prescription pills, or get into relationships with older predatory partners, the kids at Swift River made the wrong choices. We can learn from their mistakes.

I’ve heard another objection to my project: therapeutic boarding schools are beyond the reach of many teenagers. Fourteen months at Swift River cost about $80,000, far more than the same amount of time at Harvard. Still, not all the families are wealthy: many parents take out second mortgages or deplete college savings to pay for what seems to be the last chance to save their teenage children from self-destructive behavior. An expensive, for-profit treatment program offers examples of what parents and public schools with limited budgets can try. Some features of therapeutic boarding schools are quite basic: providing students with structure, clear and strict rules, role models of peers who have over come problems, plenty of contact with adults, and a chance to appreciate the wilderness.

I’m still trying to figure out why things go awry for a considerable number of teenagers. A few scholars blame “affluenza”: this generation simply has too much money and freedom. But that doesn’t explain why some teens repeatedly risk their own lives or imperil others as their siblings and best friends cruise through adolescence unscathed. There’s a theory that today’s college-educated parents have such high hopes for their kids that many boys and girls - such as those with learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - simply feel they can’t make the cut. As the kids’ self-esteem craters, they find outlets for their frustrations. The same goes for adopted kids, whose sense of isolation and abandonment heightens just as normal adolescent angst hits.

I’m dismayed by the way many of my old colleagues denounce the parents of these teenagers with vehemence - vitriol, really. Never mind that they have never met the parents and know nothing about them. I call it BtB, Blame the Boomers. There’s an assumption that anyone who was born in the two decades after World War II is impulsive, self-involved, and career-obsessed. Come to think of it, that pretty accurately describes me, but it doesn’t mean I’m a lousy father. It’s true that many Baby Boom parents harm their kids by failing to establish boundaries, but sometimes the opposite is true: parents put up too many boundaries, thus overprotecting their kids and denying them a chance to make errors.

I don’t deny that some people make rotten parents: they disappear and abandon their children for years, or they treat their kids as trophies to be trundled out for social gatherings. Still, I’m not ready to condemn a whole generation. Many of the Swift River parents toiled at stressful jobs to pay for good schools, music lessons, and summer vacations. Several thought they were doing the right thing by moving to tranquil, far-out suburbs and enduring long commutes, spending hours and hours away from the very children they were trying to help. Quite a few mothers and fathers never experienced good parenting themselves, or they suffered from depression or anxiety disorders. Maybe they were reeling from financial setbacks or layoffs. In their own mudding ways, they did their best for their children.

So although I don’t have the answers yet, I can share the following observations.

It’s more difficult to be a teenager now than a generation ago. I know, it wasn’t a picnic being a fifteen-year-old in the 1950s or the 1960s, but kids in the twenty-first century face a more complicated world. Not long ago, public high school teachers worried about gum chewing and cutting in line. Now they fret about guns, bombs, suicide, and rape. Thanks in part to the proliferation of television channels and Web sites and the last economic boom, teenagers have more temptations - and they all hit at an earlier age. Parents who faced the choice of whether or not to smoke pot in eleventh grade now have to deal with kids who see cocaine and methamphetamines in middle school. Some drugs, such as ecstasy, weren’t even around schoolyards a decade ago. At the same time, it’s astounding how many teens are growing up without the supports we used to take for granted: two parents; aunts, uncles, and grandparents; a community where adults are present after school; a family that sits down for dinner every night.

It is possible that today’s teens have too many choices. Kids who live on the same block and attend preschool together end up fragmenting as they head to an array of public, charter, magnet, vocational, private, and parochial schools. Old friendships dissolve, and communities have less sense of community when children, not just adults, are sprinting off in different directions each morning.

The pressure to fit in is extraordinary. It’s never been pleasant to be a portly boy or girl, but now the mass media makes over weight kids feel like pariahs. In some extreme cases, slim mothers who are masters of the stomach crunch fret when their daughters weigh more than ninety-five pounds or so. I’ve met at least a dozen kids who existed on a diet of Adderall, Ritalin, or other prescription drugs (along with caffeine and cigarettes) that, besides providing a high, suppress the appetite. While I assumed I’d meet many girls with eating disorders, I wasn’t prepared for the talks with boys who purged. It’s alarming to hear how many boys and girls have seriously contemplated suicide, or attempted it, because of their desperation about family rifts, lover’s quarrels, bad grades, or incessant teasing.

Adults don’t understand their world.
Time and again, I hear parents say, “Johnny is a handful, but he doesn’t use drugs” or “Suzy doesn’t have sex.” Soon after the parents are out of range, Johnny is calmly relating stories about his coke dealer or Suzy is reeling off names of boys who ditched her after intercourse. I also meet students who appear to be one extreme or another - high-achieving, say, or socially inept. The more I get to know them, the more I discover their nuances. Take the girl who appeared to be Miss Perfect because of her stellar grades, cheery demeanor, and involvement in extracurricular activities: After her mother’s death, her world fell apart. Her relatives didn’t know it, but she was sexually abused by a boy. Ask socially awkward boys how often they were bullied or ridiculed, and be prepared for an earful. Or consider the students who, starting in middle school, have skipped classes and smoked pot every year on April 20. Although many parents haven’t caught on, for years that occasion has been known in scores of public and private schools as National Stoner’s Day. The date, 4/20, has evolved into a buzzword, redolent with images of the teenage underground. In many parts of the country, “to 420” means to smoke a joint. Same with “get blazed.”

The lack of understanding often leads to mistrust. Consider the titles of recent books about adolescence, as mentioned by the Washington Post: Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager and Yes, Your Teens Is Crazy! Also: Now I Know Why Tigers Eat Their Young: Surviving a New Generation of Teenagers. And this: Unglued and Tattooed: How to Save Your Teen from Raves, Ritalin, Goth, Body Carving, GHB, Sex and 12 Other Emerging Threats (GHB is gamma-hydroxybutyrate, also called the date-rape drug).

Do a survey at your school: Ask parents to define “420” or “get blazed.” You’ll see quite a few befuddled expressions. Then ask teenagers, even those who never use drugs. There’s a good chance they’ll know precisely what you mean - though by the time you pose the questions, those phrases will probably be outdated. No matter. By bothering to ask, you’ll show that you see teens as people worthy of being heard, rather than problems to be solved.


Patricia Hersch, A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of
    American Adolescence
(New York: FawcettBks., 1998).
Scott Sells, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager (New
    York: St. Martin’s Pr., 2001);
Michael J. Bradley, Yes, Your Teen is Crazy! (Brooklyn, M.Y.:
    Hanging loose Pr., 2001);
Peter Marshall, Now I know Why Tigers Eat Their Young:
    Surviving a New Generation of Teenagers
(Rocklin, Calif.:
    Prima Pub., 1993);
Sara Trollinger, Unglued and Tattooed: How to Save Your Teen
    from Raves, Ritalin, Goth, Body Carving, GHB, Sex and
    Twelve Other Emerging Threats
(Washington, D.C.: Lifeline
    Pr., 2001).

["Reproduced by permission of the American Library Association from “Her Parents Look at Her As a Problem”, by David L. Marcus, in “Knowledge Quest”, Volume 30, Number 5, May/June 2002, pgs 19 – 21, copyright © 2002 by the American Library Association."]

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