At a journalism conference a couple of years ago, I met Linda Perlstein, the author of “Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers.” This meeting occurred right in the middle of the “rainbow party” craze – that is to say, the media frenzy around the alleged oral activities of oversexed (and lipsticked) tweens.
Rainbow parties hadn’t actually played any part in Perlstein’s book. But that, she told me then, hadn’t stopped TV producers – representing “Oprah,” from “The Dr. Phil Show,” from a Katie Couric special – from calling and cajoling her to come on their shows to talk about them.
“I’d say, ‘No one is doing that,’” she told me when I called her this week to refresh my memory of her story. “Even the sluttiest kids I knew, when I told them about that said, ‘Ewww. No one does that.’ This really prurient stuff was being way overblown.
“Believe me, I wanted to be on ‘Oprah.’ I had a book to sell. I’d say, ‘There’s lots of stuff to talk about. Stuff that really should be talked about, that’s more nuanced and complex.’ They were like ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
I found myself thinking about Perlstein’s media follies this week, when I read Tara Parker-Pope’s article “The Myth of Rampant Teenage Promiscuity” in Science Times on Tuesday. For me it not only raised the issue of myth and reality (teens are, in truth, having sex less and later than they did a decade or two ago), but also brought to mind the stories that we tell and what people are willing to hear.
Two sociologists in Philadelphia, Kathleen A. Bogle, of La Salle University, and Maria Kefalas, of St. Joseph’s University, both specialists in teen sexual behavior, told Parker-Pope that they’d had to struggle mightily to get people out of their “moral panic” mindset, and make them understand that teens are not “in a downward spiral” or “out of control.”
“They just don’t believe you. You might as well be telling them the earth is flat,” Kefalas told me when I called to follow up with her this week.
This reminded me of how the developmental psychologist Joseph Mahoney – and others – have had to fight to convince people that another much-discussed creature of our time, the Overscheduled Child, isn’t as common or as stressed-out or even as busy as we commonly think. (I myself didn’t believe him at first, and wasn’t too nice about it.) It reminded me, too, of the Boy Crisis – how hard it has been for scholars who have taken a hard look at the boy/girl achievement numbers to counter the popular wisdom that boys are falling behind. And it reminded me of the Overmedicated Child, that particular trope of child corruption, soul theft and performance pressure that has for so long fascinated me.
In each of these examples, real problems – that some girls are engaging in too-young, risky and degrading sex, that some children are being stressed excessively and stifled by nonstop structure, that some boys (poor and minority boys) are doing badly in school, that some children are getting really reckless mental health services – are grossly simplified and, via the magical thinking of dogma and ideology, are elevated to the level of myth. Real complexities and nuances – details concerning exactly which children are suffering, flailing or failing, and in what numbers, and how and why, and what we can do about it – are lost.
That’s no accident. After all, moral panics – particularly those concerning children – always serve some hidden purpose. “Modern ideas about the innocent child have long been projections of adult needs and frustrations,” Gary Cross, a professor of modern history at Penn State University, writes in his 2004 book, “The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture.” “In the final analysis, modern innocence has let adults evade the consequences of their own contradictory lives.”
So why are parents so quick to latch onto these myths to explain what's going on with their kids?
When they depart from kernels of reality to rise to the level of myth, they are, I believe, largely projections that enable adults to evade things. Specifically, the overblown focus on messed-up kids affords parents the possibility of avoiding looking inward and taking responsibility for the highly complex problems of everyday life.
In the case of the allegedly lascivious Lolitas, Kefalas sees this flight from reality very clearly: “People don’t want to hear about the economic context, the social context” to young teen sexual activity and teen pregnancy, she told me. “For a 14-year-old to be having sex it’s usually a symptom of a kid who’s really broken and really hurt. Those who are having sex without contraception are a distinct set: they’re poor, from single-parent households, doing poorly in school, have low self-esteem. Teen pregnancy is so high in America compared to other places not just because of access to contraception but because we have a lot of poverty. But Americans don’t want to see themselves as a poor society. They want to make a moral argument: if only teens had better values.”
Having a family life that’s so atomized and disconnected that children have the physical and emotional space to upload nude pictures of themselves onto the Internet, and lack the self-esteem and self-respect to know better is obviously undesirable. Being a stressed and frantic, frazzled and depressed parent is harmful, too. (“We are a mess,” Suniya Luthar, the Columbia University psychologist, once told me, explaining why she saw overscheduling as a symptom rather than a cause of family distress. “We are the ones running around like freaking chickens without a head…. It’s the situation where the captain of the ship has lost control.”)
Now of course every generation laments the decline of the younger generations; adults have been blaming the decline of civilization on worsening values in our children (or vice versa) since the time of ancient Assyria. But I do wonder how much of that previous inaccurate forecasting involved getting wrapped up in simple-minded and overwrought myths, as my generation seems want to. Without a doubt, American parents struggle with dramatic changes in the family structure; for every upheaveal (increased divorce rates, increased family mobility, greater economic pressures) there seem to be less stabilizing social factors to which we should anchor a family. Naturally, many parents react to this by worrying incessently about the quality of life of their children, and whether those children can survive emotionally and psychologically (or even physically) through the rigors of a childhood that seems so much more unstable and uncertain than in times past, especially when they compare it to a mythological "golden age" when families were stable, parents stayed happily married for life, and grand-parents lived right around the corner. Into this anxiety creeps these mythical fears, that seem only to confirm our worries that our children will slip away from us; we want to believe in the overscheduled child because we believe that we're supposed to give them a hundred things to do to foster their development. We want to believe in the promiscuous teens because we see rampant sexuality everywhere in popular culture; how can it not have a disastrous impact on our kids' sexuality? We want to believe that boys are getting left behind in class because everywhere we see the traditional role of men in our society upended, and we're not so sure what should replace it (or that boys can survive it and grow up to be good men.)
Warner's column is both heartening and discouraging. Maybe things aren't so bad with our kids after all, right? Maybe they all will turn out okay, even if things seem to topsy-turvy and uncertain to us. At the same time, how much harder is it to deal with poverty, than to simply get on TV and scold parents to keep a closer eye on who their kids date or hang around with? How much easier is it to give kids a dozen things to do a week, than to make the hard decision about who does or doesn't work so that somebody's home with them (or lament that you can't even afford the choice)? How much easier is it to chide our culture for medicating children, than to accept that some children do struggle and the answer to dealing with that is not as clear as giving (or not giving) them drugs?
I think all good parents, in exchange for the overwhelming feelings of joy and love that their children give them, are also cursed with a neverending anxiety about their children. What do we feed them? Where do we send them to school? How do we discipline them? Most importantly, how do we keep them safe? Those questions are especially difficult to answer when everything around us seems to be so uncertain. Of course one answer to this is to "let kids be kids", to stop worrying so much because kids in the past managed to grow up just fine. But that's just another myth; a lot of kids of our ancestors' generation didn't grow up just fine; they went work before they were even teenagers, or they never went to school, or they grew up in poverty and remained impoverished their whole lives, or they died of disease, or were killed in accidents. It was hard being a parent then, and it's hard now. It's just hard in different ways. So we reach out for myths to help explain what we see going on with our kids these days, but the answers are not nearly as simple and satisfying as we wish they were.