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The following is an excerpt from the book The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence
by Elliott Currie
Published by Metropolitan Books; January; $26.00US; 0-8050-6763-9
Copyright © 2004 by Elliott Currie

The belief that teenagers are adrift because something has gone wrong with the traditional family has been prominent in the popular discussion of youth problems for generations.  But in recent years the lament about the "breakdown" of the family has increasingly centered on the idea that parents have lost the upper hand--that we have become a society that is too lenient and indulgent with children. We are far too tolerant when they break the rules, far too forgiving of their "bad choices." As a recent bestselling book on raising children in "an indulgent age" puts it, "Parents give their children too much and expect too little." To drive home its point that parents are besieged today by "an overall sense of entitlement" among their children, the book's cover features a picture of a bratty child making a face at the reader. The idea that youthful entitlement and a lack of discipline are at the root of the problems of American families has stimulated a host of self-consciously "tough" social policies in recent years, from "zero tolerance" of student misbehavior in the public schools to the growing use of adult courts to sentence juvenile offenders, and it has become the mantra of a nationwide movement for "parents' rights." Dale's mother's enthusiastic support of "the tough-love thing," for example, is widely shared: the International Tough Love organization, which claims more than five hundred "support groups" in the United States (as well as Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa), is based on the "core belief" that "parents have rights too"--among them the right to "stop helping your child and start taking care of yourself."

But the idea that teenagers get into trouble because they feel too entitled and their families too solicitous fits badly, as Dale's story suggests, with the real-world experience of many American teenagers, including those in this book. Far from being lenient or indulgent, their parents were often simultaneously punitive and heedless. The inner culture of their families embodied a harsh and neglectful individualism that worked in multiple ways to breed the problems that ultimately overwhelmed them. Their homes were not places where they could feel progressively more competent and self-assured but arenas where they came to feel progressively worse about themselves and less certain that they were, at bottom, worth very much.

Typically, my interviewees grew up in families in which it was easy to fail and difficult to find either sustained attention or consistent approval. To an unusual degree, moreover, they were left on their own to deal with life's uncertainties and attend to their emotional (and sometimes even practical) needs. Many grew up within what we could call a high-demand, low-support environment. At worst, their parents' approval was contingent on their meeting rigid standards of competitive performance that were hard, if not impossible, to meet--all the more so because these parents often did little to help their children develop the emotional or intellectual tools that would have enabled them to perform on the level expected of them.

In these families, too, children's behavior was often viewed in stark black and white. children were quickly defined as either "in" or "out"--either basically OK or, in some fundamental sense, damaged goods. These families, in other words, tended to be remarkably intolerant of deviance on the part of their children--even if the parents themselves struggled with serious problems of their own, such as heavy drinking or drug abuse. They were also highly punitive families, in which the rules of acceptable behavior were narrowly drawn and the reaction to breaking them unusually severe or rejecting. In most of these families, it was easy for children to "mess up" but hard for them to get help when they did. And when, as often happened, they began to get into more serious trouble as a result, the family's response frequently set in motion a downward spiral. Further evidence of failure or bad character was met with still more punishment and rejection, which, in turn, plunged ado- lescents deeper into a sense of failure and alienation and confirmed their sense of themselves as flawed and unworthy people. As the cycle progressed, they were pushed farther away, emotionally and sometimes physically, from the family, and they slid or stumbled more and more definitively into a world mainly populated by others in the same boat--kids who had begun to be defined, and to define themselves, as outsiders or "screwups."

In these families, adolescents were not reliably contained, cared for, and guided through the trials of growing up: they were forced to sink or swim on their own and punished or abandoned if they sank. Many of them swam--and their resilience is both impressive and encouraging. But many sank, and they sank in ways that put them in grave danger. Their families, in short, reflected a broader culture of neglectful and punitive individualism--a modern social Darwinism in which those who are able to do well on their own, meet expectations, play by the rules, and play successfully are generally able to get along and even to prosper, while those who cannot do so face what is often an escalating process of abandonment, punishment, and exclusion. It is that culture--not "indulgence" or entitlement-that helped to propel these teenagers into the perilous state of not caring very much about what happened to them.

Four themes are especially important in understanding the character of this culture and its fateful impact on children and adolescents in America. I call them the inversion of responsibility, the problem of contingent worth, the intolerance of transgression, and the rejection of nurturance. In the real world, these themes are rarely found in isolation. I've teased them apart here, somewhat artificially, to show how each contributes to an environment that makes growing up unduly difficult for teenagers in the American mainstream. They represent a kind of mosaic, a pattern that, in one combination or another, turns up repeatedly in the lives of troubled adolescents.

On Their Own: The Inversion of Responsibility

One of the most common laments among troubled middle-class youth is that they were saddled with too much responsibility for managing their lives as they were growing up. They experienced childhood and adolescence not as a time when they were "brought up" in any meaningful sense by competent and admirable adults but as one when they had to figure out how to navigate life on their own. Often, they will say that, even when they were small children, they "had to be the adult" because no one else was. This is a problem with many shades: the degree of parental abdication ranges from the subtle to the glaring. Some describe their parents as having been basically AWOL--as having, for all practical purposes, abandoned (or never taken on) anything resembling an authoritative and nurturing role in their lives. They speak of parents almost wholly absorbed in their own "issues" or, at the extreme, in a state of something like serial collapse. In these circumstances, some teenagers wind up having, literally, to take care of their parents; at the very least, they are forced to conclude, early on, that if they do not learn to take care of themselves, it is not certain that anyone will take care of them at all. At worst, they may be essentially discarded by their parents--something we once assumed happened only in lower-class families.

Sometimes, their parents seem simply overwhelmed and unable to cope--and, as I'll suggest later, the social and economic situation of the middle class today has made this a disturbingly common condition. But there is often more involved. For many of these parents, this inversion of responsibility is not simply a reaction forced on them by external pressures: it is what they believe is right. It reflects their broader views about responsibility and mutuality, and they justify it in a variety of ways. On the simplest level, parents may explain their willingness to abandon the parental role on the ground that the child is just too much trouble for them to handle-even the cause of the family's problems. The parents may complain that they are too fragile to deal with a child who is so burdensome. More frequently, the justifications draw on deeper cultural themes-ideologies about the proper role of parents and, beyond that, the proper place of "help" and support in general. The withdrawal from commitment to their children is rooted in a thin and ultimately self-serving individualism: they believe that children need to learn to "make good choices," and making good choices is not something that anyone else can do for them. They believe that it is bad for children (as for adults) to be given too much help in dealing with life, and they often complain that their own children make demands for nurturance and tolerance at a level that, in their view, parents should not have to provide.

The inversion of responsibility is linked to adolescents' descent into serious trouble in several overlapping ways. Part of the problem is practical: the parents' abdication exposes children to the multiple perils of an increasingly risky world, without the reliable supervision or assistance that could help them navigate it safely. Since they are not provided with clear norms or expectations to guide them or with strong models of adults who themselves navigate their worlds honorably and competently, teenagers must construct working guidelines on their own, which necessarily involves a good deal of trial and error. But relying on trial and error in a dangerous world can get you in trouble very quickly. The problem with having to take care of yourself as a child, in other words, is that you probably can't, at least not without running some very serious risks and enduring some very hard landings.

Often, children in these AWOL families are physically on their own at some point because their parents have put them somewhere
else to live--anywhere from grandparents to neighbors to the street. They wind up living all over the place, partly because their families tend to move a lot and partly because their parents tend to shunt them off if they become problematic--which can be often, given how easily these parents define their children as too much to handle. This can sometimes be mistaken for leniency but is better understood as a kind of neglect.

The parental abdication may also be combined with the message that the child, not the parent, is the problem; the child is responsible not only for his or her own troubles but for the family's as a whole. It is all too easy, in that situation, for children to internalize that message, to come to think of themselves as unworthy, even fundamentally bad, and to feel guilty over the damage they have done. And if that is how you think of yourself, at least some of the time, you will be less inclined to shrink from doing things that the world defines as bad: you are already bad, and so you have little to lose.

There is another side to this. For some adolescents, the experience of being attended--or largely unattended--by self-absorbed or dysfunctional parents leaves them with a certain strength that, though unsolicited, turns out to be of great help later on, as they try to forge a more centered and productive life on their own. Some of them say that this kind of upbringing either kills you or makes you stronger; if you survive it, you come out having learned much that is of value in coping with life. We will come back to this phenomenon in looking at how some troubled adolescents manage to turn their lives around after a period of crisis. Suffice it for now to note that the experience of parental fragility or withdrawal often has a dual effect: it loads adolescents with a great deal of troublesome baggage that can help to precipitate serious problems, but it can also give them a capacity to handle themselves in difficult situations, to find inner resources when they are most needed, and to arrive at a sense of themselves as unusually capable and resilient people.