JILL SITS WITH ME IN A TINY, SMOKY, PHILADELPHIA COFFEEhouse, sipping Earl Grey with extra sugar and eluding easy categorization. At 16, she has the pale corn-silk hair and luminous skin of a child, yet her persona is sophisticated, even a touch world weary. "I come here a lot," she says, surveying the cramped, dark cafe festooned with African masks and layered with the scents of espresso and cigarette smoke. "I play a little poker with my friends and we go over what's goin' on with us. Analyze all the fine points." She laughs, takes a long drag off her Camel, then stares at it. "I never thought I'd start smoking my grandma died of lung cancer." She shrugs, and takes another drag.
Through the waning afternoon, Jill talks about her close friendships, her poetry writing and her involvement with her school orchestra. She also confides that she dropped acid at 13 and was sexually assaulted and nearly raped at 14. She does volunteer workwith her church youth group and also occasionally attends all-night, mixed-gender parties, where she drinks beer and smokes "a bowl or two" of marijuana. "But I am, like, totally a virgin," Jill makes it clear, mostly because she is terrified of AIDS and other sex-linked diseases. "I wish I could live in an Anais Nin novel," she smiles mischievously, "where everybody just has sex, sex, sex, and nobody worries about it."
As I listen to Jill while assiduously taking notes, I feel the muscles in the back of my neck begin to constrict, then coil into a hard knot as she talks on about how drugs are sold and sampled in her school lunchroom, about girls who hide utility knives in their hair to protect themselves from attack, about routine sexual harassment in school corridors that is far nastier and more aggressive than anything I remember while growing up. I struggle to continue listening as a detached reporter, but it's no use; I can hear her now only as a parent. I am thinking of my own 11-year-old daughter, only 3 months away from graduation from her cozy, sheltered elementary school, soon to enter this storm of hazards. How can I hope to protect her, give her what she needs to see her safely through this passage?
It is not, after all, as though I can relegate Jill's life to some exotic category that renders it radically and reassuringly different .... from my own daughter's. Jill attends a public high school that is known for its academic quality and attention to students' needs; she describes her relationship with her parents as "good and pretty involved." Nor can the risks that ring Jill's daily life be represented as some kind of deviation from the general norm. Reporting last fell on a 10-year national study of adolescence, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development announced that rates of teen drug and alcohol use, unprotected sexual activity, violent victimization, delinquency, eating disorders and depression are now sufficiently widespread that "nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances." These perils cut across all demographic lines: it is useless to pretend that raising a child in a two-parent household, or providing middle-class advantages or even, for that matter, fiercely loving one's child will reliably protect a son or daughter from risk. I think again of Jill; If church youth groups aren't a buffer, if involved parents aren't protection enough, what is? I don't know the answer, and I am afraid.
I am not alone in my fear and uncertainty. A few years ' ago, University of Illinois psychology professor Reed ' Larson began to ask parents for permission to interview their children for a study of , the challenges of early adolescence. "They said to me, 'You think kids go through a lot? What about us? Do you have any idea how confusing and tough it is, now, to be a parent of a teenager?'" That scenario repeated itself so many times, says Larson, that he and his colleague Maryse Richards expanded their study to encompass parents' experience. …