As the mother of a 16-year-old son, Laura Sessions Stepp knows
firsthand the complex facets of a teenager's world - the good, the
bad, the funny, the sad.
But not until she began traveling around the United States to
interview 10-to-14-year-olds for a book did she realize the extent
to which young teens need more support than they currently get. As
adolescents test limits and forge more independent lives, parents
often abdicate their roles at the very time their offspring long for
guidance and encouragement.
Ms. Stepp, author of "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children
Through Early Adolescence," calls this period a time of potential
for shaping values and beliefs. "As parents, we have enormous
influence over that, but we don't think we do," she says in an
interview in Boston. "Rather than paying attention, we let them do
what they want."
Yet if parents fail to lay a solid foundation for learning,
values, and social skills, she warns, high school will be very hard.
That is when teens face difficult choices: Do I drive when I'm
drinking? Take drugs or not? Have sex?
Stepp acknowledges her surprise in learning from young teens how
often adults unknowingly disrespect them. In a room, adults talk
over teenagers rather than to them.
"We don't respect what they're capable of," she says. "We cherish
them while they're young, and want to disown them as adolescents."
Teens complained to her that store clerks and shopping-mall
security guards are quick to assume they're going to do something
That same kind of distrust permeates some schools. Stepp calls
zero-tolerance policies involving the possession of illegal drugs or
anything resembling a weapon "horrible, just horrible. There's so
much fear in this country, prompted by a few widely publicized
incidents. We've lost our common sense. If you treat kids like
gangsters, they act like gangsters."
She urges parents to speak out. "If a school throws a kid out for
bringing a plastic knife to cut bread, parents can raise
objections," she says.
At the same time, Stepp encourages parents to look at their own
behavior - how respectfully they treat their children at home and
how they treat their children's friends.
Yet respect doesn't mean overindulgence. One 14-year-old girl
Stepp interviewed was given almost everything, but not asked to do
anything. The girl had no real role in her family. Stepp's son,
Jeff, began doing his laundry at the age of 12. He also does the
dishes every night. …