Do Adults Understand Young Teenagers' Needs?

Article excerpt

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 bad.

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. …

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