Sweet 16 isn't quite so sweet anymore.
In Washington, legislators talk of adolescents as "super
predators" as they debate bills on youth violence. A majority of
Americans tell pollsters they don't think today's teens will make
the US a better place. And around the country, local officials pass
punitive laws curbing teenagers' movements and actions: Violating a
teen curfew in Fillmore, Calif., for instance, can now cost a
The moves represent a growing trend by government at all levels
to pass laws and take other action to control the behavior of
American youths on a scale unseen in decades.
Much of it is driven by public concern about growing juvenile
crime rates. But underlying the tough-love laws, too, is the
perception in many cases that parents are failing in their
child-rearing and disciplinary duties and that government needs to
Indeed, supporters of many of the laws say they're necessary to
rein in unruly adolescents who no longer get much family guidance.
And many Americans agree parents need the help: Only 1 in 5 say
adults provide a good role model for their children, a recent
national survey shows.
Yet the crackdown is drawing protests from others who believe
the laws allow too much government intrusion into family life,
impinge on teen rights, and in some cases may be racist.
"As Americans we're not dealing with fundamental problems,"
says historian LeRoy Ashby of Washington University in Pullman,
Wash. "We deal with them by identifying these scapegoats and then
coming up with symbolic laws that suggest we're dealing with the
problem. Now we're using our children."
Politicians are enacting real laws - preemptive and punitive -
at all levels. In Texas, the House is considering criminal
penalties for minors who smoke, and schools invite police to
oversee teens at the prom. Georgia followed other states' lead on
July 1, making a driver's license harder to obtain, and Sacramento,
Calif., teens on learner's permits can no longer give friends under
20 a lift unless an adult is in the car.
Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida has proposed jailing
13-year-old offenders with adult convicts. And cities across the
country are introducing curfew laws.
"Americans are frightened for - and in some cases of - our
children," says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of the New
York-based research firm Public Agenda.
It has happened before. At the turn of this century, economic
progress meant fewer children had to work, and political reformers
began to worry about children channeling their energies in
They produced a bumper crop of restrictive laws, redefining
delinquency to include a range of activities normal for children at
the time: smoking, rolling dice, and staying out late. Censorship
laws were passed to limit exposure to movies and dancing, much like
the current proposals over TV content and the V-chip, says
Professor Ashby. …