What Teenagers Really Want

Southern California teachers, disgusted by the wave of violence among teenagers, set off on a tour of 50 cities to interview adolescents in an attempt to discover the causes and possible cures. Forty-nine-year-old Howard Haas and forty-eight-year-old Alex Aitcheson conducted what they called a “Children’s Crusade,” talking to the teens from various economic and social backgrounds.

Their findings are remarkable for their simplicity and obviousness. Teenagers, whether rich or poor, are not estranged from parents. They actually want their parents to spend more time with them. They want their parents to listen and (surprise!) set guidelines and make them adhere to rules.



In another age, this would not be shocking. But in our time, when parents are regularly told to “be friends” with their children and to allow them to make their own rules out of fear that the kids won’t like the ones parents come up with, this may be disturbing stuff. Haas said his experience talking to teens showed him that “the kids aren’t numb (to violence), but we adults have grown numb.”

A teen in Woodbury, Connecticut told Haas and Aitcheson: “Parents have to instill their values in their kids. How could these Columbine kids have a shotgun in their top drawers? It’s ridiculous Where were the parents?” Said Haas, “What we found was that…kids are just dying to talk and don’t have anyone to talk to.” Sometimes the simplest things are the most profound.

A 17-year-old Cleveland girl told the two: “Violence is not something you just pick up…You don’t get an urge to kill someone for no reason. It all comes back to the family.”

The teachers found that mothers were frequently their children’s heroes, but fathers, often described as emotionally or physically absent, are not.

The need for more parental involvement, especially by fathers, in the lives of children is something many of us would rather not face. A new study or a government program we relate to — but spending less time at the office and pulling back from our pursuit of material wealth are offensive to our definition of happiness and success. Still, the solution not only to teen violence but to so many other social maladies is within our grasp. It begins with individual decisions.

When people get married, they should decide on personal goals before career goals. If a job interferes with rearing children properly, it is better for the career to suffer than the kids. As for rules, why do so many parents stop setting them or relax them when children enter adolescence? That’s when limits are most needed.

A lot of this, I suspect, has to do with overworked parents wanting to be liked by their kids because of their guilt over their absenteeism. Warehoused in day care early on and later paid little attention to when parents are home, teenagers seek ways to express their anger at feeling rejected and unloved. Some rebel with sex and drugs; a small but destructive number choose violence.

Parents aren’t powerless. They can control whether there is television in the house and what is watched. If they make it a priority, they can have one family meal a day together and converse without interruption. They can live as models to their children. They can ensure that the kids are educated in the truth and not propagandized by what interest groups think passes for instruction. It’s more difficult now than when I was a teenager, but it isn’t impossible to set kids on the right path. It just takes the right, sometimes difficult decisions.

At the end of the child-rearing process, which would you rather have: a young adult you can be proud of, or one that brings you grief as you contemplate what went wrong from your corner executive office? From the responses to these two teachers, the answer to that question should be obvious.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate