Childhood in the suburbs Good-bye Beaver Cleaver: Increased violence, disrespect in today's families.

August 15, 1996

CHILDHOOD IN small towns and the suburbs was never quite as innocent as we tend to remember. And yet, despite the heartaches that go along with growing up any place, any time, many who were children in places like Howard or Carroll counties 15 or 25 years ago lived a life not all that different from television's Opie or Beaver Cleaver. Families ate dinner together. School violence meant a playground fistfight, not Eddie Haskell threatening the teacher with a steak knife.

Times have changed. A recent report by the Maryland Kids Count Partnership, composed of public and private agencies that periodically assess children's well-being, reveals an unmistakable surge in the amount of youth violence in the counties. In Baltimore County, school suspensions for violent acts nearly tripled from 1,173 in 1992-93 to 3,347 in 1994-95; arrests for violent crimes rose from 428 to 694 from 1990 to 1994. Even in Harford, which had the best juvenile violence record in the region, suspensions rose from 829 in 1992-93 to 1,009 in 1994-95.

It's important to view these in perspective. The suburbs are still pretty good places for children. Very few kids -- 7 percent in Baltimore and Harford counties, 6 percent in Anne Arundel, 4 percent in Howard and Carroll counties -- live in poverty, the most important factor in determining quality of life. (In Baltimore City, one-third live in poverty). Infants are born healthy, the great majority of students graduate, teen birth rates, child abuse and neglect rates are low.

Still, police and educators note a marked change in attitude among suburban children that is making schools and streets less safe. A growing number of kids are disrespectful of authority. They're aggressive with each other, and more likely to use weapons to settle arguments. They're bored, and prone to violate others' rights in search of entertainment.

These changes are not linked to economics. They are a function of popular culture and, more significantly, of the family circa 1996. The rise of the two-income family and demise of the two-parent family has left too many suburban children on their own, without structure, discipline or a sense of behavioral boundaries. Parents are too tired to expend the kind of energy child-rearing requires. It's not just their children who are suffering the consequences.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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