Violence among children: more dangerous than ever The endless blame game must start and end with the question of adult involvement.

December 13, 1998|By Judith Schlesinger | Judith Schlesinger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A country so long complacent about young death in the ghetto has finally been jerked awake by the terrible news out of Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and Washington state, where freckle-faced kids too young to drive are old enough to gun down their classmates. Suddenly, the argument about parental responsibility has a dark urgency that slams academic debate to the sidelines.

Experts have long maintained that parental actions - or the lack of them - are central to shaping a child. This is an awesome mandate in the best of times, but when dysfunction increasingly means violence, there's a rush to diffuse responsibility.

"The Nurture Assumption" by Judith Rich Harris (Free Press, 480 pages, $26) shifted the mantle from parents to peers, and millions cheered. (See "Children at Risk" on the next page.) Some were celebrating the poetic justice of its publication: Harris, banned from Harvard's psychology program for inadequate research, won the scholarly award, 36 years later, that was named for the guy who threw her out.

But the greatest noise came from parents so addled about "doing it right" that they quote Shakespeare to their offspring in utero, yet plant their kids in front of baby-sitter boxes and expect V-chips to replace moral instruction. Most are baby boomers, the first generation to fully embrace therapeutic blaming - at least until they became parents themselves.

The blame game is endless, since it's impossible to quantify the impact of parents or peers and certify which is greater; in lieu of proof, people embrace the latest consensus to arrive on the ever-swinging pendulum.

But this is no longer enough once the problem metastasizes from simple rearing to deadly risk - images of bloody schools, combined with drugs, AIDS and the frightening, nihilistic sounds of their music, all suggest that adolescents are in more danger now than ever before.

Five new books address the danger, four by examining individual lives and one by providing solutions. "Things Get Hectic: Teens Write About the Violence That Surrounds Them" edited by Philip Kay, Andrea Estepa and Al Desetta (Touchstone, 256 pages, $13) compiles writings by young people about their clumsy, heartbreaking efforts to normalize life in a war zone. One attempts to decorate murder like Martha Stewart: "I'm tired of trying to figure out colors and designs for my friends' memorials," he says.

"Everyday Courage: The Lives and Stories of Urban Teenagers" by Niobe Way (NYU Press, 310 pages, $55) is about "average, ordinary, low-income urban teens coping with racism and paranoia." Way's feminist framework shapes her research into psychological "themes" like the dynamics of trust and betrayal - interesting, but a rather languid approach when the sirens wail louder every day.

A similar insularity pervades Patricia Hersch's "A Tribe Apart" (Ballantine, 391 pages, $25).

Although subtitled "A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence," it never leaves the tidy, planned community of Reston, Va., where the author lives with three teens of her own. The book's central premise - that adolescents create their own communities - is hardly revelatory, since the major task of adolescence is to forge a separate identity apart from parental definition.

Hersch's three years of hanging out in classrooms and McDonald's made her privy to many secrets, but the alleged bombshell that "good kids from good families do experiment - sometimes in risky or dangerous ways" is a top hat without a rabbit.

If anything has changed, it's the extent of latchkey aloneness: Hersch suggests that since rebellious baby boomers wanted space from their parents, they assume their kids do too - and give them far more than they'd like to have.

Boomers are also indicted in the beautifully written "Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country" by William Finnegan (Random House, 432 pages, $26): "I hold the fecklessness and self-absorption of my generation substantially responsible for the darkening, fearsome world that Americans face today." Finnegan focuses on four poor families from New Haven to L.A., but also considers the larger social influences of economy and media.

Reporting that the average child is exposed to 380,000 commercials by age 18, he outlines "the [ferocious] impact of inescapable affluent lifestyles" and "the oppressive sense of reduced opportunity" that contribute to risk-taking and despair. Again, the missing ballast is the weight of a grownup: "Without significant adult involvement in their projects, many kids tend to enact ... hometime versions of 'Lord of the Flies.' " But they have to hit prime-time before society reacts.

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