Eli
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"Eli Newberger, M.D., a leading figure in the movement to improve the protection and care of children, is renowned for his ability to bring together good sense and science on the main issues of family life. A pediatrician and author of many influential works on child abuse, he teaches at Harvard Medical School and founded the Child Protection Team and the Family Development Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. From his research and practice he has derived a philosophy that focuses on the strength and resilience of parent-child relationships, and a practice oriented to compassion and understanding, rather than blame and punishment. He is the author of The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Charaacter and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife Carolyn, a developmental and clinical child psychologist." www.elinewberger.com or E-Mail.

Adolescent & Gay
Adolescent Suicide
Alcohol & Drugs
Cheating
Discipline and Punishment
Early Adolescence
Enabling
Honesty
The Key to a Man's Health - A Woman
Late Adolescence
Treating this Heavy Midlife of Men

Alcohol & Drugs


During the past year, I've asked a number of adolescent boys, Daniel among them, about their first exposure to alcohol and the pattern of drinking that developed in their lives. After returning from a seventh-grade class trip, Daniel got his older brother to drive him and six of his friends—four boys and two girls—from the school in suburban Boston to the family's vacation home on Cape Cod. Everyone settled into the guest house. One of the boys suggested they all try drinking. The others all said it wasn't a "cool" thing to do, but soon they were bored and started to express curiosity about what drinking was like. One of the boys found some Scotch whisky in a cupboard. Everyone sampled it. Daniel took a couple of sips and told everyone he thought it tasted disgusting. Only one boy drank enough to be really drunk. Others drank small amounts and pretended to be drunk.

When Daniel was a junior in high school, his parents left him alone for a weekend for the first time. He immediately threw a party, which got out of hand. A wall was damaged, cigarettes were stubbed out on hardwood floors, and an outdoor deck was wrecked. Local police broke up the party. Daniel doesn't regret having the party even though his parents were furious. He was drunk at his own party: "I had to be. Otherwise I would have flipped out." In late adolescence, Daniel drinks about three times a month, and when he does, he drinks enough to affect his judgment.

Many of the stories I listened to were consistent with Daniel's account. From the very beginning, boys were primarily curious about the experience of being "under the influence," and they pursued this goal even when they found their first tastes of alcoholic beverages repellent. There is enough peer reputation involved that boys will sometimes pretend to be intoxicated when they aren't; or at least their friends suspect they are faking intoxication.

Even when boys postpone their first drinking experiences to later adolescence, they may harbor the same curiosity as younger boys to put themselves under the influence. Ross drank for the first time a few days after graduating from high school. He had been a member of the Student Awareness Program at his high school, which meant that he voluntarily abstained from using alcohol and drugs, and led discussions among middle school students about the hazards of substance use and abuse.

Once he had graduated, Ross wanted to discover what drinking was like before he went to college. He planned to do it at a friend's house where, for safety's sake, he could stay the night. Of the several age-mates at the friend's house, only three were drinking. Ross enjoyed himself. He was acting silly, and one of his friends followed him around writing down all the funny things he said, which annoyed him at the time but now he's glad to have the record. Two years later, he drinks about once a week; about once a month he drinks enough to affect his thinking.

John Donovan, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies teen drinking, believes that peer influence is exaggerated as the cause of underage drinking. The main causes, he believes, are the general cultural acceptance of drinking, the observations a boy makes of drinking in his immediate environment beginning in early childhood, and the way drinking is addressed or ignored in family discussions as a boy is growing up.

In my conversations with boys, however, I found that peer influence appeared to be a strong contributing factor in most boys' introduction to drinking.

Certainly most of their drinking occurred in the company of peers, not adults. Students at Morgan's middle school were allowed to go home for lunch. One day in seventh grade, he and a few of his best friends all went to another boy's home for lunch. There were no adults present. They all poured themselves glasses of Manischevitz (sweet kosher wine). Most of the boys didn't finish their wine, but one of them finished his own and the remains in others' glasses. When the boys returned to school, the friend who had consumed the most acted drunk. Morgan believes he had taken enough to affect his behavior but that he was exaggerating his condition.

Some adolescents merely provide their peers with opportunities to drink, but others exert social pressure. When Ben was fourteen years old, he visited his older brother at college. His brother and some of his brother's friends decided it was their "duty" to get Ben drunk, and they did. Ben remembers thinking it was cool, but not at all his own idea. In late adolescence, he drinks moderately about twice a month, and enough to get drunk about twice a year.

The Well-lubricated Society

Most boys have been observing social drinking since early childhood. Susan Cheever gave one child's account of family cocktail hours in her memoir, Note Found in a Bottle; My Life as a Drinker: "I loved the paraphernalia of drinking, the slippery ice trays that I was allowed to refill and the pungent olives, which were my first childhood treat, and I loved the way adults got loose and happy and forgot that I was just a child."

Two-thirds of adults in the United States consume alcoholic beverages, many of them foully occasionally, and a majority of them without causing known significant harm to themselves or others. Two-thirds doesn't mean everyone, but it is a substantial enough percentage to say that, among adults, drinking alcohol at least occasionally is normal rather than exceptional.

Many adult parties, ceremonial occasions, and business lunches are events where alcoholic beverages are served. In many families, the adults drink before dinner—and in some households before lunch also—and perhaps consume wine with their meals as well. The ubiquity of drinking is expressed in such folk humor as "Wherever four Episcopalians are gathered, there is sure to be a fifth." Adult consumption of alcohol is so common that people employ the words "drinking" or "drinks" to refer to alcoholic beverages; a group of beverages that might be consumed in place of alcohol have to be distinguished by adding the qualifier "soft."

Adult drinking in public is legal just about everywhere in the United States, although the sale and serving of alcohol is prohibited at certain times and places, and is subject to licensing and government regulation. If adults injure others while acting with impaired judgment or self-control from drinking alcohol, they may be held accountable, criminally or civilly or both, for the harm done. In some jurisdictions, adults can be prosecuted if they allow minors to drink in their homes or give them alcohol elsewhere; they are more liable to be prosecuted if the minors then injure themselves or others.

In addition to individual adults who abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages, there are large groups such as Mormons and Moslems who oppose on religious grounds the use of alcohol and other stimulants or depressants. Boys do have opportunities to see that drinking is optional, that it isn't practiced universally by adults. Unlike the consumption of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, or heroin, which is illegal for everyone, adult and child alike, the consumption of alcohol is basically legal for adults across the country, and illegal in public places for everyone before their twenty-first birthdays. Many studies confirm, however, that a large proportion of adolescents, especially boys, have consumed alcohol long before they reach majority age.

According to a 1997 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 8 and 9 percent of eighth graders had drunk alcohol within the past thirty days. There were about 9.5 million current drinkers between the ages of twelve and twenty, 4.5 million of whom could be classified as binge drinkers, and almost 2 million of whom were heavy drinkers—to all intents and purposes minors who are alcoholics. All of these statistics are extremely sobering, but I pay special attention to the binge drinkers. Some of the juvenile alcoholics have probably learned to function adequately even with a high level of consumption. But the binge drinkers are the ones who drink to such excess at parties or on other occasions that they often threaten themselves with alcohol poisoning, assault people, destroy property, and jeopardize the lives of others when they drive.

Seventy-five percent of twelfth graders in the Health and Human Services survey had drunk alcohol within the past year. Only a little more than 40 percent of all twelfth graders thought there was any great risk involved in heavy drinking. One study I consulted put the median age at which boys begin to drink at slightly over thirteen years; another study put the average age of first drink at twelve.

A 1995 Minnesota Department of Health survey showed that nearly a third of high school seniors statewide drank to a state of intoxication at least monthly, or had more than five drinks on a typical drinking occasion. A majority of boys surely think of drinking alcohol as something they are eventually going to do—like driving a car or having sex. The question is not so much whether as when, where, and what type of alcoholic beverage. Once they begin drinking, many adolescents participate in binge drinking, and some progress into alcohol addiction.

In the town where I live, there are eight schools that each combine the first eight grades. Graduates of all these schools converge on one high school campus for ninth grade. The town and school cooperate in providing full-time alcohol and drug counselors for the high school, an implicit admission that teenage drinking and drug use are serious and frequent problems. (Studies I've consulted indicate that a substantial number of students nationwide find ways to bring alcohol to school and consume it on school property.)

One counselor at our high school told me that over 90 percent of the students drink. It's a main way, she said, that kids overcome their discomfort in adjusting to this big, new, strange place. Drinking cuts through every clique and every status group. By the year-end holiday of their freshman year, many are falling apart. By the end of sophomore year, she judged, many have gotten a grip on their patterns of drinking, but I didn't find much reassurance in her estimate of the statistics. Obviously the high school doesn't invite or want the situation; it comes unbidden.

The lesser mass of a boy means that a given amount of alcohol will affect him faster and harder than it will affect most adults. As a story I picked up on the Internet made clear, even boys who are familiar with this general relationship between body mass and intoxication don't know how to apply it in actual situations:

About a month ago, I had a rather difficult experience. I am a freshman in high school and had made plans with two girls in my class to go drinking with a few junior and senior boys. So I had planned, me and my 100 pounds, to have a drinking contest (shots of gin) with a 200 pound junior. I had drunk a few times, and I liked the way it made me feel. I thought it was fun! The boy I was to have a contest with had already smoked up a little. I knew he was gonna win. I had about three or four shots mixed with pink lemonade—I can't stand the taste straight—and I blacked out.

I don't remember what happened next, but I was informed. The girls asked them to stop but the boys kept giving me more to drink. After I had about eight or nine shots I started throwing up. It was pretty bad after that. A friend called my parents who called 911, and I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. It was definitely the worst experience of my life. You may know how I feel and you may not, but it is really awful when your parents have no trust in you, and follow you around the house to make sure you aren't sneaking a quick drink or smoking up in a bathroom, especially since I only smoked up once, and they know only once. I will never have my same life back, and I will never have the freedom I once had!!

Motives

Adult motives for drinking include: easing discomfort or unease in social situations—drinking as icebreaking; providing solace for loneliness or boredom; inducing relaxation or relief from stress—drinking after work, for example; soothing the pain of episodic or chronic unhappiness at work or in family life or other relationships; allaying anxiety about sexual performance; enjoying the sensation or "buzz" a drinker may get from light to moderate drinking; satisfying the body's biological craving for a substance the person is addicted to; appreciating the acquired taste of the beverage itself—a distinctive beer or a prized wine; causing a feeling of release from inhibitions through getting "high"; and neutralizing inhibitions against aggressiveness and other antisocial behavior.

The conventional view is that men get drunk, and then when they are drunk and "don't know what they are doing," they become violent. My jazz colleague, Tony Pringle, told me once of a regular Saturday night gig he played at an English pub where it was expected the evening would end in a brawl. The evening-ending fight was so routine that the band played the same song, "Don't Go Way Nobody;' when it broke out.

For some males, I believe there is a degree of intentionality involved in drinking and then provoking a fight, or in drinking and then initiating aggressive, uninvited sex. The drinking is counted on in advance to neutralize any inhibitions and then to provide an excuse: I didn't know what I was doing. Alcohol is very intimately associated statistically with criminal activity. It can function to allay the criminal's anxiety beforehand and to deliberately override his superego or conscience; it may be associated with his being excessively aggressive during the crime; and then afterward used as an excuse.

Curiosity about the experience of being high or drunk may motivate a boy's first consumption of alcohol, but even in adolescence boys may drink for any of the reasons adults manifest. Artemis, a college student, recalls that during the three months she dated Brian in their senior year in high school, he would sometimes be drunk but hide it so well that she couldn't tell for sure. "Brian is very shy, and he came to rely on alcohol as a means to overcome his shyness. I found out after we broke up that Brian wouldn't even call me for the first month we were going together without drinking first." Despite the history of alcoholism in his family, Brian could not be deterred in his drinking habits—or maybe because of the family history. He regarded himself as "stone cold sober" after drinking four beers, and would tell Artemis casually that he'd done a few shots of whisky by himself to prepare for later partying.

As males sometimes drink in order to fortify their nerve to pursue the sex they desire, so they may encounter girls who drink in order to override the reservations they feel about having sex. As Caroline Knapp wrote in her memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, "The first time Meg had sex, her best friend advised her: 'Just get drunk. It'll be easy.' So that's exactly what she did. She got drunk then, and she got drunk the next time and the time after that, and after a while the idea of having sex with a man without getting drunk first seemed pretty much impossible."

Drinking to alleviate loneliness or boredom is a well-known adult theme, but one should not discount its significance among adolescents. As one sixteen-year-old boy put it, "I don't do drugs, but a lot of my friends do. I do drink on occasion, but, hey, nobody is perfect. Parents tend to blame the media for these problems, but seeing a couple of cute frogs reading a Budweiser billboard is not going to make me want to drink. Boredom will, though. The main reason why we do these things is because we have nothing better to do. Movies and arcades are fairly expensive. Going to the mall isn't all that much fun because the security guards follow us around like we had trouble written on our foreheads. So what do we do? We go to a friend's house and drink or get high just to pass the time. Do discipline us when we get caught, but as a preventative, give us something to do."

To the list of motives for drinking that adults and adolescents may share, I would add a few others that are more characteristic of adolescents (or even preadolescents) than of adults. Drinking can be an act of rebellion by kids. They know it is a hot button to push. But just as some may wish to flaunt their drinking, many others, knowing what a hot button it is for adults, do their best to hide their drinking. Leif first drank beer in seventh grade at the home of a classmate whose Italian-American parents were accustomed to having children drink alcohol—mainly wine—in small quantities. The parents weren't home. His friend's older brother bought beer for a few boys. Leif drank enough to get sick. His friends tried to take care of him quietly so that his parents wouldn't learn of it; but they were unsuccessful. Leif endured a prolonged grounding.

Another motive of youthful drinking is to adopt a badge of faux maturity. Many boys like to pretend they are older than they are. Drinking for some is a pretend-to-be-adult activity.

More than is true of adults, I believe, boys also drink as deliberate risktaking. They know that it is risky, although many feel that they are magically immune from the downside of risks. They have seen adults drink and drive without accidents—why can't they?

Drugs

"It was the summer after my freshman year in high school," Gary, now a freshman at Northwestern, said to me. "I had just finished adjusting to that hellish transition that comes with any major change in life. I was beginning to get into a new rhythm of living. I felt socially comfortable, reasonably confident in my maturity and decisionmaking ability. Until that summer, I had been completely against any form of substance abuse, from drugs to alcohol to cigarettes. Most of my friends were two or three years older than I, and well used to partying. I had grown quite used to hanging out with my friends when they got drunk and high. Many times I had an invitation to partake, always I refused.

"That certain summer evening felt different. I was feeling bold, rebellious, curious. I was beginning to get fed up with the 'just say no' propaganda. I felt no need to 'fit in.' I had spent all year trying to do that in other ways. I was not being pushed by my friends. I had had numerous conversations and debates relating to drug use, and they all knew my position well. I was simply...curious. I wanted to branch out, try something new. It was a matter of exploring my world, not an instance of another world invading mine.

"Three friends and I piled into a van and drove to see the Allman Brothers. It was my first big-arena concert without adult supervision. I felt giddy and free. I had never seen anything like this before. Bikers and burnt-out hippies were there in abundance, but so were kids our age. New people, new clothing, new music, new style, new culture, new drugs. . . new everything! The whole atmosphere seemed to shout HAPPINESS! Let yourself go!

"The concert was a blast. We set up our blankets on the lawn overlooking the stage. I had already made up my mind—I was going to smoke pot. The sun began to set, the light grew dim, and the music started. The driver packed some nugs into his bowl, passed it around, and I inhaled...

"I didn't get high the first time, or the second or third. It took a while. I loved it. Every time after that, I smoked because I was with close friends and wanted to share an experience with them. Only once did I find myself developing a habit. I noticed the trend and stopped it. I tried alcohol and cigarettes as well, and as of now use the three occasionally. I am addicted to nothing except coffee, nor have I ever used marijuana to the point of addiction. For me, drug use is not the fiendish addiction of junkies, nor the mindless wasting of so many of my classmates. It is an occasional pleasure to be enjoyed among friends, and remains a subtle, yet exciting, part of my social life."

Gary's story reminds me that just as parental permission to spend the night after the prom at a hotel is an implicit permission to drink or use drugs and have sex, so parental permission to attend many popular music concerts in big arenas without chaperones is implicit permission to drink and use drugs.

The statistics on drug use by adolescents in the United States are as troubling as those on alcohol—both in terms of use and in perception of risk. From the 1997 Department of Health and Human Services survey: Fifty-four percent of twelfth graders have used illicit drugs at least once. The same is true of 47 percent of tenth graders, and a fraction less than 30 percent of eighth graders. Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States and tends to be the first used by children and teenagers. Almost 6 percent of twelfth graders use marijuana daily. Slightly over 1 percent of eighth graders use it daily. Only 25 percent of eighth graders think there is any great risk involved in trying marijuana.

One of the drug counselors at our local high school says that, as with alcohol, over 90 percent of the students have tried marijuana. Its use is not by any means confined to kids doing poorly academically; many "top-of-the-line" kids come to her for consultation, she says. A large number consume alcohol and drugs on school premises, and many of them prefer marijuana to alcohol because it's easier to conceal.

Children and adolescents who do not like the taste of alcoholic beverages but want the experience of being under the influence can alter the taste with mixers, and some companies have facilitated matters by selling sweet-tasting coolers with plenty of alcohol in large containers. Smoking marijuana can't be sweetened up, but kids will persist through unpleasant first experiences, if Grant's story from tenth grade is representative: "I really wanted the experience. We all sat in a circle and I saw my first bong. I was intrigued and nervous—didn't want to betray my inexperience. I watched carefully, trying to work out the method. When the bong got to me, I did manage to take a hit, although my form was not good. I think I smoked out of it two or three more times. I remember getting lightheaded in a very pleasant way. The world around me looked more vibrant. I had perma-grin. Somehow we ended up watching MTV. I lay on a couch and found out what happens when you smoke too much. I got clammy and nauseous. 'Give It Away' by the Red Hot Chili Peppers was on the TV. The sick feeling finally passed, but it was not pleasant. This experience did not turn me off the drug, though. It acted as a cautionary measure, showing me the cost of abuse as well as the pleasures of responsible use."

A majority of those who try marijuana do not go on to sample other drugs. But over 12 percent of eighth graders and 17 percent of tenth graders have tried stimulants such as amphetamines and methamphetamines at least once. Between 8 and 9 percent of twelfth graders have tried cocaine at least once.

Smoking cigarettes shouldn't be left out of a summary of addictive drugs. The side effects of cigarettes on concentration, memory, alertness, and ability to perform complex tasks may not be as great as with other drugs, but the longer range health risks are considerable. Nine percent of eighth graders smoke daily: 3.5 percent smoke a half-pack or more. By twelfth grade, the percent of daily smokers has climbed to 25: over 36 percent have smoked within the past thirty days. Of the 62 million Americans who smoke, over 4 million are kids aged twelve to seventeen.

Rules and Models

In Chapter 6 I told about a fellow pediatrician here in Boston, Nicholas Kriek, who grew up in South Africa—how his father told him at age twelve, after he had been involved in an incident of neighborhood vandalism, that he had to be accountable for his actions if he broke the law; his father was not going to rescue him. Nick remembers being surprised by that; he had thought of parents as people who came to your rescue no matter what. His own parents, Nick felt, were in many ways not particularly good models for him when he became a parent himself. But he remembers their emphasis, as poorly educated immigrants to South Africa, on his education. "They regarded the school system and teachers as being larger than life in character. I had the view as a kid that teachers were important and serious, an authority to be respected."

The time came when Nicholas Kriek's oldest son, Tommy, collaborated in some vandalism at the middle school, and Nick found himself sitting in the principal's office. She said the police would have to be notified. "If it's a police matter, then go to the police," Nick agreed. "Maybe he will learn a lesson." On the day of Tommy's court appearance, to his son's surprise, Nick did not accompany him because he had a long-standing engagement to present a paper in Washington, nor did he send a lawyer as some parents did. His son was learning something about accountability. But there were trying days to come for Tommy's parents.

"When Tommy went to high school, he got terribly involved in drugs and his schoolwork suffered. He had a terribly rebellious adolescence. He was never a problem at home. There, he was helpful and good-natured, but covertly defiant When he was outside the house, he did his own thing. Neither my wife nor I grew up around drugs. In South Africa, getting caught using drugs was a felony offense. So I can tell you honestly that throughout that period we were bewildered and dazed. We asked ourselves over and over again, 'What did we do wrong, what are we doing wrong?' We were naive. Today, if there were an unexplained deterioration in a son's school performance, I would think first of all to look for drugs or alcohol, or both.

"Somehow among our circle of friends, one of the mothers discovered that our kids were doing a lot of marijuana and drinking as well. A meeting of several kids and their parents was called, and this horrific scene was laid out for us. The kids acknowledged what they were doing. The plan was to see if, as a parental group, we could help all of them. We met with a psychiatrist a few times. There was improvement, but Tommy did not stop using drugs.

"Approaching his senior year, Tommy got very interested in art and decided he wanted to go to art school in Maryland after graduation. No sooner had he arrived in Maryland than it was obvious he wasn't certain he'd made a good choice. He was quite depressed. I remember talking to him many times because I was quite concerned he might attempt suicide. In his first year there, he developed a burst appendix that caused life-threatening peritonitis. I got a call from a Baltimore emergency room asking permission to do surgery.

"The surgeon was marvelous. It turned out that his own son, an expert skier, had died in an avalanche. We had frank discussions of the challenges of raising our sons. When Tommy was better, the surgeon took him to a ball game. I know that my son admired him immensely as a human being, as a model. Tommy dropped out of art school after that year, worked as a waiter, moved in with some friends in Boston, and got very depressed again. But when he recovered his equilibrium, he decided to go to college. He had a very shaky first semester because he had lousy study habits. Then he just got stronger and stronger, graduated summa cum laude in three years, got a scholarship to Stanford and became a serious citizen. Now, with his new Ph.D., he's ready to teach philosophy.

"My boys—I think if you were to ask them about their dad, they would describe me as a moralist, as too moralistic. I have found thinking about morality essential to finding my own path in life—where to go, how to behave. Without it, I'm lost. If I've given my kids anything of value, it's that I've tried to set an example in my own behavior. You can't tell them one thing and do something different yourself. I know parents who make that mistake. If you want your kids to behave in a certain way, then behave that way yourself and there is a chance that they will think well of you and follow in that path."

Parents faced with sons in trouble over poor behavior or for drinking or taking drugs can veer to extremes. Some parents wish to dissociate themselves from misbehaving sons; they abandon them to their own devices, which is a very different thing from holding them accountable for what they have done but supporting them nonetheless. Other parents rush indiscriminately to their sons' defense in full confidence that there's no misbehavior for which a person can't escape the consequences if he has a good enough lawyer or an aggressive enough parent.

Recently I heard of a fourteen-year-old boy who was expelled from a private school for misconduct involving drugs. When he applied for admission to another private school, the school contacted his former school for academic records and comments on his overall performance. The old school forwarded the grades but refused to comment further; the boy's parents had threatened to sue the school if administrators divulged to anyone the cause of the boy's expulsion, or even that he had been expelled. It isn't hard to guess what a boy might infer from this: He can count on parental help to avoid the consequences of any delinquent behavior.

Many parents who face one or another of such behavioral crises will feel just as surprised, shocked even, as the Krieks felt. Unless parents remind themselves to look carefully into the culture their children are living in, they may blithely coast along assuming their children's adolescence will be very much like their own as remembered from twenty or more years earlier—until evidence surfaces that their children's lives are very different from what parents expected.

In the face of unexpected behavior by his sons, Nick Kriek did a number of things in exemplary fashion. He honored the laws and institutional rules about such things as vandalism, drinking, and drugs that circumscribed the boys' lives, making clear to them that they were accountable for their behavior if they were caught violating the rules. He didn't take the fence-straddling position that the laws and rules are ill-advised or too strict, therefore the issue is not whether one heeds the rules but whether one gets caught.

I mentioned to him the episode I describe in Chapter 18 of several high school seniors in our town who were caught with alcohol at the prom and excluded, as promised, from graduation ceremonies with their classmates. "I would like to think," said Nick, "that if my kid was one of those who transgressed knowing what the rules were, that we would be upset that something the whole family was looking forward to had been ruined, but we would say that the rules were known to everyone and the consequences have to be accepted."

With respect to drinking alcoholic beverages, there are different rules for adults than for minors. The reason for the variation in rules needs to be explained to kids—and can be explained in terms of the relative maturity needed to handle the effects of alcohol on the body and behavior, and the threat of addiction. But if kids observe their parents drinking to the point of intoxication or serving other adults enough alcohol that they become intoxicated, the moral authority of the adults, on this issue at least, is pretty badly compromised. Parents don't have to practice abstinence from alcohol to be effective models, but they do have to practice sobriety; and if they fall below that standard, to their children's knowledge, they should take the initiative in acknowledging their slip and its consequences for their being a good model.

Forewarned and Well-prepared

When I talked with the Melvins, I learned about another family that prizes clarity about rules. "Our boys (Ben and Ed are aged twelve and ten) know that we have expectations for their behavior," Patricia said. "We're not shy about letting them know. Many kids in this community are not really sure what their parents expect. Parents don't think they can put their foot down and say, 'I expect you not to drink alcohol on Saturday night.'" "We all make mistakes," George Melvin interjected. "I've told our kids on numerous occasions that they are going to make mistakes, and they have to be willing to admit to them. That's a crucial part of development."

George's viewpoint about both accountability and slips has a poignant background. His father died of alcoholism and was abusive when drunk toward George's mother and the children. George is a recovering alcoholic himself. Ben and Ed know the family history. "They know that my father, their grandfather, was not able to live a full life, not able to show that he loved people, not able to hold down a good job. I grew up with it as 'the big secret.' You really pay a big price for not talking about it." "Years ago," Patricia volunteered, "Ben said to me, 'Do you think I'm going to be like you, Mommy, and drink alcohol, or do you think I'll be like Daddy and have a problem with alcohol?' And I said, 'That's something we don't know. We do know that when a mom or a dad is an alcoholic, there is a greater chance that their child might have a problem.' Our kids know that they are at greater risk.

"George made a deliberate decision to be the man his father was not:' Patricia remarked. "That was hard fought and hard won:' "The kids are aware that we've made choices that our parents didn't make:' George added. "I'm trying to say to them that you have to make choices. To us, the kids are top priority—teaching them that it's not about having a fancy car but about taking time to be with your family. That's basic stuff."

Patricia Melvin, who is a high school alcohol and drug counselor, pointed out the connections between alcohol and sexual experience among adolescents. "One of the things I do is teach a sexuality and health class at the high school. There was community support for it, and also community fanaticism about some of the topics we discuss. We let all the kids know that many kids have been drinking when they have their first sexual experience. We talk about how the sex might have been consensual, but would the person have made the same choice if he or she had not been drinking?"

As involved as she is in dealing with issues of sexuality, drinking, and drugs at the high school, Patricia Melvin still thinks the parental role is pivotal. "We can hire as many counselors as we want, but unless the families are behind us we will not get very far. We do run programs for parents through the school system, but often it's 'preaching to the choir.' At a PTA meeting I meet the parents who do know where their kids are on Friday and Saturday night—but not the parents who stopped having a curfew in tenth grade because the kids didn't like it and there was too much arguing about it. My greatest concern is that parents don't have any discussions with their kids before the problem hits them."

I asked Patricia what she thought about parents who allow kids to have parties with alcohol in their homes. "I think they sincerely believe they are providing a safety net for the kids," she replied. "They honestly believe they are doing a service by saying, 'You can come here, the keg is ready, and we will take the keys so you can't drive home.' My impression is that it's happening less than it used to. Many parents think the kids are going to drink anyhow, so there might as well be some safety built in. It's the same mindset as invented the designated driver—which is a way of saying that if the driver is reasonably sober, everyone else can get drunk. I agree that designated drivers are good for safety, but I think it's a poor overall message."

In her work with adolescents and young adults, Patricia Melvin emphasizes practical considerations: "Alcohol and drug issues are health issues with some fairly dramatic negative consequences. There are moral consequences, too. On all health issues I think in terms of the idea of moderation. Of course I see our society's ambivalence weaving through the issues of alcohol and drugs. I think it's very important to spell everything out—expectations, consequences, values, attitudes—so kids don't have to figure everything out for themselves." Her logic appeals to me. Let the morality flow out of information about what alcohol and drugs do to body and mind, and out of known potential consequences of impaired action and judgment, rather than beginning with a moral message that alcohol and drugs are bad, so "just say no." I believe adolescents respond to accurate information of obvious gravity better than to scare tactics.

When I asked George and Patricia how they were preparing their boys, who are on the edge of adolescence, to deal with its social pressures, they said they were aware that they were steering Ben and Ed away from an indiscriminate wish to be popular. "When I think of the 'cool kids' at even the elementary or middle school levels," Patricia says, "I think of kids who care more about what they look like, who wear designer labels. I think of a group of kids who will cut other kids to make themselves bigger. I think Ben is not comfortable with that kind of behavior. I don't think he wishes he was in this crowd or that. He has some friends who are thoughtful, nice kids, and he's happy with that. He doesn't do a lot of socializing on weekends. He's not talking about dating yet, but some of his classmates are. The kids that will be the partying kids in eighth or tenth grade, who will drink and smoke pot earlier—these are not the kids he gravitates toward, nor do they gravitate toward him. We've talked to the kids about how they only get to be kids once, and it should be fun, not high risk or high anxiety. I think the notion of letting them be kids as long as they can be is high up on my list of important things."

Two Families

The Krieks and the Melvins are both deeply attentive to the lives of their children. All four of them take with utmost seriousness their responsibility to model behavior as an intentional inspiration to their sons. All of them treat laws and rules about alcohol and drugs with respect and hold their sons accountable for behavior in violation of the rules. That said, the two families have approached adolescent drinking and drugs from very different backgrounds and mindsets. The Krieks were not mindful of the extent to which alcohol and drugs pervade adolescent social groupings, nor did they have any experience with drinking and drugs from their own adolescence to bring to bear on their sons' lives. Their sons were growing up in an environment in which a very large majority of students consumed both alcohol and drugs. Before they knew it, they were in the middle of a crisis with Tommy. It would have taken very carefully thought out parental strategies if the Kriek boys had gotten through high school without falling under the influence.

The Melvins were not hindered by naïveté. George knows from three generations of his family's history how much devastation addiction to alcohol can wreak. Patricia deals with the issues professionally every workday. She is particularly aware that pressure to use alcohol and drugs can vary considerably depending on what cliques and crowds a boy belongs to. In many adolescent groups, consumption of alcohol and/or drugs is virtually the price of admission. So the Melvins have family discussions and recite family history. Though the daughter of a minister, Patricia tends to her spirituality privately. It is George who takes the boys to church. The three males in the family are so engaged in the life of their congregation that Ben and Ed say it is their biggest support outside the immediate family and a further support for sobriety. With all their concern, however, the Melvins are not sure what lies ahead for Ben and Ed. "I remember our having a conversation about a year ago:' George says to Patricia, "and I think I was more willing to say it is okay to let our boys be the odd one out; and you were the one saying, well, they've got to live with all these kids, so maybe we need to chill out a little bit. I don't know what adolescence will be like for them. Perhaps they will feel that Mom and Dad are a little too far off target."

The question of how much to monitor adolescents' activities is a delicate one. I remember when my daughter was in high school and invited to a party where, we ascertained, there were not going to be chaperones and were sure to be alcohol and marijuana. We told Mary Helen that she couldn't go, and she was not happy with our decision. But a couple of days later she said she was glad Carolyn and I had made the decision we did; she had heard that the party got very rowdy, and she knew she would have been uncomfortable. One of the things we can do for adolescents is stay in close contact with them, and, in the interest of protecting them, sometimes make decisions they might hesitate to make for themselves. They should be aware from frequent reiteration that we would as parents do everything possible to rescue them from situations where they feel endangered or pressured to act against their best judgment. I know this is a difficult balancing act, because the parent wants to be an ally, not a heavy-handed spoilsport. But the teenager's world is a dangerous place, which Joy Dryfoos captured in the title of her book, Safe Passage: Making it Through Adolescence in a Risky Society.

The best example of where a parent doesn't want to end up in relation to an adolescent comes from the boy I quoted earlier: his parents were following him around the house to make sure he didn't sneak a drink or smoke pot in the bathroom. The parent as policeman is not a happy role. Recently I saw an ad for an in-home drug test kit. If a parent mails an adolescent's urine and hair samples to the lab, a report will be issued within three days on traces of marijuana, cocaine, PCP, and heroin use-and, on request, no doubt for an extra charge, LSD and alcohol. "Parents can give their teen a reason to say no to drugs," the ad says: "'My parents drug test me.'" Mind-boggling.

The power of the youth drinking and drug culture is such that every strategy needs to be employed to help boys from getting entangled: early and continuing family discussions; clearly articulated family norms of respect for rules and laws regarding mind- and mood-altering substances; honest accountability for breaking the rules; parental modeling with respect to abstinence or moderation in consumption of alcohol and abstinence from illegal drug use; professional counseling as suggested by known problems within the family; monitoring of teens' activities, particularly in concert with other parents from their groups.

All of these techniques are needed to counter the capacity of these substances to affect adolescents' development adversely through habituation and addiction, through diversion and distraction from the central process of forming a personal identity, and by interfering with the making of good choices, the benchmark of character.

Yet for all the attention that has to be paid to the intrinsic and insidious effects of alcohol and drugs, that is not the main issue. Adolescents, like adults, drink and drug themselves to treat a wide variety of vicissitudes: boredom, loneliness, anger and resentment, anxiety, a sense of purposelessness, feelings of powerlessness, sexual frustration, and not having a useful enough role in society. If we could magically remove alcohol and drugs from adolescents' lives, those vicissitudes would scream even louder for attention; and if we would more forthrightly address these feelings and the social realities in which they are lodged, we would remove a fair amount of the incentive to resort to alcohol and drugs at appallingly young ages.

J. Donovan and R. Jessor, "Structure of Problem Behavior in Adolescence and Young Adulthood," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53 (1985),890-904.

S. Cheever, Note Found in a Bottle: My Life As a Drinker (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

United States Department of Health and Human Services, Drug Use Survey Shows Mixed Results for Nation's Youth. Report of the 23rd annual Monitoring the Future Survey. Posted on the Internet December 20,1997, at www.hhs.gov.

Prevention Resource Center, Minnesota Department of Public Health. Interview of Jean Funk, Project director, by Julia Jergensen-Edelman, posted on the Internet by sci@gartland.com (1998).

C. Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story (New York: Dell, 1996),83.

J. Gans, America's Adolescents: How Healthy Are They? (Chicago: American Medical Association, 1990).

L. Johnston, J. Bachman, and P. O'Malley, Monitoring the Future: Questionnaire Responses from the Nation's High School Seniors, 1993 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Institute for Social Research, 1994).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance-United States, 1995, 45:ss-5.

Dryfoos, Safe Passage

Cheating


There are several situations in which boys are frequently tempted to cheat—in sports, for example, or in their after-school employment—but I've elected to look mainly at academic cheating because academic work is the equivalent in a boy's life to his parents' jobs. A student who habitually cheated in his schoolwork might find it less guilt-provoking to cheat in his adult work than he would if he had gone through school with academic integrity.

Boys are familiar with cheating well before they are tempted to practice it academically. They may have observed it or done it in family life—cheating in games in order to win, for example—or in play groups. They may have heard parents boast of successful cheating—on expense accounts or tax returns. Cheating is rife in adult life, from white-collar business fraud to falsified research data.

My brother, Henry, is a high school social studies teacher. It was thus natural for me to turn to him first for information on academic cheating by boys today. According to Henry, cheating is prevalent in high school. He told me about a boy he observed using a crib sheet during the first exam of the past school year. Henry reacted with obvious enough indignation that the rest of the class immediately knew of the transgression and teased the student mercilessly for weeks. The academic penalty for the student was to get a grade of zero to begin the year's grading.

In Henry's school, there is no established school policy on cheating penalties—maybe a sign in itself that the school as an institution is uncertain how to deal with cheating. Each teacher has to use his own judgment. There is no written school code of academic and social behavior, nor are students regularly reminded of standards of behavior. It is assumed that "everyone knows" cheating is not permitted.

The happy fallout of the story is that Henry's student responded to the cheating exposure by buckling down to work; by June he was near the top of the class despite having his initial grade of zero averaged in. He became an exemplary student, not only successful in tests but impressive in classroom discussions.

Others might regard the embarrassing public exposure as contributing to the boy's change of direction, but Henry believes he would just as surely have changed course if Henry had handled the episode firmly but more discreetly—in other words, without shaming the boy publicly. Henry regrets his outburst when he discovered the crib sheet. It is better, he says, not to embarrass students deliberately. Peer status is everything to kids, he believes. The last thing a student wants is to be uncool. Though Henry didn't say so, perhaps what classmates considered socially uncool in this situation was that the student got caught, not that the student had attempted to cheat. A boy who cheats today does so as a member of a society in which appearances are often judged more harshly than underlying social realities. Adultery, for example, is reported by survey research to be a prevalent type of cheating. There is little evidence of public concern about adultery if it is effectively kept secret.

Every boy has to sort out for himself a set of inconsistent social cues that he is given beginning in childhood. One cue is that cheating is wrong, but other cues include the obvious fact that some people think it is more wrong than others do, that society as a whole regards some forms of cheating as morally worse than others, and that sometimes people are more scornful of getting caught than of the cheating offense itself. I don't think it is too exaggerated to say that there is a culture of dishonesty coexistent with a culture of integrity in our society. A boy who is tempted to cheat has many precedents from the culture of dishonesty to use as justification when he elects to cheat. Fortunately, he also has exposure to the culture of integrity that espouses good choices.

Another student came to see Henry late last year to ask about his grade average. Henry consulted his grading book and pointed out that the student had failed to turn in some written assignments, a factor that, if not remedied, would adversely affect his final grade. The student hurried off to complete the missing work. Then he went a step further. He graded the assignments himself (very highly) and tried to slip the papers into Henry's desk. Unwittingly, he used a different color of ink than Henry ever uses, so the cheating strategy was exposed.

Reactions to cheating can be intemperate and have unpredictable consequences. A female high school teacher spoke about getting caught cheating in an English lit course during her freshman year in college. She had plagiarized a published critique of a work for one of her reports, and her professor recognized the passages and knew their source.

The dean suspended her for a semester. He said of her cheating, "You've done well, but not well enough. We suspect you've done this kind of thing in all your classes." His suspicious accusations were untrue. She was deeply affected by the way a single incident had provoked a wholesale condemnation of her character.

The eighteenth-century philosopher, Jean Paul Richter, commented: "If a child tells a lie, tell him that he has told a lie, but don't call him a liar. If you define him as a liar, you break down his confidence in his own character." I think his is profoundly wise advice. What the dean did to the student was to generalize her single offense and call her a cheater. She might have withdrawn from an academic career, or she might have developed a deep resentment of his unfair characterization of her and resolved to cheat more skillfully. Fortunately, this student resolved to clear her reputation. After serving her suspension, she returned to the same college, graduated with honors, and now counsels all her high school students on the potential consequences of cheating. Her story is sobering, but is her experience the final word on cheating? How prevalent is cheating, and is it best handled with a punishment-as-deterrent policy?

Why Do Students Cheat?

Who's Who Among American High School Students surveyed 3,210 "high achievers" in 1997. Eighty-eight percent judged cheating to be "common" among their peers. Seventy-six percent confessed they themselves had cheated. Compare this figure to the results of a national sample of college students in the 1940s, only 20 percent of whom admitted to cheating in high school when questioned anonymously. The students queried in 1997 ranked copying someone else's homework as the most frequently practiced form of cheating (65 percent of the cheaters); cheating on a quiz or test next most often (38 percent); consulting a published summary in lieu of reading the book, third (29 percent); and plagiarizing published work, fourth (15 percent). "Every single day I see cheating, a lot, in every single class I'm in," says a high school freshman from Madison, Connecticut. "They ask to see someone's homework, they write things on their hands or bring in little cheat cards to hold in their laps. It's bad."

Another type of academic cheating appears to have increased significantly in the past few decades. When William Bowers surveyed 5,000 college students in 1963, 11 percent admitted to collaborating with other students on work that was assigned to be done individually. Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino partially replicated Bowers's study in 1993 at some of the same colleges and found 49 percent admitting to the same kind of forbidden collaboration. My brother Henry's policy, when he discovers evidence of collaboration on work that was assigned to be done individually, is to grade the work on its merits, then divide the grade by the number of collaborators.

The odds of getting away with academic cheating appear to be heavily in the cheater's favor. Ninety-two percent of the confessed cheaters surveyed by Who's Who said they had never been caught. As we shall see, temptation to try cheating may be encouraged by the uncertain application of penalties: from severe to nothing at all. The prevailing attitude of a majority of students about cheating is that "it's not a big deal."

"They are driven cheaters," says the high school teacher I've mentioned who was suspended from college for cheating. "They do it for grades, not because they're lazy or stupid or don't know the material. It's sad, you see, because they're so driven to have a high grade-point average so they can get into their first-choice college. I hate it, because they lose interest in learning. I tell their parents that it's okay if they get a B. It's more important to be a well-rounded, interested, bright kid. But that's a hard sell."

When Henry and I were schoolboys, the students who were believed to have the strongest incentive to cheat were the students in danger of failing. Is the primary incentive now to get into the college of one's choice? A Chicago area mother reflected the grade pressure recently when she complained bitterly to a teacher upon her son's receiving a B instead of the desired A. The grade, the mother argued, could make the difference between her son's "getting into Northwestern or having to settle for Northeastern." While one might give her credit for knowing how to turn a phrase, she doesn't appear ready to settle for a "well-rounded, interested, bright kid" who gets B's.

Eighty percent of high school students share the belief that college is the door to a successful career, and they may believe as well that the better the college, the better the chances of success later on. Only about 50 percent of the students in high school today will actually go on to college, but about 80 percent of middle school and high school students say they intend to go to college. While there are many ways to define success, and not all of them go through college, it's easier to see that later in life than it is as a teenager.

About 20 percent of high school students are in some kind of serious alienation from the educational system at any given time, surveys suggest. They are working too many hours in paid employment to cope with schoolwork, or they have been devastated by drugs or alcohol or crime, or they are distracted by psychiatric or severe family problems, among the more common reasons. What this means is that almost everyone except the alienated student is pushing toward the door to college. In that kind of environment, the temptation to cheat to get the coveted admission or scholarships must be very powerful indeed.

The self- and family-induced pressure to get into the "right" college is not unlike the pressure many adults feel as they try to balance their economic and social class aspirations with the realities of their incomes. When they sit down to subtract from disposable income what they owe in taxes, the temptation to cheat a little here and there, or a lot, is very powerful.

Bill BrashIer, a journalist, decided to compare high school statistics on cheating to seventh-grade attitudes and practices by interviewing several classes of bright students selected for magnet programs. The seventh graders, especially the boys, were quick to tell him their methods. How they wrote information relevant to tests on shoe soles or wrists. How they covertly used pocket calculators when it was forbidden. How the class brain signaled correct answers to the others. Their methods were more traditional than the technique of some high school boys I read about who wrote crib sheet information on the underside of their baseball cap brims until their high school teacher said all such hats had to be worn backward during exams.

They all cheated, the seventh graders said, on tests, on homework, on reports. One of their teachers laughed off their talk as exaggeration, as a way of being cool. Only a few of them, he insisted, cheated as much as they all claimed. But why did they all claim to cheat?

The simple desire to take the easy road is sometimes advanced as the basic reason that students cheat. My brother says that in almost thirty years of teaching he has never ceased being surprised how many students "just never studied." So there would appear to be a certain portion of the student body disposed from the beginning to take the easy path: book reports off the Internet, for example. A mother writing to an Internet bulletin board provides a perfect example:

My 15-year-old son had an English paper due on Great Expectations. When I didn't see him working on it, I gave him a gentle reminder. 'Don't worry Mom: he told me. 'My paper's going to be great.' And it was. In fact, it was so great that I became suspicious. I called up the file on our computer and discovered that he had downloaded the paper from the Internet! I was shocked. Even more shocking was my son's attitude when I confronted him with cheating. He didn't see it that way. 'Everyone cheats, Mom,' he said. Is he right? What can I say to get through to him?

There certainly is a sizable pool of teenagers who resent the cheating going on around them for making it more difficult for them to succeed honestly. But other testimony, including that of my brother Henry, sounds plausible to me. Students, on the whole, are very tolerant of other students' cheating. The statistics, after all, indicate that only somewhere between a fifth and a third have the right to claim that they don't cheat. My guess is that the incentive in the majority of cases is to get a better grade, either to keep from failing or to build a superior academic record to facilitate getting into college; cheating as an easier path than actually doing the work would also be a motive, but one made all the more accessible by the prevalence of cheating for other reasons.

Of those who don't cheat in order to get better grades than they could get on their own, some certainly are collaborating with cheaters by giving them assistance—letting cheaters copy their homework or look at their papers during exams, for example. So they are endorsing cheating and contributing to it, even though they aren't benefiting from it. The mother of an eighth grader found giving answers to others during a test argued that his giving did not constitute cheating; only receiving information was cheating, she said, as she accused the teacher of pursuing a vendetta against her son.

There may be some social benefit for the bright collaborator in a system in which cheating is widespread. For the "brain" to give others the opportunity to copy his work, thus leveling the academic playing field to some extent, would be viewed as a "cool" thing to do in some schools. A bright student who refused to assist other students asking for collaboration in cheating might be ridiculed or excluded from high-status cliques and crowds.

Attitudes Toward Cheating

 eer, long before he had become an icon of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright was so desperate to acquire a commission that he showed his potential client one of Louis Sullivan's great buildings in Chicago and claimed that he, Wright, was its architect. He got the commission. I think of Wright whenever I'm tempted to assume that it's the untalented who cheat, or that cheating will surely corrupt talent.

Of the three parties most interested in the outcome of a high school cheating incident—the accused student, the teacher (and the school administrators behind him or her), and the parents, each has a different perspective. The alleged pressure that leads to cheating is attributed by most high school students to their parents, to their peers, and sometimes to their own personal calculations.

The overwhelming testimony of high school students is that when a student is caught cheating, the teacher, out of sympathy, misguided or not, or out of desire to avoid personal confrontation with the student or his parents, often looks the other way. Many instances of exposed cheating are not followed up. The teacher knows that even the most blatant case may provoke hassling by parents, administrative hearings, maybe an override decision by the principal, or even litigation. For whatever reason, most of the time there is no penalty. Consequently, there is little general deterrence based on fear.

In some instances, I'm sure, the disinclination of the teacher to pursue evidence of cheating is based on sympathy for students trying to cope in a grade-oriented system. My brother has a high school teacher colleague who, when he is teaching a class drawn from a low-achiever track, deliberately leaves the room for a few minutes during each test so that the students can swap answers. He rationalizes this action on the basis that those students need "all the help they can get." So, in certain respects, the status quo pits students and teachers as allies against the grading system.

In times now gone by, a teacher could afford without risk to judge each case of cheating on its merits, meting out either punishment or exemption. These days, however, teachers are often judged on the overall performance of their classes, compared, when feasible, to standards set on a statewide or nationwide basis. Teachers now have incentive to collude with students' cheating in order to make it appear that the teacher has been successful in raising class performance to an acceptable level.

In 1995 the Academic Decathlon team from a Chicago high school compiled a tremendous score on the six-hour written examination that is the basis of the competition, and it appeared the school had won the coveted state title. But elation soon turned to dismay when evidence of cheating turned up. With the collusion of the faculty mentor, the team had prepared ahead of time, using a stolen copy of the exam questions. "It was such a good team," the principal remembers ruefully. "A dream team. They didn't have to win it all. It would have been wonderful if they had finished tenth or twelfth in the state. We'd have been so proud. Instead they went right down the tubes. It was gut-wrenching." The school hasn't fielded a team since then.

Parents may swing back and forth from a parental role in which they are interested in remedying their sons' cheating, to overidentifying with their sons. A father whose eighth-grade son had been suspended for cheating, said that he supported the suspension; but, he said, if the suspension caused any permanent blemish on his son's school record, or if the matter were made public in such a way as to harm his son's reputation, he would immediately switch passionately to his son's defense.

Educational Testing Services, known worldwide for its standard entrance examinations for colleges and universities, recently proposed a national public service campaign against cheating, especially in test-taking in schools. The rationale for the campaign cited the same kind of statistics I've cited above concerning the prevalence of academic cheating. The plan targeted nine- to twelve-year-olds in public schools as a group to be taught individual values such as honesty, integrity, and responsibility. Though I think there are flaws in the proposal, I applaud attempts to raise the level of national awareness of character issues.

One theme of the proposal emphasized individual competition: "Children need to understand that tests are a part of life-whether it be your turn at bat or a spelling quiz. Each is a test, and each requires practice. . . . In order to prepare themselves for winning, children need to understand that winning requires doing, and doing requires learning. If a child hasn't learned to swing a bat, he won't hit the ball." As the proposal concluded, at another point, "Cheating undermines integrity and fairness at all levels. It leads to weak life performance and corrodes the merit basis of our society."

Another theme of the proposal emphasized the intrinsic value of learning, though not without getting learning, values, and success intertwined: "Children must know that learning, knowledge, values and ethics are more important in assuring moral character and success, than just getting by or getting a grade:' (Italics mine.) If only individual children would adopt the view that it is learning that matters, and that cheating obscures lack of learning, it is suggested, all will be well. There is a degree of contradiction between these two themes. A college student newspaper essay quoted in the Educational Testing Service proposal identifies the contradiction without knowing how to resolve it. For some students, the essay says,

the desire to secure the best grades has become a paramount force that drives their education. With so much emphasis placed on outcomes in our society something is lost along the way. The learning process becomes overshadowed by the final outcome. . . . Grades, rather than education, have become the major focus of many students entering universities today. Their goals become simple: get in, survive, get the grade, and get out.

Why target nine- to twelve-year-olds in a campaign about cheating? It is in the middle school years (sixth or seventh through eighth or ninth grades, depending on where a particular school system makes the divisions) that grading gets emphasized in many American schools; there are schools that do not give numerical or letter grades for achievement until the sixth or seventh grade. It is in the middle school years that widespread cheating is first noticed, and the phenomenon intensifies in high school.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky studied cheating patterns among almost three hundred middle school students. Forty percent of the students admitted to cheating. "Cheaters thought the purpose of school is to compete and show how smart you are," says the main author of the study. "To them, what's most important is doing better than others and getting the right answers."

Defining cheating as an individual moral issue for a meritocracy carries a barely hidden ideology with it; and that ideology, of course, is as open to moral scrutiny as is the issue of cheating itself. The implication of pure meritocracy is that everyone should take the test honestly, and the (perhaps relatively few) winners should reap the coveted rewards, and all the losers should accept the verdict and make do with the scraps that are left over. The tracking system in many middle and high schools begins early in life to assign kids their probable destinations in the meritocracy.

Is it any wonder that adolescents try to rig the system to their own benefit and that they often do it in collaborative ways that suggest collective solidarity as much as individual self-interest? As Robin Stansbury wrote in the Hartford-Courant,

Jake Raphael was sitting quietly in his sixth-period foreign language class at West Hartford's Hall High School last year when his teacher passed out a weekly quiz—a quiz Raphael had already obtained the answers to. It happened quickly earlier that morning, as students shuffled between classes. Another student, who had taken the test earlier, shoved the copied exam into Raphael's outstretched hands. He wasn't the only student given an advance copy of the test. Most of the students in the afternoon session had seen the quiz by the time the class began. Raphael, now a senior, said he debated with himself for only a minute that morning before deciding to memorize the quiz. And as he sat at his desk, the perfectly completed quiz sheet before him, Raphael said he had no remorse.

One way to evaluate a school is to analyze how it emphasizes two different modes—a learning mode or a selection mode. The latter mode emphasizes the selection, mainly through grading, of the students who are the brightest. There is certainly a very substantial overlap between good grades and the amount of learning that has occurred. Sometimes, though, real learning occurs but it isn't fully reflected in the grading system. In other instances, grades bestowed indicate more learning has occurred than is true. Cheating would account for some of this disparity, but not all of it. Favoritism by teachers accounts for some of it, too.

For the learning mode to fulfill its promise, I think a society has to establish hope for every student that diligent and honest effort will be rewarded with attractive continuing opportunities in life, no matter how well his results stack up against the grades of the best students. It is too idealistic to argue that learning is its own reward, because you can't expect kids growing up not to make decisions based heavily on how their choices might take them toward a satisfying career.

A learning mode would naturally take into consideration the many factors that can adversely influence an individual student's capacity: a difficult temperament; emotional problems such as depression; neurological problems such as ADD/ ADHD or dyslexia; health problems that affect vision or hearing; distracting. sometimes abusive, family situations; social barriers such as racial, ethnic. or class prejudice; the amount of family support available; and the quality of instruction both technically and temperamentally. A learning-based system tries to take account of all these factors. because only in doing so can the potential of the student be maximized. Merit or grading systems, I believe, show less incentive to try to make the playing field as level as it can be for all.

Every school is a mixture of both these modes. The teachers that most high school students remember with highest affection are the teachers who inspired them to learn, often by teaching a subject with notable brilliance and enthusiasm, but many times also by showing acute sensitivity to the particular needs of students. But most middle and high schools are dominated by the grading system, and the evidence of it is the prevalence of cheating.

When learning is most highly valued, there is little incentive to cheat. When grades matter most, cheating rises as students begin to use every available means to increase their class ranking, or be seen as helpful to friends when they offer work to copy. Thus we may think of cheating as a social phenomenon induced by grading pressure at least as much as it is a phenomenon of individual character failure. The grading pressure is generated by the culture and personified by many parents. We can see resistance to this pressure when better students give worse students their homework to copy—by far the most common form of school cheating. This is too massive a phenomenon to be dismissed individual by individual; it amounts to social resistance by the young. Collaborative academic cheating is, in its way, an odd expression of altruism among adolescents at the same time that it is a deceitful breaking of rules.

Who Loses with Cheating?

The literature on cheating is surprisingly inconclusive on what constitutes its moral offense. Some writers, viewing academic cheating as a "victimless" act. argue that the damage is mainly self-inflicted. The cheater appears to know more, or be more competent, than is actually the case. A weakness is being papered over, and sooner or later it will harm the cheater when he can't perform as expected at a higher academic level, or professionally, and is made to suffer the consequences.

This argument—that cheating harms the cheater-is learning—based in a grading-dominated environment. When grades are the defining element and the competition is intense, many students will employ every means they can to stay afloat as long as they can. The very prevalence of academic cheating suggests to cheating students that their bubble of deception might never burst.

Others writers view cheating as a form of stealing. Academic cheating does involve stealing recognition and grades that are undeserved, and that others are earning meritoriously. Cheating is always fraudulent, and shows disrespect for the people directly affected by it. In academic cheating, fellow students are the ones treated disrespectfully by cheaters. What keeps the issue of respect from powerfully deterring student cheaters is that they often don't stop to think of other students as being hurt. Their focus is on cheating as an issue between the cheater and the faculty and administration. In an analogous case, people who file false tax returns don't think of themselves as hurting their neighbors who are reporting accurately; the tax cheaters think of it as an issue strictly between themselves and the government or the IRS. Or, again, people who make false insurance claims don't think of themselves as raising everyone else's insurance rates; they regard their cheating as an issue between them and the insurance company. This blindness to the consequences of cheating for one's peers is, I believe, very widespread.

Patricia Hersch has described a forum in which several bright high school seniors were asked to comment on the hypothetical situation of a college basketball star back on campus, exhausted, after performing well in a game, and looking forward to the next night's game when a professional scout would be watching him. But tomorrow he also has a calculus test in a course he must pass to keep his scholarship. Should he study as best he can and give it a try; hire a tutor and study most of the night in order to get a passing grade; or get the answer key to the exam, memorize it, then rest up for the game? There was nearly unanimous agreement that the student athlete should cheat. "Ethically, I would cheat," says an honor student. Only one boy, named Jonathan, disagrees: "We have to take responsibility for our actions and if he screwed up, it is his problem and he has to accept the consequences. If he cheats, it is not taking responsibility. If he stays up all night studying, he does."

Theft as the essence of cheating is particularly stressed in academic honor codes, for there the student has the double responsibility of being beyond reproach himself in the integrity of his academic work, and also of coming forward to accuse anyone whom he sees cheating; in fact, he is guilty of a violation of the code if he knows of cheating by others and does not report it to the judicial system.

A professor of business at the University of Kansas has built an honor code and other deterrents into his sophomore course with an enrollment of three hundred to four hundred students. Each student is assigned a seat. A dozen or so vigilant teaching assistants patrol blocks of fifty seats. At the bottom of each test are two statements with signature lines by them. One statement says: "I have not received nor given unauthorized aid during this exam. I have not observed any other students receiving or giving such aid." The other says, "I cannot in good faith sign the above statement."

To get credit for the exam, every student has to sign one of the statements. If it is the second one, he gets an interview with the professor; most of those who sign the second statement think that others may have been looking at their answers. The teaching assistants also always compare the exams of people sitting side by side. Only about 5 percent of the class get caught bucking this very vigilant system.

There is some evidence that cheating occurs less under honor code systems than other codes. It is unclear whether the honor code promotes superior character formation where it is employed. Punishment is much surer and harsher, and more evenly applied, when it is based on a proven violation of an honor code; in addition to the penalty, which might well rise to the level of expulsion, there is dishonor or shaming for the person found guilty of cheating. The environment where an honor code is in effect doesn't tolerate cheating to the extent it is tolerated in most high schools.

Cheating and Trust

Even where cheating goes unnoticed, I believe it deeply affects relationships because the perpetrator knows he is violating someone's trust, and therefore can't be candid about acts that, if known, would deeply affect the relationship. The cheater is always holding something back, and people sensitive to human interaction can often sense it. Adulterers, for example, may have taken great pains to hide their infidelity, but something about their behavior often sends a signal to their partners, who may not know precisely what is wrong, but know something has shifted in the relationship.

Perhaps we are not quite as trusting, on the whole, as some of our ancestors were. Many business deals were once closed with an oral agreement followed by a handshake as a seal of trust. Those days are long gone. Now we like to have everything in writing—an estimate for every project, a warranty for every appliance, a printed insurance policy for every risk. a waiver of liability for every responsibility we undertake. The degree of our trustfulness in many situations can be measured by the length of the written contracts involved. Where trust lags, people entering contracts, or their lawyers in their behalf, want to specify the consequences of every possible thing that could go wrong.

Erik Erikson, in his delineation of the eight developmental stages a person passes through from birth to elderly age, saw the emergence of a sense of basic trust as the central issue of an infant's first year of life; this sense, he said. is nothing less than the ontological source of faith and hope in a person. Development of trust is concentrated in the relationship between mother and child. The child has very little capacity to give. so trust is established by the trustworthiness of the mother to give to him, and she can do that, Erikson suggests, only if she is in a wholesome relationship to both her infant and her culture. This is not just a private transaction. The culture. and its degree of nurturing and reliability, is a participant in the process.

If the infant fails to develop trust, he falls into basic mistrust.

One cannot know what happens in a baby, but direct observation as well as overwhelming clinical evidence indicate that early mistrust is accompanied by an experience of 'total' rage, with fantasies of the total domination or even destruction of the sources of pleasure and provision; and that such fantasies and rages live on in the individual and are revived in extreme states and situations.

Even in preschool years, trust comes to have a deep mutuality. It cannot endure unless a boy has an essential trustfulness of others and a matching sense of his own trustworthiness. One cannot survive without the other. No one gets through childhood without some disappointments in the quality or reliability of care received, so no boy is completely trusting; no one completes childhood without disappointing his family or others through some acts of dishonesty or irresponsibility, so no boy is completely trustworthy.

We fear for the welfare of any child who is completely trusting; his gullibility may make him too easily the victim of exploitation. But I fear that gullibility is not as often the plight of the child as is mistrust. Sadly, the landscape is littered with parents, particularly fathers, who are regarded by their sons with mistrust because of too many broken promises, missed appointments, failed expectations.

One way of nurturing trust is protecting the reliability and truthfulness of one's word in the sense conveyed by the phrase "keeping your word." When boys begin to experiment with telling little lies, the best approach, I believe, is not to try to stigmatize lying as bad, but to explain, with examples, that lying erodes trust. "What would you feel if I told you every night that your supper is ready, but when you came into the kitchen there was no food ready to eat? Pretty soon you wouldn't believe me. You need to know that I'm telling the truth, even if I'm tempted not to. I need to know that you're telling the truth, even if you're tempted not to."

Another way of instilling trust in a boy is to fulfill his basic material and emotional needs in a dependable way. This can lead to many possible disagreements as to what is "basic." Family meetings, beginning with preschoolers and lasting through teenage years, are almost indispensable opportunities for exploring how needs are being met or allegedly not met. Many children's requests based on their own emergent values that the parent may not share, are dismissed with the statement: "You don't need that." At least, the subject should be aired, reasons given, decisions explained. Parents should also articulate what they feel they need from their children materially (a few household responsibilities, perhaps) and emotionally. If parents don't express the need for emotional giving from their children, their children may not observe these needs on their own.

Boys very much need to learn early in childhood that incidents of lying and cheating are wrong, but that they are subject to repair and redemption. When deterrence is the main motive in dealing with academic cheating, redemption takes a back seat because the school authority wants the student to believe that he continues under a cloak of suspicion and mistrust.

A sense of basic trust may develop between siblings, but it isn't inevitable, given the desire of many children to protect fiercely their relationships with parents and therefore to see siblings as rivals. Boys may find it easier to develop basic trust with siblings when all have become adolescents or adults, and no longer feel as competitive with each other.

The sense of basic trust between mother and infant can, in childhood and later, be elaborated in a variety of relationships of varying moral value. When boys go off to school, opportunities exist both for trust between peers and trust between students and those teachers willing to be mentors. Now a boy can begin to develop trustful relations outside the family. In the course of his school years, a boy begins to see that various persons in his environment are making bids for mutual trust and that it is not easy to fulfill all of them. His parents may assume that the issue of trust is something to be worked out principally at home. His peers may be asserting the primacy of trust among classmates. His teachers will be asking for trustworthiness in his academic work and school behavior.

A boy will sometimes experience these claims as conflicting. Parents can help him to sort out these conflicting bids for trust, showing him that where there is conflict there is a moral problem to be solved; so, for example, a boy might maintain trust with his classmates but not to the extent of participating in academic cheating, because cheating would violate his trustworthiness with the teacher.

The existence of trust among peers does not guarantee that the group will pursue entirely admirable purposes. Boyhood and adolescent gangs value trust within the group very highly, and often ritualize its importance. The activities of a gang are usually a mixture of legitimate mutually supportive activities and antisocial activities. The biologically based aggressiveness of males can be elevated in a group of mutually trusting boys. Even on the playground, boys may bond in groups that treat other boys and girls badly. So trust will be invited in the service of a variety of pursuits, some of them laudable and some of them lamentable.

The great leap in trust possible in adolescence or later adulthood is for an individual to become trustworthy individually—even when it is not reciprocated. Trust has to be reciprocal in infancy or the infant develops basic mistrust. In childhood, trust is still basically reciprocal in the service of many ends of varying value. But an individual can decide to strive for general trustworthiness. Such an individual would choose not to cheat in financial matters, taxes, or professional responsibilities because he couldn't do so without breaking trust with someone, maybe someone he doesn't even know.

I believe males get to this highest level of trustworthiness only when they are inspired to it by encountering someone who embodies it. It is a level of character that is much more effectively caught than taught.

J. P. Richter [pseudo Jean Paul] (1763-1825), quoted in I. Weiss and A. D. Weiss, eds., Reflections on Childhood: A Quotations Dictionary (Santa Barbara, Cal.: ABC-CLIO, 1991),204.

prevalence of cheating University of Kansas Office of University Relations, "How Prevalent Is Cheating?" Internet posting (1996) quoting David Shulenburger, vice chancellor for academic affairs; Beverly Sypher, associate professor of communication studies; Tim Shaftel, associate dean of liberal arts and sciences; Jordan Haines, distinguished professor of business; Paul Krouse, Who's Who publisher and founder; Lawrence Sherr, Chancellors Club teaching professor of business administration; and graduate teaching assistant Jim Danoff-Burg, at www.kurelatn@kuhub.cc.ukans.edu.

J. Johnson, S. Farkas, and A. Bers, Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think About Their Schools (New York: Public Agenda, 1997), 29.

D. L. McCabe and W. J. Bowers, "Academic Dishonesty Among Males in College: A Thirty Year Perspective,"Journal of College Student Development 35 (1994),5-10.

D. L. McCabe and L. K. Trevino, "Individual and Contextual Influences on Academic Dishonesty: A Multicampus Investigation," Research in Higher Education 38 (1997),379-396; "What We Know About Cheating in College: Longitudinal Trends and Recent Developments," Change 28 (1996), 28-33; and "Academic Dishonesty: Honor Codes and Other Contextual Influences," Journal of Higher Education 64 (1993),522-538.

W. Brashier, "So Smart They Cheat: In Today's Moral Climate, Should Students be Held Accountable for Abandoning Honesty?" Chicago Tribune Magazine (April 12, 1998), 18-19.

Educational Testing Services, To Sound the Alarm: Cheating Has Consequences. A Campaign Proposal for "Commitment 2000," presented to The Advertising Council, Inc., June 18, 1998 (Princeton: Educational Testing Services, 1998).

E. Anderman, T. Griesinger, and G. Westerfield, "Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence," Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1990), 84-93.

R. Stansbury, "When the Ends Justify the Means," Hartford Courant (March 2, 1997).

P. Hersch, A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1998), 99.

Erikson, Identity, 82.

Enabling


In relation to adolescent development, the term "enabling" has a double edge. On the positive side, psychiatrist Stuart Hauser draws a distinction between "enabling" and "constraining" patterns of interaction in a family. Enabling interactions include explanation, problem-solving, and empathy. Constraining interactions are distracting, devaluing, or judgmental of a family member's behavior or opinions. Laurence Steinberg writes of Hauser's work and related research by others:

Not surprisingly, adolescents who grow up in homes in which the family tends to interact in enabling ways score higher on measures of psychological development than do those who grow up in relatively more constraining families.

One recent study found as well that adolescents' needs for autonomy can be especially frustrated when their parents form strong coalitions with one another. Rather than viewing attachment and autonomy as opposites, these studies of family interaction indicate that the path to healthy psychological development during adolescence is likely to combine the two. In other words, adolescents appear to do best when they grow up in a family atmosphere that permits the development of individuality against a backdrop of close family ties. In these families, conflict between parents and adolescents can play a very important and positive role in the adolescent's social and cognitive development, because individuals are encouraged to express their opinions in an atmosphere that does not risk severing the emotional attachment.

Some parents might consider individuality strivings by an adolescent to be categorically a challenge to family ties, but Steinberg suggests—correctly, I believe—that the adolescent needs the support of family ties as he explores individuality and independence. Likewise, parents might believe that open conflict between themselves and adolescents is unmistakably a sign of broken family bonds. Again, not necessarily so. The adolescent profits from a certain amount of conflict with parents, particularly when parents have the wisdom to make dear that the conflicts do not threaten the basic bond between them.

Enabling Trouble

I shall return to this positive concept of enabling later in the chapter, but first I want to refer to another use of the term "enabling" that has emerged in the literature about human personality. Here enabling is used to indicate behavior that tolerates, sometimes ignores or denies. or even promotes self-destructive patterns of behavior by another person. In this chapter, I want to keep both definitions of enabling in view.

A neighbor told me that if I was interested in boys and character, I should look into a recent episode in the suburban town where I live. just outside Boston. In the spring of 1998, the neighbor reminded me, both local and Boston newspapers reported an incident that began with drinking at the senior prom and spilled over to the high school graduation ceremony three days later. I called the high school headmaster. Bob Weintraub, whom I had never met before, and asked him to tell me what had happened at the prom and afterward.

"The kids know that possessing alcohol or drugs at school is an expellable offense," he began. "We reemphasize school policy at prom time because we know it's a big issue. We would rather not have any tragedies in the community. Every student picking up a ticket to the prom signed a written contract acknowledging that he or she could not participate in graduation ceremonies if caught using, or even in possession of, drugs or alcohol at the prom or party after the prom.

"At the graduation rehearsal, one of the deans and I repeated the terms of the contract. We said it several times. We also said we knew some of the seniors weren't present for the rehearsal, so their friends should remind them of the agreement."

"Have you had any violations of the rule in the past?" I asked.

"There usually are one or two kids who violate the rules of the prom," Weintraub said, "and we just send them home. Again, this year, a boy walked in drunk and fell down. Some of the other staff took him off to a room to tend to him. When they asked him where he had been drinking, he said there was a lot of booze on a bus that some seniors had rented for the night. About fifty kids allegedly had rented the bus, and one of the kids had signed for it. It was a private bus company. No parent had signed off on it. They rode in the bus from our town over to the town where the prom was taking place. I understand they took a rather circuitous route and spent about forty-five minutes on the road, drinking a lot.

"Once the senior told us there was more booze on the bus, the issue was no longer what to do, but how to do it. The prom was in its mid to late phase, but all the students were still there. With other staff members, I located the bus. The driver didn't want to let us on, but we just said, 'Get out of the way.'

"In the middle of the aisle was a huge plastic garbage pail already one-third full of empty bottles—Seagram's and the like—and beer cans. We searched the backpacks in which the seniors had packed casual clothes for the after-prom party, and took a dozen of them off the bus because they contained significant amounts of alcohol. The confiscated bottles and cans covered a large table top the next day. Quarts of vodka, quarts of rum, lots of stuff. Most of it hadn't been opened yet. It was to be drunk after the prom. I was stunned. You know, after the warnings and knowing the kids for a long time, I'm still stunned by it all.

"All of a sudden there was a second bus there. The two drivers moved all the kids' packs that we hadn't confiscated onto the other bus. They obviously were trying to eliminate any kind of liability they might have incurred. The kids came back and saw a bunch of us standing there. They started whispering to each other, knowing they'd been discovered. I told them to get on the bus so I could talk to them, which they eventually did, but it was a very upsetting scene.

"They weren't obviously drunk—we had already sent home the one or two who were. They were in formal clothes with their dates. And they were in no mood to listen to me. A couple of them became self-appointed lawyers, telling me I had no right to search the bus because it was private. My colleagues couldn't believe the abuse they gave me. You know... 'Get off the bus'...'Get out of here'...some nasty obscenities.

"'This isn't working,' I said to myself. So I negotiated with a couple of the senior boys. Off the bus and away from the rest of their peers, they were very reasonable. They said, in effect, okay, we're not happy about this, but you warned us and we got caught, so whatever happens is fair. 'I don't need your clothing,' I said, 'but you have to identify whose stuff this is, and then I'll take the booze and you take the packs and clothing.' Most of them came and claimed their packs, and I took their names. Two of the packs went unclaimed. I put all the alcohol in the trunk of my car.

"There were nine seniors—seven boys and two girls—among the ten students identified by us as having alcohol in their packs. The prom was on Thursday night. Friday morning other staff members and I called the nine seniors' parents and asked them to bring their kids to a meeting at the high school on Saturday morning.

"Graduation was to take place on Sunday. Some of the parents asked me over the phone if I'd made a decision about what I was going to do, and, if so, why we needed to have a meeting. 'Because I don't want to do this over the phone,' I said. 'I want to talk to you. This is a big issue.'

"The meeting lasted four hours. I ran the meeting by myself, but I had all of the major administrators of the school system with me, and the complete support of the school committee and the town selectmen. The parents of the nine had met together on Friday night and developed a strategy that all fifty-five seniors on the bus had been drinking, so none of them should be allowed to attend graduation. If I accepted their argument, they thought, I wouldn't have the nerve to keep that many kids away from graduation ceremonies.

In my opening statement, I said: I have evidence on nine seniors. I am not so naive as to think only nine had been drinking or were going to. But I only have evidence on nine. I'm not going to ignore the rule because I don't have evidence on forty other suspects. I understand the pain this brings to them and to their families."

"How did they take your position?" I wondered.

"The tone of the meeting was up and down. There were both civil and ugly moments with the parents. Some of the parents are lawyers, so the group didn't have to bring outside lawyers to represent them. But the anger was very deep, and some parents did throw expletives at me. The seniors who accepted accountability on Thursday night had changed by Saturday morning. To their families they had become heroic figures, martyrs.

"My job involves handling many disciplinary situations. For example, I've handled three expulsions of boys this year—one for weapon possession, one for assaulting a teacher, one for selling drugs on the school campus. One of the things I say from time to time, reflecting on my job, is that 'No.' is a complete sentence. In our town, for many parents, 'no' is not a complete sentence. It is supposed to be the first word of a process that leads to a compromise solution. Why not, the parents asked on Saturday morning, let the kids come to graduation and do some community service? I told them that community service is something everyone should do. I know it's much used by the courts in place of other punishment, but it usually goes along with other punishment.

"Despite the fact that their kids had signed written contracts about alcohol and the prom, the parents still tried to argue that I hadn't been very, very, very, very clear about the rules. Yes, I said to them, I was very, very, very, very; very clear. But they hated it that they had no power because their kids had disregarded the contract.

"They went crazy because it was going to be a public humiliation for them. You're not punishing our son, they said, you're punishing our family."

"How did the parents evaluate your handling of the situation on prom night?" I asked.

"I think all of the parents acknowledged that I did the right thing in confiscating the booze. Begrudgingly, but they did. Some of them acknowledged that their children had done the wrong thing. But they didn't want the penalty. One story within the story says it all. By way of background, everyone—parents and school staff—pitches in to help prepare the party after the prom; it's a great community event.

"On Thursday afternoon, one of the senior class mothers helping to set up for the party came over to the superintendent of schools and the cochairs of the school committee, who were also doing their bit, and said, 'I just want to congratulate Bob Weintraub on the great job he's doing, taking such a strong stand against drugs and alcohol.'

"A few hours later I busted her son as one of the nine seniors caught with alcohol in their backpacks. Her son had two quarts of hard liquor. He was one of the boys who helped me negotiate a reasonable solution to the standoff in the bus. What is scary is that he told me his parents knew he was taking the alcohol to the prom, and told him to drink in moderation. When I spoke with his mother about the Saturday morning meeting, I said, 'I have a tough question to ask you. Your son told me you knew he had those two quarts, and that you told him to drink in moderation. Is that true?' There was silence at the other end of the line. Finally she said, 'Sandy's sobriety is his responsibility.'"

I couldn't help uttering a murmur of dismay.

"That's a true story," Weintraub said, "and it's not the only example of that kind of behavior I could cite. I believe that some of the parents must have bought the alcohol for the kids. One of the kids caught with alcohol on the bus had a party at his house during the school year that practically destroyed the house. Another of the boys wrote to our local paper after the story broke, saying he couldn't believe he was being punished in this way for one thing. But his school disciplinary record just for his senior year shows he's been in trouble from day one—fighting, being incredibly disrespectful to teachers, things like that.

"In addition to projecting onto me a lot of anger they were feeling toward their sons or themselves, the parents were also in heavy denial. I was about five minutes into my opening statement at the Saturday morning meeting, and had already made it clear that the nine would be barred from graduation ceremonies, when a parent raised his hand and said, 'Bob, can you just tell us what you're going to do and be finished with this?' And I said, 'I thought I was clear, but I can say it again. The kids are not going to be participating in the ceremony.' The same exchange happened with three more parents. They weren't listening.

"Toward the end of the Saturday meeting, the nine seniors went off with some alcohol and drug counselors, leaving me alone with the parents. We worked out an agreement with all of the families that the students would receive from one to ten individual counseling sessions—we have a very good drug and alcohol prevention program—and then receive their diplomas at some unspecified date.

"Saturday night, the mother I referred to before, who knew her son was going to break the rule, called me to say that maybe we should give the nine seniors their diplomas soon since they had made a commitment to counseling. I said I was flexible about the timing. 'They've earned their diploma,' I said. 'Their diploma is not the issue.' 'Okay, that's good, Bob,' the mother said, 'Let's talk about the diploma on Monday.' I said, 'Monday, after graduation's over? Fine.'

"Sunday night the nine excluded seniors and their parents came to graduation and sat in the audience out on the athletic field. They were very disruptive, the parents as much as the kids. They were shouting and harassing. During my talk, two of the senior boys who were excluded from the ceremony came forward and threw their caps and gowns at the stage, to the cheers of their parents. It was a miserable, miserable time. It ruined everything.

"After the ceremony was over, the mother I've referred to and another parent came over to me on the field. She was enraged to a level I have never seen in anyone before. She had her finger in my face, and she was shaking, and her face was about to explode in rage. 'Bob, you just don't get it,' she said. 'If you don't give them their diplomas right now, you're going to have a riot on your hands, and we're going to destroy this place.'

"There were police with me who heard her. 'I think she's really threatening you,' one of them said. 'You seem to think this is going to be okay, but we're nervous about it.' For some reason I didn't feel in danger. 'I already told you the diplomas are not a big issue for me,' I said to the two enraged parents. 'The issue for me is getting some help for the kids. But I have to find out whether I can get the diplomas. Right now they're locked in the safe.'

"The three plainclothes police insisted on staying by my side. A few minutes later, the superintendent of schools and I and the deans of students, accompanied by the police, walked up the steps of the high school between the glaring nine seniors and their parents. The atmosphere was just electric with anger. One by one the students were admitted to my office, received a diploma, and walked out to be cheered in the corridor by the other students and all the parents. I felt like I was in an Ionesco play."

Walking the Walk

The complicity of parents in the problems of their kids doesn't have to involve anything as dramatic as drinking at the prom.

"I have some examples at school," Bob Weintraub says, "where parents are influenced by their kids in a way that's not helpful to the kids. Attendance, for example. Too many parents call their kids out and make excuses for them. Kids say they don't feel well—with no convincing evidence—or have to study for a math test, and parents take them out of school. Grades, another example. If the kid doesn't get a good grade, parents are often in the teacher's face saying the child deserves a better grade.

"I think there's a generally critical environment about educators. I can't remember one example from my own school years of my parents talking negatively about teachers or coaches; but I think it's very common in our town for parents to criticize educators, and I don't think that's helpful to kids. When things are going well for the student, teachers are respected, and when things are not going well, teachers become the enemy, regardless of the family's social class. This is a very diverse town. The seniors who got in trouble at the prom came mostly from affluent families. As you know, I'm not interested in squashing freedom of speech or openness; that's not what this is about. This is about the impact of what you say in front of kids.

"Parents are not vigilant about the parties their kids go to. There's lots of drinking and drugs going on at parties—mainly parties that lack adult supervision. And because parents don't want their kids to be social isolates, they let them go and tell them to be good. It comes down to the fact that many parents talk a good talk, but when it comes down to their very own child, they refuse to walk the walk.

"I'm not about to cast anyone off into the tundra for making a mistake or three. That's not why I am in this work. I understand all that. But I do think it's critical to hold kids accountable for their behavior. If you don't, they get very confused, and they push it until they do something tragic. So that's where it's at for me: getting parents to acknowledge that being strict is good, that saying 'no' to kids is okay. Even if it's painful in the short term, it's really good for the long term. And the short term, by the way, lasts for about six hours. If there's pain, it's over and you move on. When I penalize kids, we usually have a better relationship the next day than we did before, because the kids know exactly where I stand.

"Some people say to me, 'Oh, Bob, you can't have it both ways. You can't be friends with these kids and then be their disciplinarian.' And I say, 'Excuse me. You don't see what I do in this school in terms of discipline. I think most of the students will say that I'm nice, I'm a friendly person, but don't cross the line or else you're in deep trouble. I have a history of taking violations to the school community in a very serious manner.

I believe the point Weintraub is making here is another example of the point made at the beginning of the chapter. Some people assume that the disciplinary mode has to be harsh and unfriendly, and that the school administrator ultimately responsible for discipline should present a stern, seemingly unfriendly presence to students to buttress his authority; but Weintraub is taking the correct position that one can be firm, fair, and friendly without contradiction.

In Weintraub's account—and in other true stories in this book—there are examples of families where there has been an inversion of power. The boy is controlling and manipulating his parents rather than his parents providing a framework of regulation, communication, and support for the boy. By caving in and defending their children's wrongdoing, they are enabling it, and neglecting to encourage responsibility. This phenomenon cuts across all social classes. Pascal Lehman in Chapter 1 mentions a classmate whose affluent parents "act afraid of him."

Mechanisms of Defense

What makes parents so vulnerable to being enablers of their sons' misbehavior? Psychological mechanisms of defense can be contributors. Faced with the prospect of unpleasant reality, the self, the ego, has astonishing capacity at times to deny what to others may be fairly obvious. Bob Weintraub referred to two defense mechanisms—denial and projection—in his conversation with me. His knowledge of these mechanisms surely helped him to understand how to cope with this crisis without losing his poise and fair judgment. I want to refer to two other defense mechanisms, too—displacement and overidentification.

Parents who understand these mechanisms can sometimes interpret the behavior of their sons and spouses more sensitively and respond more appropriately. But a strong cautionary note needs to be sounded, too. Defense mechanisms are just that—they allow us to hold ourselves together in the face of unpleasant and even frightening feelings, impulses, or realizations. One doesn't simply strip them away, or challenge them. It's better not to understand the concepts at all than to misunderstand them and use them as weapons—as in, "There you go again, using denial to wiggle out of a jam." That can force an even worse response.

A person using denial, for example, may resort in the face of threat to a more primitive and aggressive self-protection strategy, such as projection. People who have grown up in so-called "alcoholic families" know that breaking the code of silence imposed by denial may provoke verbal or physical violence. This is another reason that it is always well to keep in mind seeking the aid of mental health professionals or groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Their useful guidance can be helpful, and it's often in the process of counseling that parents develop insight about where these reactions are coming from—one's relationships with one's own parents, for example—and what needs to be done to change them.

I think it's important to add that sometimes it's necessary for parents themselves to get professional help to change. I'm a great believer in timely therapy with a psychologist or social worker for parents in the interest of their better understanding themselves and helping their kids, and a great skeptic about simply referring the child for treatment for his ostensible problem.

Parent groups, run by informed professionals, can also help immensely. It becomes clear that you're not the only person with an important problem, and you can share insights and strategies, and seek and find support as you struggle through the complexities of addressing your child's provocations.

Feeling guilt over a child's misbehavior may motivate parents to respond inappropriately—trying to defend themselves rather than deal thoughtfully with the child. The parent may wonder: What did I do wrong? If I'd raised my son the right way, he wouldn't have done what he is accused of doing. The fault must be mine. What should I do? The pain, the conflict, is just too much to bear. If a parent can get an accusation dismissed, then the guilt diminishes. Easy rationalizations—"Boys will be boys" or "You're making too much of this" will do for starters. But if soft diversionary tactics don't work, some parents attack the accusation with every weapon at their command. Parental guilt turns parents into unlicensed lawyers, and teachable moments into adversarial situations. The son who doesn't understand what's going on in his parents' heads may take their tactics at face value, and conclude that he is indeed the victim of malicious prosecution.

Because of the very poised response of Bob Weintraub to the senior drinking crisis at his school, I think there was little opportunity for the parents to employ the defense mechanism known as projection. Projection involves attributing to another person in the situation the feelings we harbor ourselves. So, again, a parent might be angry toward a son for embarrassing the family, but elects—again, unconsciously—to project feelings of anger to someone like Bob Weintraub. If Weintraub, then, expresses anger for the disrespectful way some of the seniors responded to his exposure of their drinking plans, the parent can zealously defend the son from Weintraub's anger—but really, from the parent's own anger projected onto the headmaster. But Bob Weintraub didn't give that defense mechanism an opening. At the final faculty meeting of the year at his school, one of the teachers stood up and said, "Bob went through this really difficult process showing an incredible amount of respect for everyone, and that wasn't easy because he wasn't always respected, and I just want to congratulate him." All the faculty stood and cheered.

Another defense mechanism is overidentification. Some parents meld so completely with the lives of their sons that everything the son suffers is felt by the parent as an experience of the parent's own. A son's successes may be treated by his parents as though they were successes of their own; accusations by others of misbehavior by the son may be perceived by the parent as a personal attack on the parent himself.

The more public a son's successes or errant behaviors become, perhaps the stronger a parent is tempted to overidentify, and, with respect to errant behavior, to behave in a way that might seem out of character compared to the parent's usual conduct. A parent need not—should not—cease to be supportive of a son who has gotten himself in trouble. Being supportive includes being empathic and tending to the stress the son is experiencing. But the parent need not abandon his own values and adopt his son's way of viewing the situation. Doing so lessens the parent's opportunity to be a healing force—perhaps even to support a son in acknowledgment of wrongdoing and the penalty or restitution flowing from it, and then to help him move on to the next phase of his life

The boys I talked to in the course of preparing this book constitute mostly a well-parented population who have coped successfully with all the stages of their lives. Quite a number of them, however, have had brushes with disciplinary action at school or with law enforcement authorities. There they find even in childhood and adolescence that others identify with them differentially depending on their social class (expressed in dress and comportment, and in family status) and race. Bob Weintraub has already referred to occasions when courts seem to treat affluent kids' misbehaviors lightly.

One boy I talked to mentioned this episode: "During ninth grade I started stealing, like a lot. In February of that year I got caught shoplifting and actually went to court. The people there were totally biased. I went in with a tie. The others were mainly black kids. The prosecuting attorney was like, I'll take care of you because you're not like this guy over here, this scum. They recommended to the judge that it not go on my record, but I bet that's not how the others got treated. It's not like I stole a thousand dollars' worth of merchandise. It was petty theft, but, still, they bent the rules. Like, look at my privilege."

Another defense mechanism is known as displacement. I suspect there were elements of displacement in the reactions of some of the parents in the story Bob Weintraub told. The parent, upon learning that a senior son has been excluded from high school graduation for possessing alcohol at the prom, feels embarrassed and humiliated for its effect on the family reputation.

The parent is angry. The son would appear to be the appropriate object of his or her parental wrath. But something stands in the way of the parent expressing anger toward the son. Perhaps the parent also feels guilty about the son's misbehavior. Or perhaps the parent overidentifies with the son. The sticky thing about defense mechanisms is that various combinations of them can coexist in a single parental reaction. In any case, the parent might direct toward someone else—displace—the anger that logically would be directed toward the misbehaving son. Someone else might be a high-school headmaster.

The Dangers of Denial

The most widespread and supple of the mechanisms of defense is denial. Denial has been much publicized in the 1990s as a defense mechanism frequently employed by people addicted to alcohol or drugs; the same literature has targeted the families and associates of addicts as "enablers" because they tolerate rather than challenge evidence of addiction, maybe even protect addicts from others who would challenge them. Denial is a convenient defense in many other situations. An example is the well-publicized story of Alex Kelly.

In 1983, when he was a high school student in Darien, Connecticut, Alex and three other boys began a series of burglaries of neighbors' houses. They used the money to buy drugs. Eventually they were caught; Alex pleaded guilty to nine burglaries as a juvenile offender, and was sentenced to a maximum of thirty-five months in a juvenile detention institution where he entered a drug rehabilitation program. To his more rebellious contemporaries, Alex was "cool." A young journalist who grew up in Darien remembers: "People who knew about this at the time said, 'Yeah, that's crazy. This guy is crazy.' But they said it with a touch of admiration, like, this is real rebellion. A lot of people staked their rebellion on being associated with Alex Kelly rather than doing the things he did."

Sixty-eight days after Alex was sent away, he was released on probation by a judge who found him essentially rehabilitated. For a year, Alex made the judge look prescient. He studied himself onto the academic honor roll, starred on the football team, captained the wrestling team, and warned other students about drug abuse. Some called him "the comeback kid." His principal says, "He was the charming All-American boy. 'With it.' as the kids say. He was in the inner circle, an accomplished athlete, lots of things that kids want to be."

Then Alex was arrested again in February, 1986. A seventeen-year-old Darien girl told the police that Alex offered to drive her home from a party, drove instead to a deserted country club parking lot, and raped her. Police were already investigating the complaint of another sixteen-year-old girl, who said that Alex had offered her a ride home four days earlier and choked and raped her. Both girls claimed that Alex threatened them with repeat rape or even death if they told anyone of his sexual assaults.

Alex's father, in a 1996 ABC Turning Point documentary narrated by Forrest Sawyer, recalled the moment he heard of the arrest. "I got a telephone call from the police department, so I dropped everything and ran down there."

Forrest Sawyer: "Did it ever cross your mind that it was possible?"

Alex's father: "No."

Forrest Sawyer: "Not once?"

Alex's father: "No. I know Alex. To this day there's no question in my mind."

Forrest Sawyer asked Alex's mother: "Why would two young girls come forward and accuse a young man of rape under similar circumstances?"

Alex's mother: "Good question. Unbelievable. I don't believe it."

Alex's high school principal told Forrest Sawyer that she first heard of the arrest of Alex in a telephone call from the chief of police. "He said to me, 'We have come this close to two possible murders this week:" Sawyer reported her words to Alex's parents: "This close. . . to two murders."

Alex's father: "It's got to be one of the most irresponsible things I've ever heard for a chief of police to ever say...if that is the truth. Irresponsible!"

Forrest Sawyer: "There were, according to the two alleged victims, threats of murder."

Alex's father: "I don't believe that."

Concerned that Alex's presence at school while he awaited trial would cause anxiety and distraction, the school administration graduated him in absentia a month after his arrest and forbade him to return. Alex noted that "All of these people that were so supportive and so behind me—they did all they could to, like, take credit for what I was doing. But the second any sort of rough times came. any allegations. they just jumped off."

A few days before he was to go on trial for the second of the alleged rapes. Alex Kelly jumped bail, flying to Europe with a ten-year passport in hand. Ten years later, with capture virtually certain, Alex turned himself in, was extradited to the United States, and went on trial. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. At a second trial, Alex was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The judge rationalized the severe sentence not on the flight to Europe but on the nature of the crime.

Probably none of the parents whose stories have been told in this chapter were motivated principally by concern for their own or their family's reputations. What stirred them was the urge to protect and support their sons.

The parents of Alex Kelly were said to have had greater hopes for Alex's success than for his two brothers. Alex was to be the star of the family, and he showed considerable promise of fulfilling these expectations. There wasn't anything the family wouldn't do to enable Alex to be a success. The burglaries conviction was a trouble sign apparently largely ignored in the glow of his sports achievements and his academic record. Alex's arrest on two different rape charges was a stunning blow to him and to his family.

One can feel compassion for them—the family's hopes collapsed as swiftly as a house of cards—while believing that denial and flight simply delayed a resolution of wrongdoing. Alex will be middle-aged before he leaves prison. One of his two brothers died of an overdose of drugs while Alex was hiding out in Europe. The only way the family seemed to be able to survive these tragic changes of fortune was through denial: Alex still protesting his innocence, his parents still believing him.

Parents sometimes believe they are showing unconditional love when they really are exhibiting mechanisms of defense—denial. displacement, overidentification, and the like. We can't any of us be simply objective in our evaluation of others' behavior; our hopes and expectations inevitably are going to be entangled to a degree with our perceptions of what is going on. But there is no reason to be confused in principle. Loving a son does not require denying his wrongdoing; his wrongdoing never justifies ceasing to love him.

Positive Enabling

While one might expect single parents to confront unique challenges in nurturing good values and behavior in their sons, one of the families who demonstrated positive ways of supporting character as sons grow up was a divorced mother and her fifteen-year-old son.

When I asked the mother, Marilyn Bendix, about her situation, she said, "I always correct the term 'broken home' when I hear it applied to a family like ours. Brett lives in a 'fixed home.' In many ways, his dad is a wonderful person, but in the family he was very self-centered, resentful of any time I spent on anything else, even Brett. And he was an alcoholic. There were incidents of drunk driving. I'm the adult child of an alcoholic, so I know the problems an alcoholic brings to a family. When Brett was four, I could already see evidence of his becoming an enabler for his dad. I decided then to get a divorce, even though I had been married for sixteen years. It was very awkward and uncomfortable. It took Brett's dad a few years to forgive me for divorcing him, and to stop drinking.

"Brett has told me that one of his only memories of living in our old house is peeking through the upstairs banister into the foyer below and watching us starting to fight—though our fights were never physical. My goal as a single parent is to provide Brett with a safe and peaceful environment. In fact, our life is a little sheltered from typical family dynamics. There is no sibling rivalry, my attention goes nowhere else, I'm here at his beck and call. In some ways that's unnatural, and in some ways he's definitely spoiled.

"There have been times when it was very difficult for Brett not to have his father here. I remember as early as day care when they had a 'father's day' and Brett couldn't deal with all those boys and their dads. For me, it has been hard in some respects to be the mother and the father. In other respects it's much easier to be the one making all the decisions.

"My main job is supporting Brett. I work my job around his schedule as much as I can. I have to work, but I make sure that I am home every night. I go to his sports games. When he was little, I would throw balls to him. I'm the one that took a baseball in the leg."

Marilyn is aware of the contribution male mentors can make to a boy growing up with a single mother—not to underestimate the contribution they can make to boys living with both parents. One of Brett's mentors has been a coach Marilyn and Brett met when Brett was playing in the Pop Warner football league. The romance didn't last between Marilyn and the coach, but the friendship among them all did endure.

"He was really nice," Brett says, "and I think from coaching football he really had an interest in being involved in kids' lives. He would stop by and take me to a sports store, and he actually got me involved in taking pictures. Different interests than my mom. He told me things not to do and stuff like that. One time my friend and I had a campfire in the woods and we got in trouble with the police. I didn't know what I had done wrong, and he told me." The downside of the Pop Warner league was that the coach prescribed large numbers of pushups and other exercises before their musculature could support it. Brett developed osteochondritis and now can't fully extend his elbows. His once promising development as a pitcher in the town baseball league is on hold for an indefinite period. "I love to pitch," says Brett, "but I guess I'll just have to work on another specialty. For example, I went to kicking class for football."

"It amazes me," says Marilyn, "that Brett doesn't have to find blame for this situation. I backed over our cat once with the car by accident and killed it. Brett told me later that it wasn't anyone's fault. He's very fortunate to have the ability to be accepting of things that he can't really have any control over. He also has an amazing amount of compassion that I would like to take credit for, but he had it too early for me to take the credit. He's always had a sense of people's feelings. As a little two-year-old, he never let me kill an insect. I had told him that 'you should never kill a living thing,' and he said to me, 'that's a living thing, too.'"

The single child of a single parent can certainly tempt the parent to zealous protectiveness that some kids might read as overprotectiveness. "When you are a single parent, I think you have more love for the single child," says Brett. "For example, some of my friends will be gone for the whole day without calling home and I have to call every two hours. So I think she feels closer because she needs me to call so much and stuff like that." But Marilyn's need for closeness is something that Brett can reciprocate. "I tell my mom way more things than my friends would tell their moms."

Brett's life is full of the cliques and crowds that I discussed in Chapter 15 as the center of the adolescent's social life. His mixed crowd consists of about thirty peers, six or seven of them girls, all of them interested in athletics. They hang out at each other's houses. "There isn't much to do in this town; that's why I think some of the older kids turn to drinking," Brett suggests. Marilyn is naturally concerned about Brett and drinking, but when she brought up the subject recently Brett said to her, "Mom, how could you think I would drink? That's what separated you and Dad."

The girl Brett likes most is not in his crowd. "My group are kind of the 'cooler' group, and she's not considered 'cool.' I told one of my friends, and he told me that if I really liked her it shouldn't matter just because she's not in our group. I liked another girl from second grade until ,this year. I'll probably like her all my life, but she's not possible anymore. She's way too gorgeous—out of my league." "Would you be comfortable going outside your group to date a girl you like?" I asked. "I would want to," he replied, "but I don't think I would have the guts. None of my friends would care. They might joke around, but they're just kidding, I know that. But I don't think anything will happen this year. As we get older, I think everybody will be more in the same group. I think we'll always be tight, but the guys might start seeing girls from other groups and bring them into our group. That's happened before."

Brett Bendix's life is a model of the right kind of enabling. It begins with a parent who has made a resolute decision to put parenthood first in her life, even though that commitment has led her, without complaint or self-pity, through divorce to single parenthood. Mother and son have excellent communication. All of the elements of enabling stressed by Hauser—empathy, explanation, and problem-solving—are richly present in their descriptions of their lives. I particularly admire their ability to explain their lives as well as to describe them in terms of feelings or incidents. Her protestations to the contrary, I'm sure that Marilyn had a great deal to do with nurturing Brett's early capacity for empathy. He has already had some valuable experience with a mentor and will undoubtedly attract more mentors in the future. The crowd Brett belongs to is the kind of athletic, 'cool' crowd in which boys often adopt a macho veneer in adolescence, hiding their uncertainty and stifling their capacities to be sensitive. But Brett, thanks in large part to articulate and attentive parenting, has a very distinct sense of who he is—and isn't yet—as a boy on the threshold of late adolescence.

S. Hauser, B. Book, J. Houlihan, S. Powers, B. Weiss-Perry, D. Follansbee, A. Jacobson, and G. Noam, "Sex Differences Within the Family: Studies of Adolescent and Parent Family Interactions," Journal of Youth and Adolescence 16 (1987), 199-220.

Steinberg, Adolescence, 168.

adolescent autonomy S. Vuchinich, R. Vuchinich, and B. Wood, The interparental relationship and family problem solving with preadolescent males. Child Development 64 (1993), 1389-140.

Kelly, interviewed by Forrest Sawyer, Turning Point, American Broadcasting Company, broadcast April 9, 1996.

W. Glaberson, "Alex Kelly, Convicted Rapist, Accepts a Plea Deal in a Second Case from 1986," New York Times (December 24, 1998), A18.

Late Adolescence


Adolescence, as we saw earlier, is a stage rather than an age. The onset of the biological developments of adolescence can be separated by as much as several years from one boy to another. Yet there are some age-related events that are milestones in a boy's career, none more so that passing the required tests (written and road) and earning a first driver's license. In most states the minimum age is sixteen, and in many families the tests are taken by boys within a few days, or at most a few weeks, of their sixteenth birthdays because they have been secretly practicing as fifteen-year-olds. Having "wheels" makes such a difference in a boy's life that it is the ritual that separates early adolescence from late adolescence

Charles McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review reminisced recently about cars during his adolescence:

In the 50's and 60's, a car was more than a ride. It was a passport to freedom (even if freedom meant nothing more than cruising back and forth on the same well-traveled stretch of blacktop), and it was the embodiment of sexual possibility. Like many American boys of my generation, I grew up believing that automotive expertise and success with girls were intrinsically linked. . . . I could never afford a car of my own. When I went on dates, I had to borrow my father's. . . . The goal was not motion but rest: parking. My favorite spot was a reservoir not far from my house, where on any weekend night dozens of cars would be nestled, nose in, against the verge. There, with the radio playing softly and the window cracked down an inch or two to let in the summer breeze, we earnest young mechanics plied our trade, or tried to, kissing, stroking, petting-all in an effort to rev what we had been taught to think of as the notoriously balky female engine. Sometimes, in spite of our crude efforts, it did spring to life, with an ardor that startled us both, and sometimes, to tell the truth, it was we boys, scared, timid and clumsy, who needed jump starting. . . . Girls, it turned out, were not as different from us as we thought--except that most of them did not care about cars at all!

This milestone arrived for me in an unexpected fashion. As my sixteenth birthday approached, my father tossed cold water on any thoughts of independence I was harboring—and I was harboring quite a few. "A car is an instrument of death:' he asserted with all the confidence one might expect from a chief justice of the Supreme Court. There was, on this issue, no appeal possible beyond my father's decision, and he promised that I wouldn't be allowed to drive until I was eighteen. Then, old enough to vote and to join the armed forces, I would in his eyes be old enough to drive.

I didn't take the ruling too personally because I knew that my behavior in early adolescence hadn't given my father any reason to think me less trustworthy behind the wheel than my peers. For all I knew, he was thinking of how much his car insurance premiums would jump with a licensed sixteen-year-old in the family.

There the matter rested until four months after my birthday, when my mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for the first time for treatment of disabling depression. Suddenly the prospect of my knowing how to drive soared in value. At my father's insistence, I took a crash course—no pun intended—at a Mount Vernon driving school, and then the two requisite tests. The written test was a piece of cake, but I was nervous about the road test. My examiner was nervous, too, as I recall. The vehicle was my mother's blue and white 1956 Plymouth with a stick shift. My father thought automatic transmissions were an unnecessary frill. What I worried about was that I might stall out the engine when I shifted gears using the clutch, or fail to do an acceptable piece of parallel parking. I managed not to stall and I aced the parallel parking; the state policeman testing me visibly relaxed. Along with my new chores as family chauffeur, I had some memorable experiences in the old Plymouth.

Diverging Tracks

By age forty, students of midlife and its now celebrated crisis have told us, most men have reached the highest plateau of their work lives or have a pretty clear idea what that highest plateau is going to be; the knowledge of career limitations itself is one of the stimulants of the midlife crisis. By age sixteen, analogously, most adolescent boys know which of three tracks they've chosen for the next five or more years. Many will finish high school and go on to college or some form of technical training. Many others will complete high school, find a job, and go to work, very likely living at home for a time until they acquire some experience and savings, then striking out on their own, perhaps marrying at a relatively early age. The smallest group-yet a substantial number-will drop out of school, perhaps find a job, probably at a low hourly wage, maybe drift into substance addiction or crime. The dropouts have the least promising prospects for adult life, and generally are aware of it.

About the time they get driver's licenses, boys who stay in school begin to take on paying jobs-after school, on weekends, or during holiday and summer breaks-that give them money of their own and a taste of what full-time employment might be like.

As my schoolteacher brother reminded me, every teenage boy has a job. It's called schoolwork, and it has a weighty overtime component called homework. Despite its lack of compensation, schoolwork is real work. It is demanding, it is more or less relentless, it is tiring, and it is constantly monitored and graded.

Those boys headed toward the tracks of education or stable work take advantage of the final spurts of development of the brain. One spurt occurs at age fifteen on average, and the other from age eighteen to twenty. These spurts appear to coincide with the best scores young males achieve on intelligence tests; they also appear to be associated with the refinement of abstract thinking, a prerequisite for mature and reflective thought. The only cognitive edge boys have over girls lies in spatial reasoning, not to be confused with the arithmetical part of mathematics. Boys display this edge before age ten, and it lasts right through adolescence.

Stephanie Coontz notes that two researchers in 1968 concluded that "readiness for adulthood comes about two years later than the adolescent claims and about two years before the parent will admit." Coontz thinks it likely the degree of miscalculation has increased on both sides since the late 1960s.

Two other variables that are getting more distant from each other are the average age of physical maturation and the average age of economic independence. The age at which boys can support themselves, let alone a family, has reached a new high in the past two decades. So there is a longer and longer period when adolescents are sexually mature and physically and mentally capable of adult work, but remain economically dependent.

As recently as 1940 about 60 percent of employed boys aged sixteen and seventeen worked in traditional settings such as factories, farms, or construction sites, where they labored alongside, and often as apprentices to, older men. By 1980 the percentage of boys so employed had dropped to 14 percent. The bulk of jobs available to boys are dead-end jobs such as in the fast-food business where they get relatively little adult mentoring and have few opportunities for significant advancement.

Teenagers with jobs are more likely than their unemployed peers to express cynical attitudes toward work, and to endorse unethical business practices; they are more likely to agree with statements such as "People who work harder at their jobs than they have to are crazy" or "In my opinion, it's all right for workers who are paid a low salary to take little things."

Earlier generations of boys may often have worked to help support their families, and that phenomenon is not unknown today. But to judge from the adolescents I interviewed in the past year, most work in order to earn money for their own consumption-to maintain their own cars and entertainment, some of their own clothes, and the expenses of dating. Many corporations have obviously targeted them as an enticing market with plenty of disposable income. This pressure to consume can take its toll on academic work and future opportunity. Adolescent boys frequently put in so many hours each week in wage-earning that they have no waking time left for homework; some of them fall asleep in classrooms out of sheer fatigue.

Delinquency

Nearly all adolescent boys. if asked directly and confidentially, will admit having been guilty of offenses of one sort or another besides driving violations: for example, under-age drinking, smoking marijuana. running away from home, petty theft. disorderly conduct, vandalism. A 1998 survey of 20,000 middle- and high-school students (both boys and girls) by the Josephson Institute of Ethics showed that 47 percent admitted stealing something from a store in the previous twelve-month period, up from 39 percent in a similar survey in 1966, with a quarter of the high school students saying they had committed store theft at least twice.

The report was released during National CHARACTER COUNTS! Week in October of 1998. The data showing very high levels of admitted stealing, lying, and cheating didn't seem to jibe with the respondents' self image or with their perceptions of parental values. Ninety-one percent of the students said they were satisfied with their ethics and character. Almost as many believed that lying and cheating hurt character. Eighty three percent said their parents always want them to do the right thing. no matter what the cost: only 7 percent believed that their parents would prefer them to cheat if necessary to get good grades.

Arrest data and adolescents' own testimony suggests that the incidence of minor crime rises in the early teenage years, remains high through the middle stage of adolescence, and declines toward the end of adolescence. The curve of the data reflects the waxing and waning of peer influence. As teenage boys spend more and more time with boys their own age, they succumb more frequently to peer pressure to commit illegal acts. As they become more selective about their friends in late adolescence, many of them resist activities that involve breaking laws.

Effective response to any act of juvenile delinquency depends on ferreting out the principal motive. Some transgressions are acts of aggression. Boys in groups may playoff each other's aggressiveness and commit acts most of them would be incapable of—or at least far less capable of—if they were acting alone. Sometimes the aggressiveness is an expression of targeted resentment.When teenage boys disfigure the school walls with graffiti, it isn't hard to infer the object of their resentment.

Other acts of delinquency, however, seem to be acts of deliberate risktaking more than aggression. Early experimentation with drugs and alcohol often has this motive. So, too, may petty theft-"Can I do this without being caught?" Within the dynamics of peer groups, members are often dared to commit illegal acts as proof of their masculine credentials. The less confident a boy is of his standing within the group, the more vulnerable he is to proposed tests of his daring.

Preadolescent children often display a strong sense—some of it innately temperamental, but some of it learned from protective parents and other adults—of caution about new and risky ventures. This caution dissolves in early adolescence as a boy further distances himself from his parents and other adults, sometimes deliberately flaunting his parents' sense of caution. But another factor here is that adolescent boys simply don't assess risks the way most adults do. Many boys have a sense of invulnerability to danger. "It can't happen to me" is a line many boys carry in their imaginations, while "It did happen to me" is an adult confession they may decline to heed.

For most teenagers, a brush with the law doesn't augur long-term antisocial behavior. However, boys who have many relatively minor encounters with the police are certainly at risk of becoming serious offenders. About 12 percent of violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, and assault) are committed by teenagers, overwhelmingly by boys. About 22 percent of property offenses (burglary and theft) are committed by teenagers, overwhelmingly by boys.

Some of the factors linked to adolescent delinquency are poor academic performance and low verbal ability, rejection by peers in earlier childhood, growing up in a home ridden with conflict, and close associations with other delinquent boys. Individual episodes of adolescent crime are replete with the judgment of bystanders: "I can't believe [Rick] would do a thing like that!" Gerald Patterson and his colleagues have done substantial research into the antecedents of youthful brushes with the law. One common pattern is of a boy growing up in a family beset with much internal conflict, where lax and inconsistent discipline leads to boyish conduct problems, followed by academic failure and rejection by peers in middle childhood, culminating in the boy's joining a deviant peer group in which he is motivated to repeated antisocial behavior.

Sex

When I try to draw a profile of the sexual development and behavior of the later teenage boy, I am more than ever aware of the tension between statistics and individual cases. By age sixteen, many boys have developed active interpersonal sexual histories—either heterosexual or homosexual—but many others of their peers haven't had a date yet, and are relying on the media, fantasies, and masturbation for sexual pleasure; the specifics of counseling a boy's needs are going to vary considerably depending on where he stands in the range of sexual maturity and experience.

As recently as the 1970s, the division of males who had or had not had at least one experience of sexual intercourse by age eighteen was about even, with 55 percent on the experienced side. In twenty years the percentage of boys with experience of intercourse by age eighteen has risen to 73 percent. Since the average age of first marriage for males in the United States is twenty-six, boys face on average a period of more than a decade between the onset of puberty (a process completed in about three years) and marriage.

Social and cultural factors might intervene to reverse the trend of early sexual intercourse for males, just as a rising tide of teenage pregnancies has recently been slightly reversed. But it is unlikely that a society can keep most of its males chaste through a decade during which they reach the apex of sexual drive and their attention is captured many times a day by sexual thoughts or images. It is not surprising at all that 93 percent of American males have had sexual intercourse before marriage, or that one of fifteen males fathers a child when he is still a teenager. Since 85 percent of teenage pregnancies are unintended, we can safely surmise that many of the children fathered by male teenagers are at best mixed blessings.

Who should teach adolescent males about sex, and what should they teach them? It is far easier to prescribe what kind of person should do the teaching than to know who that person might be in a given adolescent's environment. The teacher can be either a man or a woman who is knowledgeable about the information and wisdom to be transmitted, comfortable with the subject of sex itself, and who does not bring a personal sexual agenda to the discussion.

If you ask teenagers today whom they most rely on for knowledge about sexuality, they say they look most to their parents, then to peers, then to schoolteachers, then to the media. Their parents—mothers significantly more frequently than fathers—acknowledge that they talk to their children about sex far more than their own parents talked to them about it. But they also indicate a good deal of discomfort about the responsibility and wish the schools would accept more of it.

Surveys make a good deal of the fact that despite all of the instruction about the physiology of sex, a large proportion of adolescent males don't understand much about fertility cycles in females. Some of the reticence of parents to be responsible for counseling their sons about sex is that they themselves have forgotten much of the relevant biology of reproduction, and don't want to discuss the experiential side of sex. The mark of this silence about experience is that many adolescents can't imagine their parents having sex; parental sex is either mysterious or even slightly repellent to them.

If we examine parental and school teachings, we find a predominant wish that adolescents would practice sexual abstinence, but that if they can't hold to that goal, they should at least avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and avoid causing pregnancies. These concerns are undeniably important, given that a million teenage girls become pregnant every year (many of them to older than teenage males) and that 3 million teenagers are infected with a sexually transmitted disease each year.

What is missing in this approach is an acknowledgment or acceptance of the adolescent drive for pleasure. Adults have important interests, too, in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies; but these concerns take their place in the context of the attempt, through all of the complexities and frustrations involved, to have satisfying sex lives.

The formal and informal sexual education of boys, I believe, rarely pays sufficient attention to both the positive and the cautionary aspects of sexual engagement. There is no socially endorsed means of teaching an adolescent boy how to cope with the nervousness that typically affects a male with a first or a new sexual partner; how to control the impulsivity that accompanies sexual excitement; how and when to elicit assent by a partner to his sexual initiatives; how to communicate with a partner in order to discover—and care about—what gives her pleasure; how to reduce the manipulative and aggressive scripts in order to allow sexual activity to be more playful, more intimate, and more loving; how to heighten both the control and the pleasure of sex by making it more verbal, more articulate.

Despite what teenagers report about depending on parents and teachers for sexual information and advice, I believe they actually depend more on each other and on what they glean from a blizzard of media messages ranging from the sublime to the pornographic. Many boys are on their own, learning as they may from their peers, who often exaggerate and distort, and from erotic literature that often downplays the search for mutual pleasure in favor of mute, impulsive drives toward orgasmic relief by males pressing ever ahead to the next "base" Some males pass their entire sexual lives rarely experiencing the transformation of sexual excitement into mutual passion. Any romantic themes in the media are often vastly oversimplified. The line between reality and fantasy gets very blurred.

Adolescent discussions and media presentations (including movies, videos, talk shows, and sitcoms) need infusions of knowledge and insight that parents and teachers (and other concerned adults such as physicians, clergy, and lawyers) could effectively provide if they were willing to accept and honor, rather than to attempt to deny or proscribe or shame or riddle with fear, the adolescent's sexual drive.

One way boys reduce anxiety about the risk of sexual engagements is to consume alcohol or drugs. Their parents use this method on a wholesale basis, so it is not surprising that adolescents borrow the method. They may also thereby either reduce their capacity for performing sexually, or provoke sexualized aggression. (Not a few rapists appear to be trying to compensate for feelings of sexual inadequacy.)

In groups, adolescent males may give each other nerve that many of them would lack if relating individually to young women. The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has shown in disturbing detail how alcohol and pack behavior work together in some male college fraternity parties. In these situations, boys are free of the constraints of living with parents. (The same kind of events can happen with high school students when Mom and Dad go away for a weekend under circumstances that permit an unchaperoned teenage party in their house.)

Sanday interviewed some fraternity members and the girls they deliberately gang-assaulted. One male group described their objectives as "working a 'yes' out" of their dates. Their techniques included inviting dates from out of town who would not feel self-confident and protected in the unfamiliar environment, or inviting dates whose style of dress suggested they might be sexually receptive, or inviting dates of lower social class standing who might feel they were winning acceptance at a higher social level. The dates were plied with alcohol until drunk or un resistant and then drawn into a bedroom. Sometimes the room designated for such sexual scenes had peepholes through which other members of the fraternity could watch. After the fraternity brother had sex with his date, he would leave the room and other brothers would take their turn, subduing or threatening the young woman to the extent necessary to achieve sexual compliance. Some college administrations are now concerned about the social dynamics, particularly the abuse of alcohol and sex, of male students living in unchaperoned groups and are taking steps to prevent such practices as Sanday has described.

Lives on Hold

There is a curve to adolescence that gives rise to optimism. At the beginning of puberty, most boys are reasonably obedient sons and schoolboys. As sexual maturation occurs, boys draw away from family intimacy. They experiment with sex, alcohol, tobacco, and perhaps other drugs. They excel in risk-taking. When they get their driver's licenses, their independence takes another quantum leap. They get jobs. They stay out late and sleep late every chance they get. They buy and wear clothes that irritate their parents. They adorn themselves with fancy haircuts and tattoos. The adults in their lives watch this process with a mixture of anxiety, fascination, and horror. The wisest of them repress some of their impulses to object, complain, worry aloud, or counsel without invitation.

Most of the sons, toward the end of high school, turn back toward more closeness with their families. As they begin to look ahead to college or full-time jobs, they see that family support is indispensable to their futures. Also, they see that they have already won considerable independence; the battle doesn't have to be rewaged every day. They have won space of their own that no one wants to take away from them.

And so all should be well, right? Family relations patched up again, high school graduation on the horizon, early adulthood in reasonable proximity. Yet it doesn't all feel right. I circle back to Stephanie Coontz and an observation she made almost in passing in The Way We Really Are: "It's not that we have more bad parents or more bad kids today than we used to. It's not that families have lost interest in their kids. And there is no evidence that the majority of today's teenagers are more destructive or irresponsible than in the past. [Perhaps the data cited in this chapter shows them to be a little more destructive and irresponsible.] However, relations between adults and teens are especially strained today, not because youths have lost their childhood, as is usually suggested, but because they are not being adequately prepared for the new requirements of adulthood. In some ways, childhood has actually been prolonged, if it is measured by dependence on parents and segregation from adult activities."

We have, to use Coontz's term, made adolescence too "roleless". We have designed educational structures for teenagers that many find boring, unlinked to any path to the adult world. We have neglected to give them any significant public space of their own. We have kept extending the amount of education needed to impress hiring institutions almost as a way of keeping late adolescents/young adults from competing in job markets before older adults want them to.

In addition, the facility of certain older teenagers for grasping the complexities of fast evolving technologies such as information science and "ecommerce" terrifies older adults who cannot absorb social and technological change as quickly. This may result in a kind of unconscious conspiracy to keep teenagers in limbo for quite a few years. They do not feel needed. Why should we be surprised if, in their separate subculture, they treat their boredom and comparative irrelevance with behavior adults don't admire?

The predominant approach to adolescence today is to balkanize the issues. Safer sex. Reduce crime. Just say no to alcohol and drugs. Indeed. these issues do develop lives of their own. But they must be seen in the context of what we believe adolescence to be. A redefinition of adolescence to give it serious and honored purpose would not fail to affect each of these issues.

C. McGrath, "Autoerotic," New York Times Magazine (July 5,1998), 50.

Coontz, The Way We Really Are, 14.

adolescent attitudes L. J. Stone and J. Church, Childhood and Adolescence: A Psychology of the Growing Person (New York: Random House, 1968), 30.

Josephson Institute of Ethics, "1998 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth," posted on the Internet October 19, 1998 (Josephson Institute of Ethics, Publications Department, 4640 Admiralty Way, #1001, Marina del Rey, CA 90292-6610).

arrest data United State Department of Justice, Crime in the U.S.: Uniform Crime Reports (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995).

risk-taking Dryfoos, Safe Passages.

G. R. Patterson, B. D. DeBaryshe, E. Ramsey, "A Developmental Perspective on Antisocial Behavior," American Psychologist 44 (1989), 329-335.361-366adolescent sexual experienceSteinberg, Adolescence, 408-420.

Alan Guttmacher Institute, Sex and America's Teenagers (New York: Planned Parenthood Federation, 1994).

S. B. Kinsman, D. Romer, F. F. Furstenberg, and D. F. Schwarz, "Early Sexual Initiation: The Role of Peer Norms," Pediatrics 102 (1998), 1185-1192.

R. Kaufmann, A. Spitz, and L. Strauss, "The Decline in United States Teen Pregnancy Rates, 1990-1995," Pediatrics, 102 (1998), 1141-1147.

C. Stevens-Simon and D. Kaplan, "Teen Childbearing Trends: Which Tide Turned When and Why?" Pediatrics 102 (1998), 1205-1206.

M. D. Resnick, P. S. Bearman, R. W. Blum, K. E. Bauman, K. M. Harris, J. Jones, J. Tabor, T. Beuhring, R. E. Sieving, M. Shew, M. Ireland, L. H. Bearinger, and R. Udry, "Protecting Adolescents from Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health," Journal of the American Medical Association 278 (1997), 823-832.

R. Garofalo, R. C. Wolf, S. Kessel, J. Palfrey, R. H. DuRant, "The Association Between Health Risk Behaviors and Sexual Orientation Among a School-Based Sample of Adolescents," Pediatrics 101 (1998), 895-902.

P. R. Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape (New York: New York University Press, 1990).

homosexual adolescence R. C. Savin-Williams and K. M. Cohen, The Lives of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: Children to Adults (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1996).

R. C. Savin-Williams and L. M. Diamond, "Sexual Orientation As a Developmental Context for .Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: Biological Perspectives," in N. L. Segal, G. E. Weisfeld, and C. C. Weisfeld, eds., Uniting Psychology and Biology: Integrative Perspectives on Human Development (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997), 217-23

disclosure of sexual orientation R. C. Savin-Williams, E. M. Dube, "Parental Reactions to Their Child's Disclosure of a Gay/Lesbian Identity," Family Relations 47 (1998): 7-13.

R. C. Savin-Williams, "The Disclosure to Families of Same-Sex Attractions By Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youths," Journal of Research on Adolescence 8 (1998), 49-68.371-372adolescent suicideB. Guyer, M. F. MacDorman, J. A. Martin, K. D. Peters, and D. M. Strobino, "Annual Summary of Vital Statistics—1997," Pediatrics 102 (1998), 1333-1349.

D. K. Curran, Adolescent Suicidal Behavior (Washington,D.C.: Hemisphere, 1987).

R. Wetzel, "Hopelessness, Depression, and Suicide Intent," Archives of General Psychiatry 33 (1976), 1069-1073.

Coontz, The Way We Really Are, 14.

Adolescent and Gay


A very small percentage of males discover themselves to be homosexual or bisexual as they grow up. For them, sexual maturation is a particularly demanding, sometimes hazardous, process; as many as a third are physically assaulted by gay bashers inside or outside their families before they complete adolescence.

Adults often exhibit a degree of amnesia about their sexual awakenings. For both heterosexual and homosexual boys, the experience of this awakening is something shared mostly with each other. Adults say very little about the experience itself. Every boy finds it mysterious, exciting, confusing, and frustrating. Many boys who will eventually have well-established heterosexual orientations have at least one homosexual experience as an adolescent, either with another boy or with a gay adult testing their orientation. As many as half of the males who eventually establish a homosexual orientation have experienced heterosexual sex, either during the period when they were uncertain of their inclinations, or as an attempt to adopt the predominant orientation, only to have it prove unsatisfactory to them.

Both heterosexual and homosexual males like to think of their orientations as destinies foreordained at birth, but it isn't quite that simple. Some adolescent boys, either because of the strong cultural preference for heterosexuality or because they were somehow sexually different then, establish heterosexual orientations in adolescence lasting into early or middle adulthood, and then change orientation and identify themselves as gay.

A sense of being "different" assails many homosexual males while they are still in elementary school. In some instances, this sense of differentness is mainly an internal perception, but in other instances a boy may be perceived by others to be different and singled out for teasing or taunting at school or at home, or both-as lacking masculinity.

Researchers are very much divided on the origins of homosexual orientation. Perhaps tolerance of homosexuality would become a less divisive issue in our society if indisputable evidence could be found linking sexual orientation to genetic inheritance. No such evidence, no gay gene or heterosexual gene, has yet been clearly identified. There is some evidence that male homosexual orientation is more closely related to maternal than to paternal lineage, but even that evidence settles very little. The fact that identical male twins are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than are fraternal twins also suggests a biological component.

For every geneticist looking for a biological link, there is a behavioral expert offering an explanation involving the childhood experiences and environment of the boy. When I was growing up, homosexual orientation was often blamed on overprotective mothers who didn't encourage their sons to develop heterosexual relationships with their peers. More recently, cold and distant fathers have received much of the blame once heaped on too protective mothers: the homosexual boy, in this formulation, seeks the acceptance and love from other males that his father never offered him. As with the biological explanations, there is something plausible about the various behavioral explanations, but none has won acceptance as a comprehensive and solidly confirmed hypothesis.

For every biological or social scientist who has addressed the etiology of homosexuality, there are several moralists lamenting what they believe is the perversity of homosexual practice. Many of them base their intolerance of homosexuality on their reading of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles, but there is no more scholarly consensus about how to interpret the few biblical references to homosexuality than there is consensus among scientists about genetic or interpersonal factors. Such attitudes, however, are influential. The Boy Scouts of America, citing the organization's private rather than quasi-public standing, does not now permit acknowledged homosexuals to take positions of leadership or accept known homosexual boys as scouts.

A homosexual youth lives in a glass-house environment in which sexual orientation is exaggerated far out of its proper perspective in his life. A heterosexual boy is deeply affected by his sexuality, thinks about it, dreams about it, talks about it—especially with his peers—and expresses it in personal or interpersonal action. Yet his sexuality, central as it is to his identity and life, doesn't stimulate the same constant sense of vulnerability. He isn't teased in a hostile way about being heterosexual. Everyone makes so much of homosexuality that it's difficult for a gay adolescent to get his sexuality in proper perspective. Difficult, too, to anticipate where rejection will lie. Sometimes adolescent classmates are relatively tolerant and parents are completely intolerant.

There is enough uncertainty about parental response, linked to the need most adolescents have for continuing financial and emotional support from them, that parents are not generally the first recipients of male homosexual disclosure. Siblings or other peers are usually the first to hear. A large proportion—half or more—of gay adolescents do not disclose their orientation to parents until they have left home for college or other pursuits. Even so, most males anticipate a higher level of acceptance of the disclosure to parents than they receive. In one recent study, half of both mothers and fathers reacted to their college-age sons' disclosures of homosexuality with disbelief, denial, negative comments, or silence. Eighteen percent responded with acts of rejection including attempts to convert the son to heterosexuality or to cut him off financially and emotionally. Parents often feel guilty: What did I do wrong? It is indicative of the differences in relationships that mothers are usually informed face-to-face while fathers are as often informed in writing as in conversation.

Many issues young homosexual males confront are embedded in the life of Dan, a sixteen-year-old. He remembers feeling attracted to men as early as age five. When he was in fourth grade in California, he watched a gay actor on a talk show recount that getting turned on by Calvin Klein male underwear ads made him realize he was gay. "And I said, 'That's me, too,'" Dan recalled. "But I kept thinking, of course I'm straight. I'm going to grow up and have girlfriends and have kids. I began dating girls in fifth grade. In seventh grade, I dated a beautiful girl who kept pressuring me to have sex—she wanted to know what made me horny. What I realized was that there's a big difference between finding someone attractive and being attracted to them sexually and emotionally. That was when I knew that I was at least bisexual.

"The summer after seventh grade I came out to most of my friends that I was bisexual, and they were cool about it. There were other guys out at the high school, and some in the middle school, too. I was afraid of what everyone would think, and I didn't tell my parents. To deal with my anxiety I started using drugs—a lot of painkillers, some codeine.

"Just before eighth grade started, my parents moved separately to Connecticut." That year was Dan's worst year so far: "absolute hell"

"Immediately I was labeled a faggot, and I had never been called that before I moved. I would get punched and spat on by people passing in the hall. There were gay teachers who would get made fun of, and wouldn't respond. So I really didn't feel comfortable. If gay adults weren't safe from taunting, I certainly wasn't going to be safe."

I asked Dan how he explained the abuse by other students. "They're just not sure of themselves," he said. "A lot of them have grown up with a hatred of gays. I find that many guys are threatened by how comfortable I am with my sexuality. That's not to say they're gay, but they're questioning their own sexual confidence."

In ninth grade, Dan began sexual activity with men, some in their twenties, others in their thirties or older. He meets many of them in gay clubs. He also feels confident initiating contact with strangers in public, in stores, for example. He is diligent about safe sex and careful not to make himself vulnerable to sexual exploitation by drinking too much, but he has a considerable number of sexual contacts during a year. His sexual experience and self-confidence are beyond the reach of his gay, and also many of his heterosexual, schoolmates. Dan has had only two brief relationships with schoolmates. His insistence that boyfriends be as open as he about sexual orientation is too public for their comfort. Lacking heterosexual friends, he has no schoolmates he spends time with outside of school.

His family circumstances and his homosexuality have pushed Dan into a kind of premature adulthood. "I think of my father as my roommate;' he said.

"Isn't that a lonely way to live?" I asked.

"I really enjoy my independence;' he replied, "and there's no way I could go back to having a curfew."

The pronounced—but not as rare as one might think—detachment of Dan's parents from his life accentuates but doesn't define the consequences of Dan's homosexuality. The depression, the loneliness, and, indeed, the danger attendant to his sexual relationships is in part a consequence of homophobia, but his perception of his parents' preoccupations with their careers, his hypersexuality, and his self-destructiveness are themes in many boys' lives, whether or not they are gay.

There aren't many self-acknowledged male homosexuals in any high school class, and if their sexual orientation is considered socially unacceptable or even contagious by heterosexual age-mates, they will not have a very large pool of potential friends. Homophobia is exhibited by some women, but by and large it is a sentiment perpetuated by males in our society. It incites crude and cruel behavior in middle schools, and even more frequently in high schools.

Adolescent Suicide


Among boys aged fifteen to nineteen, suicide ranks as the third most frequent cause of death. The suicide rate has been climbing slowly but steadily since the 1960s. The most frequent cause of death in this age group is accidents, many of them vehicular and many of them associated with alcohol, which does seem to justify my father's belief that the automobile is an instrument of death. The second most frequent cause is homicide, which reflects the distinctive access to firearms that adolescent males have in the United States.

There are some gender-based differences in adolescent suicide. Girls attempt suicide more frequently than boys, but boys complete the act more frequently than girls. Girls tend to employ passive methods such as drug overdoses that are less disfiguring and less certain to be lethal, while boys are apt to use more violent and certain methods such as hanging or shooting themselves. Boys don't typically commit suicide as an extreme reaction to a single precipitating event, even a great disappointment. Careful examination of individual cases shows that what appear to be immediate precipitating events are better seen as the culmination of a set of difficulties the boy has experienced over a substantially longer period of time. In a study of 154 adolescents who killed themselves, the researchers concluded that a sense of hopelessness was the most critical factor.

Suicide sets off such an intense and prolonged reaction among immediate family and friends that the question of whether they should have been able to prevent it is inevitably raised. Warning signals have been defined, including unusually stressful events in a boy's life, mood changes, disturbed sleep and eating patterns, statements suggesting despair, and even verbal mention of suicide. Only the last of these symptoms, however, is specifically predictive of suicide plans, and it may be a way of expressing despair rather than a forewarning. Parents of adolescents shouldn't generally regard themselves as on a chronic suicide watch.

What does matter is whether parents, teachers and other concerned adults consistently try to maintain close relations with adolescent boys. There are many reasons to do this besides suicide prevention. Adults who are close to kids and not disposed to deny the evidence before their eyes and ears will sense major mood shifts and can raise concerned inquiries or guide boys to professional help if the mood shifts seem beyond parental remedy. Sometimes a change of school or a new activity or expressions of interest and concern from other people will effectively counter a major downward mood swing. Adults who are relatively detached from their children may not notice signals of despair.

Some suicide attempts are social in nature—dramatic ways of showing how desperate and unhappy a person feels. Others reflect a person's ambivalence, a wish both to end it all and not to end it-but to have relief from the pain of despair.

©2007 Eli Newberger



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