The Road Back From Whatever

While out of town this weekend, between two plane trips and a couple late evenings up reading, I started and polished off Elliott Currie's The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence in very short order. I didn't do this because it was a fluffy or easy read -- it's actually very in-depth and painful at times, though highly readable -- but because it was such a well-done piece of work, so engaging, and from my point of view, so dead-to-rights. It was incredibly refreshing to read Currie's approach: I was thirsty for it, and it delivered a long, tall and much-needed drink. I found buried treasure.

It was timely, my reading this book, because for a while I've taken issue with how at-risk youth are even defined. For the most part, they are defined by race and class, as necessarily of-color, and/or in poverty. By all means, I agree that being a member of any oppressed class -- which every adolescent is, simply by virtue of age -- will always bump risk factors up, and I want care given to of-color youth and low-income youth in a way which does it's best to compensate for those youth having less resources than others. (As well, I'm also concerned with the not-so-well-meaning and racist or classist implications of identifying at-risk youth that way, as if, by virtue of color or income, rather than the institutions which discriminate by that criteria, a given person is somehow innately destined to have bigger problems, and it is that person in need of "fixing," not those institutions.) But I do often worry, particularly since so often we see middle-class youth of all colors at Scarleteen having such a tough time of things, about assuring that our focus is broad enough when it comes to who we decide needs care and attention. I have frequent concerns that the way we identify who is and who isn't at risk, who may and may not be likely to be at-risk, is too narrow.

How much money the family of a young adult has is no guarantee at all of happiness or well-being, something I learned all too well when I taught upper class children for a year in the early 90's: there was an isolation, a loneliness and a stressed-out perfectionism many of those students -- particularly those approaching puberty -- that took me very much by surprise at the time. On more than one occasion, I heard a parent respond to a valid concern we voiced for their child with little more than an immediate concern for and defense of their needs (such as the "need" to pull a child in and out of school incessantly because a parent didn't like the cold and liked to switch over to a summer home on their whim, for themselves), not those of their child.

The new middle-class world in which many American adolescents grow up is one that combined harshness and heedlessness in equal measure. It is a world that is quick to punish and slow to help, a world paradoxically both deeply moralistic and profoundly neglectful. Hence, it is hardly surprising that so many mainstream teenagers are in trouble, for that world makes it very hard to grow up. It makes it all too difficult to achieve a strong and abiding sense of worth and all too easy to feel like a failure and a loser. It makes it all too easy to feel like an outsider, all too difficult to feel appreciated or respected for being who you are. It is a world in which it is treacherously easy for adolescents to trip up and break the rules but in which no one can be bothered to help them avoid tripping up in the first place. (p.254, bolding mine)

I admit, I had a lot of déjà vu when reading Currie's accounts of the teens he worked with. While I grew up primarily low-income, a few of my adolescent years were spent in the middle-class, and those were the years when things got as bad as they could possibly get. Accounts in the book of Tough Love were all-too familiar to me, and the reminder harrowing. In my case, Tough Love was used in conjunction with, and sometimes as justification for, an abuse dynamic, which was particularly chilling, and you see that in some of these accounts as well. I remember, too, that when we moved into (rather, married into) the middle class, there was less notice of the effects of my household on me. In lower-class communities and schools, neighbors and teachers seemed to have a keener eye: in middle-class life, there seemed a universal propensity to turn the other cheek, to put on blinders, to say "None of my business," which felt very different -- cold, isolated, the kind of disturbingly quiet things are when no one wants to talk about what's wrong -- than our lower-income community had. Perhaps it was partly due to the timing, due to that switch happening at the onset of my adolescence, but I remember it very distinctly feeling like suddenly we youth were the enemy, always at fault, and parents and other adults ever-good, even when they were being anything but.

I noticed some changes and some similarities. On the north side of Chicago, back when I was a teen, there were a rare few of us identified as "trouble" who had not either spent some time put in mental institutions by parents -- not by the state -- or who were frequently threatened with same. It became a way to find something quickly in common: "Oh, you were in the ward at Northwestern? When? Were you there with Susie?" That still seems to be occurring, but more often the institution is pharmaceutical: at the first sign of trouble, mood changes (which are part and parcel of the chemical effects of puberty, not a disorder) or rebellion, teens are put on SSRIs, anti-anxiety or ADHD medications. We also see many youth now wind up in criminal institutions, "boot camps," get shuttled more from one home to another, and with GLBT youth, in camps which aim to "rehabilitate" them.

Young adults seem also to be suspended or kicked out of school with more frequency and ease in this era, taking away yet one more resource that is needed; setting youth more adrift than before, rather than helping them to use places like school as a much-needed tether. His accounts of the world of modern-day suburban high schools and rigorous academic achievement will probably also sound very familiar to teens today: as cold, uncaring (particularly for students who do not prove their worth with high grades or test scores), punitive and, all too frequently, more parent and teacher-centered than student-centered. Of course, there is also a heavy and judgmental religious morality, one which in the U.S. has found it's way into schools and policies through our current administration, which also often judge, youth, and do so with the ultimate authority figure: one which claims to come directly from God. The actuality or threats of kicking a teen out of the house also do not appear to have decreased, despite the fact that it still remains unlawful for a parent to abandon a minor in that way.

I appreciated that he brought up that one common reason teens wind up in trouble, or in situations or social circles which endanger them isn't because teens are stupid or foolhardy, but because those places or groups are more accepting of them, have less stringent or rigid standards for approval than teens are finding elsewhere. There's a reason, after all, that so many teens are so stressed out right now: it's not random.

If we wonder why we see very young teenage women dating older partners who clearly or likely are exploiting them or putting them at risk, rather than just looking to that teen or that adult, we should also look at what they get from that situation which they are not finding elsewhere. If the only person stating or recognizing a developing maturity (whether or not that is earnest or manipulative) is the 25-year-old guy who lives with Mom and picks up teen girls at the mall, it's no wonder a young person moving into adulthood is very drawn to that person, despite their flaws or manipulations which may even be known to teens pairing up with them. If we feel like youth are spending too much time in online communities and too little in real-life, we might look at the differences through this lens, considering what kind of acceptance they are or are not getting here or there. If we're wondering things like why we're seeing an increase in abusive YA relationships we might also look to where they are learning those patterns in the first place, why those relationships seem to be so easy for teens to fall into and why they seem so normal and familiar. If it seems completely incomprehensible that young people wind up with addictions to hard drugs (self-injury is also pertinent here), we might look at the differences in how a person feels on a drug and off of it: if a drug seems the only way to feel comfortable socially, to care less about feelings of hatred for oneself, or to find something to shake a person out of feeling numb, why look to the drugs or the addiction first, and to what's being escaped from second, if at all?

The stories he recounts are so important: as usual, I can't say enough how important I feel it is that we listen -- really listen -- to young people. They are painful and poignant, but often inspirational: many of the young people he interviewed managed -- though they shouldn't have had to -- to create and discover selves and lives of meaning and value despite so frequently being denied help and care from the sources where they should have most easily found both.

But what I found most important, and most meaningful, were the conclusions he draws from those stories and what he knows as an expert on many of the institutions and institutional systems youth can wind up in, from what their experiences illustrated so clearly and consistently. It's all very simple, really. The idea many people seem to have that the reason middle-class adolescents find themselves in crisis is because they have too much of everything -- too much esteem, too much care, too much attention -- and thus, the answer is to take those things away -- work to decrease esteem, withdraw or deny care and attention -- is not only profoundly cruel but profoundly flawed. When the young adults he talked to were able to turn their lives around was, of no surprise to those thinking and feeling clearly, when they finally got some practical help, some support and attention; when they were cared for and treated compassionately, when who they are was respected and assured to be of worth -- without being proven through achievement -- when they were no longer just tossed to the wolves to see if they'd make it or not.

These should be obvious conclusions, but we all know that however obvious they may seem, they are often not the conclusions drawn or the approach taken.

What makes this institutional failure so troubling is that many of these teenagers really needed help at some point in their adolescence. They were at best overwhelmed and adrift, and often in peril. Some had been genuinely damaged by their treatment at the hands of abusive, neglectful or dysfunctional adults. Over and over again, the teens I spoke with said that what they most needed during their periods of crisis was basic: they needed someone to listen to them, pay attention, take them seriously and not put them down or humiliate them. They needed people who were sufficiently engaged to help them figure out what to do next and strong enough to be flexible and understanding rather than reflexively judgmental -- people who could help them understand their mistakes while acknowledging their good qualities and who could help them build on their strengths and potential. When they got that kind of response, they appreciated it and usually responded in kind. But they rarely got it. What they got too often was an ideologically grounded regime of punishment and blame that seemed designed to break their "oppositional" nature... (p.168, bolding mine)

More flashback for me. I remember -- and by all means, we still hear this from teens today daily - that whatever mistakes I made, or perceived failings of flaws I had always seemed to take more precedence than the good things I did or my unique personality and talents. I could get the great grades I did all I wanted, and yet, what I heard more about was how the way I dressed and presented was ugly and unacceptable. I could be an intensely creative person, always writing, making a piece of art, singing and playing piano, I could be as kind to other people as possible, I could try and do some things with social change movements, but because I clearly wasn't straight and was (and actually was perceived as being well before I *actually* was) sexually active, what I boiled down to was just a loose slut. The fact that I had largely raised myself, taken care of myself from a very young age without much help was never recognized, but when I made any error or oversight with that self-rearing, it was all my fault.

Like most of the youth in Currie's work, when things turned around for me was exactly when these kinds of things happened for me. I was able to switch from a very unwelcoming public school -- even for an excellent student, which I very much was -- to a specialized and highly inclusive arts school where my gifts and talents were recognized and my uniqueness was celebrated by both faculty and peers. I had a counselor who didn't put blame on me, but acknowledged things that were not my fault clearly (like that it was my family who was crazy and dysfunctional, not me; like that I had been trying to live though serious trauma without any real help or acknowledgment of that trauma so it was no surprise I was having a very hard time). I was able to get connected with a parent who was supportive of me and willing to work through the problems I was having with me with love and acceptance, fully engaged with me in doing so. All of these kinds of things were my turning points. The fact that I had to actually fight to get those things -- that anyone does -- that I was ignored or denied when asking for them so much I just stopped asking, rather than to be neglected (or, at other times, face highly severe "punishments"), abandoned, institutionalized, tossed to the wolves all "for my own good," will hopefully, at some other point in history, be recognized as the harmful lunacy that it was and for many teens, still is.

Here at Scarleteen, and at other services which are expressly for teens and young adults, one way we often see that lack of care is just in how tough it often is for us to find volunteers or get donations: to far too many people, teens and young adults are seen as a population who is too young to be considered and treated as adult, but too old to be cared for. Services which are about control or containment -- which are, let's face it, more about providing creature comforts for parents then for teens -- often are more stable and supported than those which are about providing the kind of bonafide support or help the youth themselves are asking for, and that's a serious problem. Teens are often put in a sort of purgatory, even in what services are provided for them: little children are important, adults are important, but anyone in between...well, they'll sink or they'll swim, right? What Currie makes clear, and I agree, is that what that approach inclines them to do is to tread water or drown.

I do wish some attention had been given to the additional challenges gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth often face; that some address had been made of how additionally isolated GLBT youth often are, and how "tough love" or... approaches compound their crises. But that's a minor quibble -- and really, my only quibble -- while most of the youth he talked with seemed to be heterosexual, Currie didn't explicitly identify the orientation of any of them, and it may simply have been outside the scope of his study. I also would have loved a foreword from one of the youth he interviewed: maybe for the next printing?

None of this is rocket science, but it does stand pretty counter to some very common approached to youth in trouble and.or in need of help. We should know by now that the "Bad kid! No biscuit" (or no love, no roof, no school, no social outlets, no dating, whichever it is) approach not only doesn't work, but is potentially quite damaging, and certainly not in accord with helping young people transition into healthy, happy adults. For lack of a better term -- though I personally, am really fond of rebellious and think there's a lot of great power in the term -- being "oppositional" is part of the nature of adolescence. While it may inconvenience, challenge or scare parents or other adults, and while it certainly can wear a person out, in so many ways, adolescence is another sort of birth. During the teen years, young people are giving birth to the adults they are becoming, and like any birth, it is frequently painful, in some way inconsiderate of its environment, raucous, unpredictable, chaotic, anarchist. To a large degree, it is not something others can control, which certainly poses a conflict to a culture seeking more and more control of everything and everyone. I'm of the mind -- and my impression was that Currie is, as well -- that young adult separation and rebellion needn't be or be viewed as destructive. In fact, I've long thought and expressed that I think it's something we need in our culture: one incredible thing teens do for us is sort of jar us awake, pull us forward unto their future, give us, as a culture, a sort of high-powered jolt I think we're often in need of.

So many huge cultural and social changes in our culture -- like them or not -- are changes we have generations of youth to thank for: the Great Awakening, the Industrial Revolution, public schooling, the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat era, feminism, the hippies, yippies and diggers of my parents years, the punk movement of my era, the riot-grrls of the one right after that, tech development, and.... well, we're going to see what we really have right now, if we give our youth a chance to show us, anyway. For a lot of our national and global history, young people have been at the forefront of social justice movements and other social change, and for just as long of a time, adults have frequently been resistant, and sometimes that resistance results in attempts to (and successes at) control and contain rather than engagement, cooperation and participation. Often enough, and certainly now, adults have been sure that teens cannot harness and manage their own energy despite history showing us that more often, in fact, young people know exactly how to channel their rebellion and their unique spirits powerfully and positively, perhaps better than adults do.

I think if we seek to quiet, subdue or control young people, we all -- and most particularly the teens themselves -- lose something immensely valuable and seriously important. We also don't help teens at all by either abandoning them or by punishing them for their nature: it's one of the ways we do them real harm. The title to the book speaks of a typical answer Currie got when asking teens about why they fell into destructive or damaging habits, addictions or behaviors, or how they felt about themselves and their lives at the time: "Whatever," was a typical response. I think -- I hope - one place all of us can agree upon, no matter our divergent and diverse politics, values or aims -- is that no one earnestly benefits from a population who feels that their lives and actions are just "whatever." The youth themselves most certainly don't, but neither do adults, even if that "whatever" gives some adults more room to have lives uninterrupted or without the inconvenience of a more invested and higher-esteemed teen.

It seems like stating the obvious, but if we want a healthy, vibrant and caring world, we just can't very well expect to have that if when our youth are looking towards adulthood, we've made them feel that they'll have nothing of value to contribute if and when they get there (unless, apparently, they become only who we want them to be to serve our own needs and aims, rather than being and becoming who they actually are and serving what needs and aims are their own).

Suffice it to say, I strongly recommend this book: to parents, teachers, other YA helpers, as well as to young people (I know my inner-teen got some healing and acknowledgment through this, so your actual-teen might well, too). In a similar vein, I also would suggest two other books, Generation on Hold: Coming of Age in the Late Twentieth Century, (James E. Cote & Anton L. Allahar) and The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine.

It perhaps goes without saying that I also strongly recommend that we look at where, exactly, teens are learning to look at themselves and their lives as "Whatever." A mirror may prove useful.