Society does not pay much attention to adolescents until they cross a pathological line into violent crime, teen-age pregnancy, psychiatric distress, running away or suicide attempts. Then we focus on attempts to fix the problem.
It’s time we stopped putting so much energy into waiting for problems to occur. We should challenge teen-agers, make them feel part of their communities and channel their energies to positive ends. Given the opportunity for responsible, useful involvement and the chance to contribute, they will acquire a stake in their communities that will help them mature into successful adults. What is needed is an approach that gives them the message that they are responsible and are needed.
It works with the straightest kids and kids on society’s edge. Programs that give young people a stake in their communities and use the enthusiasm of youth as a resource can turn the “youth problem” on its head. The results are marvelous: in Huntingburg, Ind., high school sports stars counsel fourth through eighth graders about the danger of drug and alcohol abuse; in Cleveland, “big buddies” – high school juniors and seniors – tutor troubled second and third graders; in Oakland, Calif., gangs clean up communities; in San Antonio, Tex., kids turn graffiti-ridden walls into murals and alleys into gardens; in Park Forest, Ill., teen-agers write and perform their own plays about physical and sexual abuse for young audiences.
I saw this approach work as Commissioner of Youth Services in Massachusetts from 1976 to 1979. I was struck by how many teen-agers would say, “Yes, I committed a crime, but the system doesn’t understand me.” I realized we needed to make clear the link between criminal acts and their consequences.
We designed programs for delinquent youth to give something back, either to the victim or the community. Delinquent kids guarded senior citizens while they cashed Social Security checks; they coached basketball for youngsters and, tutored. School vandals cleaned up schools; the recidivism rate was low.
The message to the kids? “You are responsible.” But the Implicit message was: “We need you. There’s a place for you.” It proved successful – even with the toughest.
Teen-agers reach adolescence earlier and earlier, and yet society does not give them meaningful roles until later and later. Raised by single parents or parents who both work, teen-agers have less contact with adults today than at any time in our history. Teen-agers also have less meaningful work to do.
Why are we surprised when they behave as if they are not part of these communities? Why are we surprised when they often foul their own nests – graffiti, vandalism, violence?
We have not given our youth the opportunity to explore and integrate themselves into the social fabric they will share as adults. Refused partnership in the social contract, teen-agers display a variety of symptoms that reflect dislocation and isolation. But adolescent years do not automatically usher in a decade of trouble.
We need to alter radically the way in which the adult world integrates its young people. Community service could be woven into high school social studies or civics courses so that before graduation a teen-ager would be involved in some sort of responsible service. The Atlanta public school system, for instance, requires 75 hours of public service before graduation. New York state Is planning a similar program, called “participation in government.”
Mood swings, erratic attention spans, high energy – are all hallmarks of adolescents. But, another hallmark, usually overlooked, is that teen-agers are idealistic and thirst for commitment and recognition.
Society is faced with a choice. We can continue to deal with pathologies and delinquencies, treating symptoms instead of addressing the core issues. Or we can rethink and rework the attitudes and myths about adolescence. Communities, to their delight and surprise, will be rewarded for defining meaningful roles for their young citizens.
John A. Calhoun is executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council. He is author of a book about teen-agers. “Making a Difference.”
* This article written by John A. Calhoun first appeared in the May 31, 1986, edition of The New York Times.