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 problems” 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 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.
Teenagers 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 fowl their own nests – graffiti, vandalism, and
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,
teenagers 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 altar radically the way in which the adult world integrates its young people.
Community service could be woven into high school social studies or civic courses so
that before graduation a teen-ager would be involved to 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