A sense of moderation

By , Living page editor of The Christian Science Monitor

When Joan Dutcher, a first-year performance major at the New England Conservatory of Music, was in the fourth grade in Rochester, N.Y., she wanted to play the trumpet. Her mother had doubts - she ''didn't think it was very ladylike.'' Somehow the alto saxophone passed the ''ladylike'' test.

''As soon as I got my instrument,'' Joan, 18, recalls nine years later, ''I started working on it. My mother never had to tell me when to practice.''

A slender, intense young woman, not without a sense of humor, Joan sees herself, and her parents, with a cool measured clarity that almost seems the hallmark of the achievers of her generation.

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''I've always taken music very seriously,'' she says, ''but then I've always taken my academic courses very seriously too. It was a big thing in elementary school when I brought home straight A's.

''My sisters and I were brought up with books - and doing little tasks around the house. There were these inanimate objects that you concentrated on. You'd read half a book, then do a chore. Literature was important - and doing things on your own was very important.

''From junior high to my junior year in high school, I hadn't sat down and thought things out. I'd gone by my emotions and by what my parents said. In my junior year I had an English teacher who supported me. I can remember reading Emerson - his thoughts on self-reliance, on life. I started thinking about my own life. I went through a big change when I started thinking through where my life was going, instead of just riding along.

''During the last two years of high school,'' Joan continues, ''I felt I was cutting myself off by practicing - staying home on Friday nights. My little social group wondered about me sometimes. But I've always been over here while the rest of the crowd is over there. I've never really put that much emphasis on what other people have thought of me.

''Any time my mother says, 'I'm the parent and you're the child,' or a teacher says, 'I'm the teacher and you're the student, and this is what you're supposed to think,' they're closing me off. I can't deal with that. Any time I can't sit down and logically reason things out, it's hard.

''I want to do something unique with my music, but at this point the future's a little vague. Sometimes it's hard to keep going because progress is slow.

''But I'm definitely an optimist. I see so many advancements around me. A lot of students here are individuals, and they know where they're going. That's where advancement comes from - a lot of individuals building toward it. People sitting down as part of their job and figuring out what the world needs.

''I feel like I'm an adult in a lot of ways,'' she says.

By the standards psychologists and sociologists have educated us to accept, it is easy to dismiss a well-adjusted teen-ager like Joan Dutcher as an exception to the not-too-happy norm.

The year Joan was born, Kenneth Keniston was finishing his classic study of adolescence, ''The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society.'' In it he summed up the flaws in American society of 1964 thus: ''We lack conviction.''

Keniston spelled out the attitudes of ''alienated youth'': distrust, pessimism, resentment, anxiety, egocentricity, ''rejection of happiness as a goal.'' He believed that ''alienated youth'' were disappointed idealists - but how to turn all that alienation into idealism?

Keniston's vision of the adolescent was not wholly original. From Goethe's ''The Sorrows of Young Werther'' to J. D. Salinger's ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' at least two centuries of American and European fiction had been presenting the young as sensitive, brooding, idealistic, and too good for the corrupt world in which they found themselves. So bleak was the collective portrait that the British novelist Doris Lessing observed, ''In a hundred years' time people will read the novels of this century and conclude that everyone (no less) suffered adolescence like a disease.'' Adolescence has been perceived as a time of exceptional turmoil and stress - a lapse from health cured only by turning 20.

Where does Joan Dutcher fit into this concept? - an 18-year-old who has her problems, her confusions about what she wants to do, her differences with her parents and teachers but, on the whole, finds the world good and her prospects for life interesting. How does the stereotype of anger, bitterness, social disorientation, arrogance, and low self-esteem fit this amiably determined young woman with an alto sax?

Three revisionist psychologists, Daniel Offer, Eric Ostrov, and Kenneth I. Howard, have conducted a long-range study, published in their book, ''The Adolescent,'' in which they have interviewed 20,000 teen-agers. Their argument, greatly simplified, is that we have been all too often presented the ''problem'' teen-ager as the ''norm.'' This gives psychologists lots of plot and newspapers and magazines and TV documentaries lots of headlines. But it may finally be only a little more accurate than offering a hospital full of teen-age patients as the ''norm'' for physical health.

The questionnaires they have gathered indicate that a Joan Dutcher may be far closer to the mainstream than the alcohol abusers, the drug-addicted, the venereal cases, the teen-agers who run away from home.

Here are a few of the findings:

About 90 percent of the teen-agers queried answered affirmatively: ''I enjoy life.''

Less than a quarter replied: ''I feel so very lonely.''

And 85 percent said: ''Most of the time I am happy.''

Substantially less than half said: ''I frequently feel ugly and unattractive.'' - though that self-critical group numbered twice as many girls as boys.

In rejecting the ''turmoil theory'' of adolescence, Offer, Ostrov, and Howard conclude from their findings: ''Disruption and change are hardly unique to adolescence. For that reason, conceptualizing adolescence as one of the very few transitional stages in the life cycle is misleading. Every stage of life brings new challenges and opportunities. . .

''Adults must recognize that adolescents are participants in the human condition. . . . Just as adults have conflicts, problems, and at times exhibit disruptive behaviors, so do adolescents. But just as adults have the potential for being happy, so do adolescents.''

This moderate view, if accepted, casts a different light on many aspects of teen-age life. By refusing to single out 27.5 million people - 12 percent of the American population - as a ''problem,'' Offer, Ostrov, and Howard demand that both generations begin to recognize the great potential of these seven years of human life.

''We make so much of teen-agers,'' says Theodore Duchene, chief of staff of North Shore Children's Hospital in Salem, Mass. ''I don't know of any other culture that does this as much as we do. They're special in the sense that it's such a confusing, wonderful, frightening, exciting time of life. But we ought not to make it so special that they think they'rem special.''

Many teen-agers would gladly relinquish this ''special'' status in exchange for more individual treatment from adults.

''You always hear store clerks say, 'Those teen-agers!' '' complains Lauren Kennedy of Rockford, Ill. ''Clerks think just because you're a teen-ager you're going to take something. Sometimes they follow you all around and act as if you just got out of the county jail or something.''

The group stereotype can be equally harsh at school. Lauren's mother, Pauline Arbanella, says, ''I hear teachers say that they go into a class in the morning and they throw the bone in, or they go in with their chair and whip. This is especially true in junior high school. The teachers talk in terms of animals. The zoo. Not every teacher has this attitude of the zoo, but that seems to be the prevailing attitude. If you expect teen-agers to do all the wrong things, sometimes you get your expectations.''

But the most broadly damaging treatment - the most blatant promotion of the group stereotype - comes from the media. ''It's not a general thing for papers to highlight our efforts,'' says Meredith Spector, 18, of Needham, Mass. ''Yet when there's vandalism at the high school, it gets front-page coverage. This negative publicity hurts adults' perceptions of teen-agers, but it also hurts teen-agers' own perceptions of themselves.''

Beyond these old, recurring problems of recognition and respect, what are the ''new challenges and opportunities'' - to repeat the Offer-Ostrov-Howard phrase - teen-agers face today? For many students the answer is simple: ''Tomorrow.'' Concerns about the future dominate many conversations, and the old question, ''Who am I?'' - the adolescent's search for identity - becomes intertwined with another: ''What will I be, or do?''

If adolescence seems just a little less volatile in 1982, external circumstances may well have something to do with the cooling down. The Monitor found that economic conditions have deprived teen-agers, like everybody else, of some of the luxuries of narcissism and self-dramatization. The recession has had a generally sobering effect.

Skip Messbarger, an 18-year-old who is earning money for college by working in a furniture store in Rockford, Ill., where the unemployment rate in September exceeded 18 percent, says: ''Parents aren't shelling out money the way they used to. They say, 'Go out and get a job.' Parents can't afford to give their kids $ 20 or $25 a week. And it's harder to get a job. Once in a while you get a break. But people don't wait for breaks to come to them anymore. They go looking. Even when they go looking, they don't expect it to happen. You have to fight to get what you want.

''People my age still have a lot to learn, but generally kids my age are growing up faster. By your junior and senior year, you're a lot more aware of what's going on in the world. You're studying modern history, modern governments. You're reading modern novels.

''The Revolutionary War, the Civil War - those were grand wars. Then you get to modern wars, and to Vietnam.''

A lot of guys expect a war, and if that happens they don't expect to live long. They don't like the draft. You hear about problems all over - El Salvador, the Middle East. We're going to war more often for less reason.''

In Skip Messbarger's hometown, 307 high school students, responding to a questionnaire, agreed with him. Sixty-two percent said they believed there will be a nuclear war in their lifetime.

At Edina High School, a $9 million structure set on an 80-acre campus in a prosperous suburb of Minneapolis, realism hung soberly over a discussion group of high school seniors. ''It's weird to think that you might not be as comfortable or as well off as your parents,'' says one boy. ''In the past it's always been that children try to do better and attain a higher status than their parents. I think that's going to be harder for the kids of our generation. There are a lot of ways to go down, and not that many ways to go up.''

This wary pragmatism has also had an effect on the way teen-agers view college. ''When I get out of college, it's not even certain that having a degree will get me a job'' - an interviewer hears again and again from high school students, shattering one of the most cherished myths that make up the old American Dream.

George Skluzacek, assistant principal at Edina High School, worries that the teen-agers he sees every day may be too cautious. ''I'm going to make an analogy ,'' he begins. ''I would say that the typical teen-ager here knows that there are all kinds of opportunities out there. The sad thing is that they see themselves in this huge field of strawberries. They feel that they've just got this one little basket big enough for just one strawberry. They're so worried that the choice they make today is what they're going to glue themselves to, and they won't have the opportunity to try something else.''

I want them to be able to recognize all the opportunities they have for happiness. I guess I'm really anxious for them to learn that happiness comes from helping others and making other people happy. I'm anxious to get out of the age of 'I, me, and my.' I think we're headed in that direction. I really do.''

What emerges from all these voices of analysis and self-analysis is a sense of moderation. The teen years always have been, and always will be, a time of experimentation and testing. But the wildest, most violent extremes of despair and self-destruction appear to be abating.

Teen-agers in 1982 may be almost moderating to fit the affectionate description of youth offered by Aristotle, the supporter of the golden mean:

''They are changeable and fickle.

''Their impulses are keen but not deep-rooted.

''They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones.''

''They are fonder of their friends, intimates, and companions than older men are.

''All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently.

''They think they know everything.''They are ready to pity others.

''They are fond of fun, and therefore witty.''

Aristotle also noted that ''their lives are mainly spent not in memory but in expectation.'' Those expectations in 1982 may be tempered with realism, but they are not without hope. In a survey of 160,000 teen-agers, Jane Norman and Myron Harris discovered that 92 percent think they will achieve what they want in life , with 77 percent saying they will get there through hard work.

Meredith Spector sums up: ''I really believe there's a lot of hope around. I try not to think about the very grim realities we're under. I don't know if that's cowardice, or just because I'm concentrating on what I'm doing right now. I'd like to be part of whatever's coming that's optimistic and good. And although that's a nice aim, it shouldn't just be a lofty goal. Idealism shouldn't ever have a beginning and an end - it should be a process all your life. It shouldn't be, 'When I get out of college, or when I grow up. . . .' It should be a part of you - your living self, not something for the future.''

This might seem the last attitude Kenneth Keniston, worrying about the alienated youth of 1964, would have envisaged if he had been asked to imagine what ''youth'' would be like in 1982. It is also a sentiment that adults of the '80s, still struggling with old stereotypes of ''problem'' teen-agers, must come to accept as representative of more than a few ''normal'' teens.

Tomorrow: The family as the old forum for the new dialogue between teen-agers and adults.

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