How to fill teen-agers' vacuum of beliefs. Kids still look to their parents, but are today's parents prepared?
The generation gap isn't what it used to be. When teen-agers talk about values - either directly or indirectly - the conversation inevitably circles back to families, like a compass needle seeking true north.Skip to next paragraph
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Here are teen-age voices talking about what once was regarded as The Enemy:
``I've got a mother who is strong-hearted,'' says Willie Smith, a sophomore at Countryside High School here. ``Once she puts her foot down, once she says something, she means it. I respect that a lot. I'm going to be a parent one day, and I'll look back on what she says.''
Audrey Canelli, a classmate of Willie's, agrees. ``Sometimes it gets sickening when everybody at home tells you what to do,'' she says. ``But after a while I think about it and I say, `Well, I wouldn't have done that if you hadn't told me. I would have done the wrong thing.'''
As the debate over values-neutral education intensifies, so does concern that young people are growing up in what has been called ``a vacuum of beliefs.'' At the same time, many parents worry that their influence has been upstaged and downgraded by forces outside the family - peers, schools, media - and by changes within, such as divorce and working mothers.
Yet again and again, in interviews with teen-agers, the plaintive cries echoing in the adolescent wilderness underscore the enormous importance students attach to their parents' guidance and influence.
``A lot of these kids are just looking for someone to pat them on the back and tell them what they're doing wrong and right,'' says Al Hinson, director of the Martin Luther King Youth Center here.
Tom Cottle, host of the televised teen talk show ``Soapbox,'' says: ``I am absolutely struck - and studies bear me out on this - that overwhelmingly the number one concern of these kids is the well-being of their parents. You always find the need for good moms and dads who will love you and demonstrate it. It supersedes almost anything else. The families may change, but they still want a mom and a dad to love them.''
In any discussion of teen-agers' values, he finds, the critical question is: What are parents' values?
Yet, he notes, ``There are lots of ways parents act that say, `You do not come first.' If you talk with teen-agers, it's very clear what causes them to trust and honor an adult, whether it's a mom or dad who's really there for them, or a mom or dad who finds them an obstruction to their lives - a pawn to battle over in a divorce case, or an economic drain.''
When the family breaks up, its full importance gets measured.
``It's surprising how divorce affects teen-agers,'' says Rik McNeill, an English teacher at Countryside High School and the father of 14-year-old twins. ``They act so grown-up, as if they are above reacting on an emotional level to the divorce of parents. Yet some kids are just devastated by it.''
In addition to the emotional devastation, some children of broken homes find rules changing or relaxing, leading to more confusion.
``When my parents were together there was more strictness,'' says an 18-year-old boy in Clearwater. ``My dad used to say, `If you get below a C, you're in trouble.' Now my mom is out all the time with her friends. I try to keep my grades up. But it's kind of hard. I still wish I had a father. I never thought it would happen to my parents. It never crossed my mind.''
Other teen-agers find their own values thrown into disarray by the presence of a divorced parent's live-in partner or overnight date. ``How can she tell me not to have sex outside marriage when she's doing it?'' one girl asks.
Teen-agers are often the ones to demand standards in intact families as well as broken ones. Elizabeth Winship, author of the syndicated teen-age advice column, ``Ask Beth,'' reports: ``I get letters from kids who say their parents were very strict with them when they were young teen-agers. They hated it. They felt picked on, different.
``Now, in their older teens, they see kids who are in trouble, suffering from the results of too much freedom. Now they say they are so grateful that their parents cared enough to be protective. They thought it was overprotective at the time, but when they see kids who had too much freedom, and the kinds of trouble they got in, they were glad they had been protected.''