Do adults understand young teenagers' needs?

As the mother of a 16-year-old son, Laura Sessions Stepp knows firsthand the complex facets of a teenager's world - the good, the bad, the funny, the sad.

But not until she began traveling around the United States to interview 10-to-14-year-olds for a book did she realize the extent to which young teens need more support than they currently get. As adolescents test limits and forge more independent lives, parents often abdicate their roles at the very time their offspring long for guidance and encouragement.

Ms. Stepp, author of "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence," calls this period a time of potential for shaping values and beliefs. "As parents, we have enormous influence over that, but we don't think we do," she says in an interview in Boston. "Rather than paying attention, we let them do what they want."

Yet if parents fail to lay a solid foundation for learning, values, and social skills, she warns, high school will be very hard. That is when teens face difficult choices: Do I drive when I'm drinking? Take drugs or not? Have sex?

Stepp acknowledges her surprise in learning from young teens how often adults unknowingly disrespect them. In a room, adults talk over teenagers rather than to them.

"We don't respect what they're capable of," she says. "We cherish them while they're young, and want to disown them as adolescents."

Teens complained to her that store clerks and shopping-mall security guards are quick to assume they're going to do something bad.

That same kind of distrust permeates some schools. Stepp calls zero-tolerance policies involving the possession of illegal drugs or anything resembling a weapon "horrible, just horrible. There's so much fear in this country, prompted by a few widely publicized incidents. We've lost our common sense. If you treat kids like gangsters, they act like gangsters."

She urges parents to speak out. "If a school throws a kid out for bringing a plastic knife to cut bread, parents can raise objections," she says.

At the same time, Stepp encourages parents to look at their own behavior - how respectfully they treat their children at home and how they treat their children's friends.

Yet respect doesn't mean overindulgence. One 14-year-old girl Stepp interviewed was given almost everything, but not asked to do anything. The girl had no real role in her family. Stepp's son, Jeff, began doing his laundry at the age of 12. He also does the dishes every night.

Stepp, the daughter of a Methodist minister, recalls her own childhood, first in Alabama and later in suburban Boston. She had a church connection she was part of, and she attended a neighborhood school. Today, the neighborhood no longer serves as a community. Middle schools with more than 1,000 students are larger than some small colleges. "You don't survive as a loner in these big schools. Every child wants to be a valued member of the group."

She urges parents to know what's going on in schools. Volunteering gives them a sense of social groups, activities, and academics.

But how can working parents carve out time to volunteer? Stepp suggests that parents ask their boss for a few hours off once a week. The tradeoff could be to work through lunch or come in early. Although employers don't want to be required to do something, Stepp says, in individual cases they can be persuaded.

Adolescents aren't the only ones needing helping hands. Stepp found mothers in particular hungry for someone to talk to. "They may be lonelier than the kids," she says.

Some of that loneliness grows out of a culture that fosters unrealistic expectations. "As parents, we don't want to acknowledge that our kids aren't perfect or make mistakes. We're happy to boast about our kids' accomplishments, but when they're having struggles, we don't want to talk about it." Schools, she suggests, could help by providing parent education and support groups. Employers could offer brown-bag discussion groups.

Stepp was also surprised to discovhow much girls need their fathers. "We think of mothers as being key to the girls' development, but we don't realize that dads play equal but different roles," she says.

Teenagers need more champions like Stepp - more listening ears, more caring and compassionate hearts, not just from parents but from relatives, teachers, and other adults who see them, as she puts it, "not as problems but as possibilities." Adolescents may be "a tribe apart," as another author, Patricia Hersch, calls it. But the parent connection runs deep.

Stepp emphasizes how much adolesents need and want their parents. In conversations with her, young teens talked about their parents constantly. Comments were not always positive, but they signaled a deep caring and love.

"That's a heartening message," says Stepp. "We do matter. We do have influence over them still."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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