The trials of penetrating the private world of teens

The case of two teen murder suspects suggests the challenge for today's parents.

The question was the same after the rampage at Columbine and after the shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., and Paducah, Ky.: How come no one saw it coming?

Today, two Vermont teens sit in jail, charged with the crime of stabbing to death a pair of Dartmouth professors, and residents of their tiny mountain hometown are neck deep in disbelief. After all, Robert Tulloch and James Parker weren't wearing trenchcoats to school or spewing hateful doctrines to their friends.

Details about the case are scarce; law-enforcement officials and the townspeople closest to the Tullochs and Parkers have said little. Yet with reports surfacing that Robert might have kept neo-Nazi literature in his room, the situation is raising a broader concern here and across America, as many parents question how aware they are of the real lives their teenagers lead.

Overall, experts say, the news is not bad: Many parents are doing a better job than ever at communicating with their children. Still, a number of factors - from parents' growing work schedules to kids' increasing sophistication - have left some mothers and fathers in the dark and confused about their role.

While there's no rush to go back to autocratic parental models of the past, everyone agrees parents must find ways to stay deeply involved in their children's daily lives. A healthy parent-child relationship, studies have repeatedly shown, remains perhaps the most effective deterrent to crime.

"A number of parents have a real sense of ambiguity as to what their role should be," says Michael Resnick, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Children need us more than ever."

More info at a younger age

Some of that ambiguity has come about as younger and younger teenagers act more like adults. Not only can they program the VCR, but today's teens are increasingly conversant with subjects that, only recently, were seen as too mature for young minds.

Whether they've heard about AIDS on MTV or talked about drugs in a Web chat room, young teens are learning about more things more quickly than any generation in history. But Professor Resnick calls this a "pseudo-sophistication."

"The punch line is that they're not necessarily better prepared for [all this information] than past generations," he says, "which brings us back to the critical role of parents."

In December, Resnick and his university colleagues released the largest adolescent-health study ever, which took issue with long-held notions that race, poverty, and broken homes are reliable indicators of whether teens will fall into drugs and violence. The researchers found that low academic achievement and too much time spent with friends who are bad influences were the best predictors of bad behavior. And they said parents are the most effective remedy.

"If a kid pushes up against a [soft parent], they'll push and push until they hit something hard, and that's usually the law," says Resnick.

Information about the Tullochs and Parkers is fragmentary, as friends and neighbors contacted for this story declined to comment on either family. But various media accounts provide hints that they were at least concerned parents.

When James and Robert left town suddenly after the Dartmouth murders, saying they were going rock climbing in Colorado, the Parkers were worried. The mother, Joan, called James's friends, asking where he was, the Boston Herald reported. When she finally heard from him two days later, she demanded that he come home immediately.

Once James returned home to Chelsea, Vt., he was punished: no car and no fraternizing with Robert for a month, a friend told the Boston Globe.

Some acquaintances have been reported as saying the Tullochs were more lenient with Robert. But they too, it seems, had clashes with their boy.

Although Robert was one of the smartest students in the senior class, he showed no interest in going to college. In fact, he already had enough credits to graduate, and his father, John, appeared concerned about how his son was spending his free time.

Himself a carpenter well-known for making replicas of Colonial-era chairs, Mr. Tulloch tried to enroll his son in a chair-building seminar in April, but it was full, according to The (Manchester) Union Leader. He also revoked Robert's Internet privileges after Robert spent hours at a time surfing the Web, a family friend told the Globe.

The issue of unsupervised free time is one that resonates with parents nationwide. Here among the narrow valleys of the upper Connecticut River, kids used to come home from school and go straight to work milking cows or splitting wood.

Now, in Chelsea and elsewhere, teens cruise by the pizza parlor or return to silent homes. America works harder than any other nation on earth, and both parents are increasingly in the workforce. That has meant less time for kids and parents to get to know each other and more time for teens to be alone.

"This is uncharted territory, in terms of putting all our hope in quality time instead of quantity time," says Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of "The Time Bind."

For some kids, she says, that's OK. But others need time to be able to feel comfortable sharing feelings with their parents - and many aren't getting it. "We don't spend enough hanging-out time with kids," she says. "Sometimes, you just need to wait, just so you can be there when they open up."

It takes a village...

The time crunch refracts in other directions as well. Because of Americans' love affair with the office, the notion of a neighborhood is becoming extinct. People no longer have time to cook out with the family next door or shoot hoops with the dad across the street, some experts say.

As a result, the sense of community responsibility for each child is waning. "It used to be that if kids did something wrong, the neighbors would pick up the phone and call," says William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "Now, if parents are missing something, there's no safety net."

To be sure, Chelsea is a place where a sense of community still exists. Last week, many residents gathered in the white clapboard United Church at the head of one of Chelsea's two town greens to talk about "their" two boys. They pledged support to help the town's children, and they held out hope that this was all a mistake.

"I know these people," says Brewster Martin, who was the town's doctor for 40 years before he retired in 1993. "I find this very difficult."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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