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.

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.''

Many students dismiss the idea of role models, other than parents. ``If you want to be like somebody else, you can't do that,'' says Chuck Rasmussen, a senior. ``You have to make it for yourself.''

``I have heroes, but they're usually more or less tragic heroes, like John Belushi or Richard Nixon,'' adds his classmate, Chris Schaus. ``You can learn from their mistakes more often. Those are people who had everything, and just a few simple mistakes and they lost it all for the most part. They are heroes, because they help me to know what I should do more often.''

``You start forming your ideas when you're younger,'' says Kristin Marconi. ``For some girls who are pregnant, it's no big deal in their families. The way I was brought up, that would be terrible.''

Mr. McNeill comments: ``I see that fine line we teeter on as parents and as educators - on the one hand allowing teen-agers the freedom to make decisions on their own, and on the other hand giving them parameters within which to live. We want our children to be able to say no to drugs, no to premarital sex, no to alcohol, no to drinking and driving. Yet we don't want them to ever say no to us. So sometimes when they come back with a no or a reluctant yes, we tend to come down pretty hard on them. We need to keep that all in perspective.''

``Kids as a whole like supervision,'' says Lee Roy Sullivan, principal of Countryside High School. ``They don't want to tell you that. But they like a shoulder to lean on and somebody to tell them what to do, as long as it's done right and it's fair and consistent.

``I do find that parents need to spend a little more time with their children on morals and truths.''

Mrs. Winship agrees: ``There are so many kids who do not have the attention from parents in ways that are not the fault of the parents. Working parents are absent parents. They're just not spending that much time with kids.

``I also sense a great breakdown in the old family ways,'' she continues. Noting that many families never eat breakfast or dinner together, she says, ``Around the dinner table was a great place for parents to talk about what was going on in their kids' lives and around the world. If you don't have conversations, it's very hard to talk about values.''

Beyond the family, there are the other communities within the community that are expected to be custodians of values: the churches.

``It's so true as far as I can tell that kids who go to church and have families with strong religious beliefs are behaving more successfully than some of the others,'' Winship observes. ``That's one important way families can show values to kids.''

For some teen-agers, though, work has taken the place of worship on Sundays. ``I used to love to go to church,'' says Willie Smith, ``but when I have to be at work at 12 I can't make it. When I go home I look in the Bible a little bit. And I still pray.''

One analyst of teen-agers, Reuel Denney, has defined adolescence as a ``vacuum of freedom.''

Mr. Cottle concurs. ``I don't want to hold onto kids in their teen-age years, but we press for independence prematurely,'' he says. ``We forget that they're children. We shouldn't let them do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. They need constraints. They'll have plenty of time in their lives to do whatever they want to do.''

Today's teen-agers and adults seem to be working their way tentatively toward an agreement that would have been astonishing just a few years ago:

Premise number one. Parents - not peers - are the primary establishers of values.

Premise number two. Parents err, if anything, on the side of being tentative in their leadership.

``Parents are really afraid to say no to kids,'' Mrs. Winship concludes. ``They don't talk about right and wrong in those terms. They're afraid of sounding old-fashioned. A parent's job is to say what they think is right, even if kids get mad at them.

``Parents must show kids that they have a strong moral code, even if the kids don't agree with every one of your morals. They grow up with a solid framework of something to react against. They will have that way of looking at things, trying to understand their version of what's right and wrong. That's the only way they're going to be able to make a sound decision on some kind of moral base of their own.''

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