WHEN a senior official in the Bush administration read a bestseller on childrearing, he feared six pages on teenage sexuality might offend some readers. So he deleted the innocuous chapter from a special edition of the book being sent to 275,000 federal employees, explaining, "I felt silence would have the best chance of avoiding controversy."
He miscalculated. Instead of silence, his excision has prompted an outcry. Critics charge that the government is failing to show leadership in dealing with urgent matters of adolescent behavior. They note that last year the government scrapped plans for a study of teenage attitudes because it included questions about sexual behavior and contraception. They also point to federally sponsored public service ads about AIDS prevention that fail to mention condoms.
The House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families recently called Washington's response to the spread of AIDS among teenagers "a national disgrace." Federal efforts, they said in a report, are "underfunded, uncoordinated, and largely unsuccessful."
Eight of 14 Republicans on the panel disagreed, calling adolescent AIDS primarily "a behavioral problem." Rather than funding more government programs, they said, emphasis must be on sexual abstinence and stronger families.
This rumble of conflicting opinions about teenage sexuality proves at least that the old method of avoiding the subject - waiting until teenagers become adults - is no longer acceptable.
Too many catastrophic facts demand attention. What both conservatives and liberals know is that by the age of 20, 68 percent of American females and 86 percent of the males are sexually active. Related statistics dismally follow. Two-thirds of all births to teenage mothers occur outside marriage. And the incidence of AIDS among teenagers has risen by more than 70 percent in the past two years; the disease has become the sixth leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24.
But irresponsible sex is not the only teen hazard. With weapons in urban schools and drugs on suburban playgrounds, it is later than anybody thinks.
The Carnegie Corporation's Council on Adolescent Development recently issued a report that treats teenagers almost as an endangered species. It points out, to begin with, that 27 percent of the 28 million young Americans between the ages of 10 and 18 live in poverty.
The proposed remedies proliferate - health education, more job opportunities, self-restraint by the news and entertainment media in depicting violence, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity. But perhaps the first lesson to learn in the wake of the new awareness is that policies and programs, however well conceived, cannot supply all the answers to the upheavals that constitute adolescence in the '90s.
In the end, some sense of what a good life is, some vision beyond self-gratification, must be claimed, family by family, if the fragile community of today's adolescents is to move ahead, in the words of the Carnegie report, "from a period of high risk to one of high hopes."
When teenagers' well-being and health are at stake, silence, whether on the part of parents or politicians, is far from golden.