ASK sociologists and other professionals about the state of the American family and the typical response could hardly be gloomier. Never, say the experts in their most despairing voices, has the family been more fragile, more troubled, more dysfunctional.
But put the same question to teenagers - potentially the severest judges of all - and a more heartening picture appears. Their families may be far from perfect, but even in adversity many still provide an anchor, a refuge, a source of strength and hope to those within their circle.
That at least is the conclusion that emerges from essays written by Massachusetts teenagers for a literary contest on ``Family Life: Ties That Bind.'' Nearly 800 high school students - a record number - submitted fictional and nonfictional works to the annual ``Words by Kids'' competition, sponsored by the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston.
Some of the 15 winning essayists, who received their awards at the Wang Center last week, pay tribute to earlier generations. Michelle Ruth, a high school sophomore, tells about a teenage girl who balks at visiting her ``ancient'' great-grandmother, then discovers ``that Nana had three generations of family love to give, like a precious gift.''
Other students discuss issues ranging from teenage suicide and domestic violence to foster families and the cultural gaps between immigrant parents and children. With piercing honesty and touching resilience, winners describe families rocked - but not destroyed - by unemployment, bankruptcy, the accidental death of a teenager, and a premature birth.
``We needed to be strong together in order to get through the hard times with David,'' writes Beverly Mather, a high school senior, of her baby brother. ``If we had continued to fight, our home would have fallen apart.''
Dan Nguyen Tran, a junior whose sister committed suicide, states, ``It was a miracle my family hung through the ordeal still standing. Stumble, stagger, but still standing, we depended on each other to keep us in line and not to circle fast in the past and fall.''
And Julia Marie Mancuso, a senior whose father lost his business in the recession, writes, ``My father stayed up until all hours of the night, searching through Help Wanted advertisements.... Life became nearly unbearable. Luxuries such as clothing and entertainment were nonexistent, and essentials such as food, heat, and electricity became luxuries.''
But, Ms. Mancuso adds, ``I learned that it is my family's courage and love for each other that is keeping us together through all of this. Without love and our belief that we can be happy and successful as long as we are together, it would be impossible to survive these difficult times.''
A few students find family outside the walls of home. Mark Stearns, a senior, describes ``a different kind of family'' in his friendship with a Korean girl who is his classmate and best friend. And in Leah Kay Sherrell's fictional entry, a teenage girl whose parents ignore her (``Sometimes that is the worst thing of all'') joins a support group of teenagers who have attempted suicide. ``I feel as though they are my true family,'' she says.
Whatever their individual circumstances, wherever they find their ``true family,'' these students, in their unvarnished portrayals of family life, offer unexpected reassurance that the domestic ties that bind, however frayed, possess more strength than statistics on divorce, domestic violence, and abuse might suggest.
For more than a decade, experts have been holding the floor, often worrying aloud about the decline and fall of the family and, alas, leaving parents and other listeners intimidated and dismayed. Perhaps, as these youthful essayists show, it's time to listen to the children speak in their own words from their own perspective, which no adult can imagine.
Not the least reason for listening is that the younger generation, which might be expected to deliver the toughest criticism of all, seems to believe in the family they have inherited even more than some of their elders who formed it. May the junior partners be right.