Enabling Adult Immaturity

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“Young people have become more like adults,” writes historian Joseph Kett in Adolescence in America, while “adults have become more like young people.” The result of this backward thinking is alarming for all ages: an upside-down society that excuses grossly immature adult behavior while punitively demanding perfection from teenagers.

The deterioration in middle-aged adult behavior has driven virtually every major American social problem over the past 25 years.

The newest federal reports show that adults ages 35 to 64 account for three-fourths of hard-drug deaths and emergency room admissions. Obesity, HIV, addiction, arrest, imprisonment and family disarray have exploded among middle-agers – the parents who are raising today’s teens.

To avoid confronting the unpleasant reality of just how bizarre and extreme American grownups have become, authorities invoke what I call the “adult helplessness excuse.” This blames kids for creating lifelong social problems because grownups are helplessly trapped in misbehaviors they began when they were young.

Enabling adult immaturity forms the essence of the slogan of Joseph Califano Jr.’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA): “A child who reaches age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol or using drugs is virtually certain never to do so.”

Therefore, “crackdowns” and “prevention and education efforts must be focused ... on youth,” because “underage drinkers are likelier to become heavy adult drinkers.”

CASA’s doctrine, which also happens to be the basis of much of America’s ineffective prevention policy, is meaningless.

Abstinence from risky behavior in youth does not cause such abstinence in adulthood. Rather, adults who abstain do so for the same reasons they did as teens: religion, culture, family and values. CASA’s superficial statement is like saying: “A teenager given a Lexus is virtually certain never to get AIDS.” True, but only because a larger factor (affluence) that selects who owns luxury cars also protects against getting AIDS.

Worse, CASA’s attitude reverses the meaning of youth and adult. It excuses adult misbehaviors and demands that teenagers serve as society’s models of health and maturity. CASA should be proclaiming the opposite: “A society whose adults do not abuse tobacco, drugs or alcohol is virtually certain not to raise children who do so.”

Bad habits begin with grownups. The 2000 National Household Survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse finds that in states where adults drink, smoke and use drugs the most, teens are more likely to do likewise.

Consider binge drinking (downing five or more drinks on one occasion). “More than five million high schoolers binge drink at least once a month,” declares CASA. (Actually, the 1999 Household Survey that CASA cites reported 3.8 million 12- to 18-year-old binge drinkers, but Califano is famous for exaggeration.) Binge drinking is the bane of teens and young adults, according to the University of Minnesota’s Cheryl Perry, Harvard University’s Henry Wechsler and Prevention Researcher.

Now, if Califano, Perry, Wechsler and their colleagues consider 5.6 million teenage (ages 12 to 19) binge drinkers an “epidemic,” how would they label the 2002 Household Survey’s finding of 12.6 million monthly binge drinkers ages 30 to 39, along with 10.7 million ages 40 to 49 and nearly 10 million over age 50?

That’s right: There are twice as many 40-something binge drinkers as teenage binge drinkers! Are lushly funded, media-quotable experts such as Califano, Wechsler and Perry simply ignorant of basic survey and health statistics? Or do they willfully ignore the data?

Worse, 40-year-olds drunkenly kill and injure more people in traffic accidents than do 17-year-olds, and they die five times as often from alcohol overdoses. Yet, CASA flatters parents as merely taking “a drink to relax.”

CASA and Prevention Researcher should stress the reverse: If parents and grandparents binge drink, is anyone surprised that teens do, too?

The demotion of American grownups and parents from role models, expected to discipline their own behaviors in order to positively influence that of their kids, to mere monitors and referrers for program and police intervention has been disastrous for both adult and adolescent behaviors. Califano and his colleagues’ politically convenient tactic of furiously excoriating misbehaving teenagers as normative while soothingly excusing misbehaving adults as helpless captives of youthful misbehavior has sabotaged effective health policy.

America needs true grownups – not adolescents forced to be adults because adults refuse to act grown up.

Mike Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Contact: http://home.earthlink.net/%7Emmales.