As the father of four (yes, count 'em, four) children, the oldest of whom is thirteen, reading Elliott Currie's The Road to Whatever was a truly cautionary tale. Currie, an acclaimed sociologist and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his book Crime and Punishment in America, is a professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine. This book represents painstaking research and literally scores of interviews with troubled teens in contemporary American culture. In it, he explores a truth that many people strive to ignore: that "all is not well with the children of middle class America."
School shootings, binge drinking, drug addiction, violence, and suicide: Currie examines why middle-class kids, who are so frequently regarded as having so much, are so often so willing to harm themselves. Currie rejects the notion that our culture's problems are easily blamed upon permissiveness and TV violence. Indeed, he believes that American culture has actually become far more punitive toward its children, with "zero tolerance" and "tough love" becoming the code words for society which treats young people with a pervasive sense of exclusion and neglect. As Curie puts it:
Four themes are especially important in understanding the character of this culture and its fateful impact on children and adolescents in America. I call them the inversion of responsibility, the problem of contingent worth, the intolerance of transgression, and the rejection of nurturance. In the
real world, these themes are rarely found in isolation. I've teased them apart here, somewhat artificially, to show how each contributes to an environment that makes growing up unduly difficult for teenagers in the American mainstream. They represent a kind of mosaic, a pattern that, in one combination or another, turns up repeatedly in the lives of troubled adolescents.
I was especially struck by Curie's notion of the "inversion of responsibility," because it arguably explains something I've often struggled with. Our society is often remarkably permissive on certain levels, and in certain ways; we often seem to be overprotective as we try to protect children from injury, from bullies, and from situations that might somehow "damage" their self-esteem. And yet on the other hand, our schools adopt "zero tolerance" policies under which a student is expelled for drawing stick figure fantasies about violence or for innocently (or accidentally) bringing something to school that the policy defines as a "weapon." At times, it has seemed to me that as a society we are often simultaneously too soft and too hard. We go from zero to sixty in an instant, and there is no middle ground. But Curie's explanation of how our culture often inverts responsibility helps to explain this:
One of the most common laments among troubled middle-class youth is that they were saddled with too much responsibility for managing their lives as they were growing up. They experienced childhood and adolescence not as a time when they were "brought up" in any meaningful sense by competent and admirable adults but as one when they had to figure out how to navigate life
on their own. Often, they will say that, even when they were small children, they "had to be the adult" because no one else was. This is a problem with many shades: the degree of parental abdication ranges from the subtle to the glaring. Some describe their parents as having been basically AWOL--as having, for all practical purposes, abandoned (or never taken on) anything
resembling an authoritative and nurturing role in their lives. They speak of parents almost wholly absorbed in their own "issues" or, at the extreme, in a state of something like serial collapse. In these circumstances, some teenagers wind up having, literally, to take care of their parents; at the very least, they are forced to conclude, early on, that if they do not learn to take care of themselves, it is not certain that anyone will take care of them at all. At worst, they may be essentially discarded by their parents--something we once assumed happened only in lower-class families.