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The Road to Whatever

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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.

Sometimes, their parents seem simply overwhelmed and unable to cope–and, as I’ll suggest later, the social and economic situation of the middle class today has made this a disturbingly common condition. But there is often more involved. For many of these parents, this inversion of responsibility is not simply a reaction forced on them by external pressures: it is what they believe is right. It reflects their broader views about responsibility and mutuality, and they justify it in a variety of ways. On the simplest level, parents may explain their willingness to abandon the parental role on the ground that the child is just too much trouble for them to handle-even the cause of the family’s problems. The parents may complain that they are too fragile to deal with a child who is so burdensome. More frequently, the justifications draw on deeper cultural themes-ideologies about the proper role of parents and, beyond that, the proper place of “help” and support in general. The withdrawal from commitment to their children is rooted in a thin and ultimately self-serving individualism: they believe that children need to learn to “make good choices,” and making good choices is not something that anyone else can do for them. They believe that it is bad for children (as for adults) to be given too much help in dealing with life, and they often complain that their own children make demands for nurturance and tolerance at a level that, in their view, parents should not have to provide.

I recently read something by a woman who was complaining about the “fundamentalists” (whether religious or otherwise, I wasn’t certain) who questioned how she dealt with her ten year old son’s trouble with his homework. Rather than ask whether he had homework and require that he do it, or sit and help him with it, or make herself available for assistance if he needed it, her perspective was simple. It was his homework; he needed to be responsible for doing it. If he didn’t, it was his job to go to school and tell his teacher that he hadn’t done it. Besides, she had her own things that needed her attention.

Now, admittedly, parents need to teach their children about responsibility. What Currie seems to be driving at is this: we don’t teach kids to be responsible by telling them they should be responsible and then leaving them to their own devices. We teach them to be responsible by mirroring that practice with them, until it becomes second nature. In other words, we’re “permissive” in the sense that we tell children to essentially go do their “own thing” or handle their affairs “on their own,” and then we become punitive upon their failure. Which child is likely to be willing to do homework: the one whose parent is willing to offer advice and assistance when the child clearly needs it, or one whose parents expect the child to do it on his own and will punish him or publicly embarrass him for his failure? Viewed in this light, what many regard as “permissive” might actually be regarded as an abdication by the parent and a shuttling of responsibility prematurely onto the child.

Currie also examines the fact that in modern America medication also frequently replaces guidance, even as “tough love” replaces any sense of engagement or communication. He contends that modern culture has an old competitive edge to it, in that many parents seem to feel that it isn’t enough to be “good;” their children have to be the best. He feels that there is a strain of American culture that is “remarkably intolerant” of what he calls “normal deviance” – i.e., routine mistakes of judgment and minor moral lapses.

Again and again, troubled adolescents describe their parents as both quick to find things wrong and quick to inflict punishment when they do. But not just any kind of punishment. What is remarkable about the discipline they impose is that it so often involves systematic exclusion and the withholding of assistance. These parents respond to their children’s problems not by making extra efforts to pull them more closely into the orbit of the family but by pushing them out of it – and simultaneously denying them emotional and practical support, sometimes even the most basic kinds. At the extreme, they are essentially read out of the family altogether.

Currie acknowledges that on occasion, this “extreme” is the result of sheer desperation in the face of a truly troublesome child. However, he also says:

But for many parents, something more is involved. Their response reflects a deep ideological current in which exclusion and withdrawal of support are regarded as not only acceptable but laudable ways of dealing with those who fail or who break the rules. That moral outlook influences much more than the way parents deal with troublesome teenagers: it shapes how we characteristically deal, as a society, with people whom we find problematic.
. . .
Repeatedly, the chief response – indeed sometimes virtually the only response – of parents, school authorities, and others in the adult world to their mistakes and “bad choices” was to send them away, always figuratively and often literally. But this strategy exacerbates the problems it is ostensibly designed to correct, in mutually reinforcing ways.

This rather neatly sums up my reaction to most zero tolerance policies, which I contend are actually designed to avoid adult responsibility. The school administrators don’t really want to investigate or guide the child; they don’t want to decipher what is really going on and come to a reasoned conclusion. It is easier – and avoids the prospect of future liability – if kids are just expelled. Take for example the numerous instances of kids expelled (to national attention, in most cases) for writing a story in which a teacher is killed, or drawing a picture of students shooting a teacher, or some similar reference to school violence. School officials are perhaps overly sensitive to such things, but their concern is for the most part understandable: they don’t want another Columbine. But note what happens: rather than investigate the particular incident on a case-by-case basis, school officials have adopted an easy out: zero tolerance policies that boot the kid out of school. How, one might ask, does that help the kid? It doesn’t. But it creates the illusion that school officials are doing “something” about school violence, and lets them wipe their hands of a prospective headache.

All in all, Currie’s book is a fascinating – and frightening, on certain levels at least – into the adolescent culture in modern America. From his complaints about the “world of therapeutic Darwinism” and his contention that school is far too often the opponent instead of the guide and his suggestions about how to strive toward a “culture of support,” there’s a lot of food for thought. One doesn’t have to agree with every one of his contentions to recognize the validity of many of them and the importance of dealing with (rather than ignoring) the very real problems he highlights. The Road to Whatever is a powerful book, often a painful one to read. But it is also, I think, one that parents – and ultimately, anyone interested in what’s up with those we so often call “the leaders of tomorrow” – should read.

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About Bill Wallo

  • Eric Olsen

    super job Bill on an imperative topic. Interestingly, though also a father of four, mine are bookends around the core target teens here, at 20, 17 5 and 1, I have seen the older two come out on the other end of adolescence and the younger two have a long way to go.

    I agree with the general assessments and also agree that engagement and unconditional support creates an environment where you can make demands and have high expectations without being overly punitive or threatening. But I also have been very lucky so far: great kids make it easy to be a good parent.

  • Currie extracted much of his information from interviews with troubled kids. I don’t recall much about the home-school v. public school issue. Given Currie’s focus on “inclusive schools” and increasing the “social net” to help familes, I doubt he thinks much along those lines (I expect because he probably thinks most families couldn’t afford to home school their kids). His vision is what he calls a “community of shepards.” I have to admit that I question the viability of some of his proposals, but I found it a worthwhile book nonetheless.

  • Did Currie have anything to say about differences between home-schooled children and those attending the “zero-tolerance” public schools?

    Troubling indeed – thanks for such an in-depth review, Bill, especially for something that was for you a “truly cautionary tale”!