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Washington Post


Of Growing Concern

November 27, 2000



Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Riverhead. 359 pp. $ 25.95


By William S. Pollack with Todd Shuster
Random House. 392 pp. $ 25.95

Adolescence is the id of the American life cycle-- irrational, turbulent and the inspiration for a century's worth of quasi-scientific speculation. Indeed, since 1904, when G. Stanley Hall published his magisterial "Adolescence," a thriving industry of experts and writers has produced countless theories about the awkward age for a baffled public.

One recent example, Laura Sessions Stepp's "Our Last Best Shot," is an unusual polyglot of a book--part ethnography, part self-help manual, part state of the research. As ethnography, it is first-rate, observant, compassionate, yet free of cant and sentimentality. Stepp, a reporter working at The Washington Post, devotes a chapter each to the lives of 12 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14 in three different locales. Her subjects are as varied as their geography, from Jack, an old-fashioned nature-lover and tinkerer in Ulysses, Kan.; to Libby, a bright but under-challenged Los Angeles mall rat; to Mario, a Durham, N.C., middle-schooler suspended for stashing a gun in his locker. Stepp manages to show that, for all their differences and their pseudo- sophisticated behavior, these are still children attempting to figure out a meaningful course in a world they don't yet understand.

She also makes it clear that they won't find much guidance for their quest in the cultural Siberias where they are growing up. Most of these kids spend their free time in malls or at Pizza Hut, watching action-adventure movies and listening to rap music, or in cars riding passively along streets they've never been allowed to bicycle or walk through, among neighbors they've never met. Not that school is much better. Stepp is especially good at evoking the bureaucratic sterility of the American middle school, where teachers, though well-intentioned, remain clueless about how to feed the malnourished minds of these youngsters. And she also convincingly demonstrates the failure of adults to understand the adolescent's need to achieve the competence that comes not from chanting "I am somebody" but from "performing challenging tasks." Swimming and volleyball teams and an occasional volunteered hour at a homeless shelter are about the only challenging tasks these kids face.

Stepp occasionally lapses into the oversimplifications that mark the self-help genre and that could not possibly fertilize the desert she has described. Fortunately, her richly textured stories usually flesh out her meaning. As our kids reach adolescence, she declares in a final list of recommendations, we need to "replace control with communication." But by this time we understand that "communication" is only shorthand. We've seen that the most effective parents do not simply "communicate" with their children; they lead them in a delicate choreography, prodding them to think about their actions, expand on their ideas and focus their interests.

One problem with the book is that the more it leans on science, the less compelling it is. Stepp often tries to clinch a point by citing a single study on a complex subject--the need to give kids choices in school, for instance-- ignoring research that might muddy the issue. And she is credulous as well as selective. The chapter "Chandler's Story" is the most striking example. By the time she is 14, Chandler, one of the most troubled teens in the book, is sexually active, smoking marijuana and assaulting her mother; in despair, her parents commit her to a psychiatric hospital. Stepp offers an abundance of voguish, official explanations for Chandler's behavior, quoting one study on the brain, several on adolescent risk-taking and another few on pubertal changes. But Chandler's own narrative yields far more insight--a weak mother who had indulged her little girl's desire to look sophisticated, a self-absorbed father who chafes at any rule-setting, a TV always humming in the background, the woman-child sprawled out in front of "Rikki Lake." Despite Stepp's soft spot for experts, the rich particularity of her book dramatizes the problem of turning the tentative findings of research into unambiguous pronouncement. It reminds us also that, especially when it comes to adolescence, social science has often been as much social as science.

Exhibit A is the work of William S. Pollack, a Harvard psychologist and author of the bestselling "Real Boys," published in 1998. In "Real Boys," Pollack, relying on fashionable gender theory, argued that society forces boys to hide their "true inner feelings" behind a false "mask of masculinity." This "Boy Code" leads to depression and a loss of self-esteem and, in Pollack's view, explains high rates of male school failure, attention deficit disorder and suicide. Now Pollack has brought us "Real Boys' Voices," which continues in the same alarmist vein. In the first two pages alone, we hear that boys "are struggling," "crying out to be understood," suffering "intense angst," "silently allowing their lives to wither away, or explode." But as the title suggests, in this book it is the boys (interviewed by Pollack) who will do much of the speaking.

Unfortunately for the author, what real boys have to say does mischief to his thesis. The Boy Code, Pollack says, tells boys not to reveal their emotions, but these boys speak of confiding in their girlfriends, their friends (who are often girls), their fathers, their mothers. The Boy Code forces boys to separate from their mothers early and abruptly; but these boys, Pollack is forced to admit, "are discovering that they can embrace their mothers fearlessly." True, Pollack cites figures saying that 81 percent of students admit to bullying their classmates, one of the major symptoms of the Boy Code, and his subjects refer to the problem repeatedly. But you won't find any insight into bullies here; these real boys are all victims! Had Pollack not preferred his theory to his evidence--and had he read Stepp's book--he might have found that today's adolescent boys are actually, like adolescent girls, a complicated brew: intimidated by peers, prone to cruelty, stressed out and provincial yet resilient, affectionate and open to new challenges.

Still, "Real Boys' Voices" serves one purpose in an age of specialization.

Along with the far more acute "Our Last Best Shot," it reminds us that it doesn't take an expert to listen to kids--and to understand them.



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