Years of Wonder—and Risk

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

The teenage years have always been a time of turmoil, but for America's 19 million young adolescents—kids between the ages of 10 and 14—the perils are growing greater. Consider the numbers. Two-thirds of eighth graders say they have tried alcohol, and a quarter admit to being current drinkers. Between 1991 and 1994 smoking increased 30 percent among 13-year-olds, while marijuana use doubled. From 1980 to 1992 suicides rose 120 percent among 10- to 14-year-olds; between 1985 and 1992 the death rate from gunshot wounds doubled.

Those are just a few of the unhappy discoveries included in a recent report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, a 27-member blue-ribbon panel that has released the first long-term, comprehensive study of American adolescents. The report, titled "Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century," cautions that young people are being given increased autonomy at precisely the age when they most need adult support and guidance. As a result many young teens feel they are on their own as they negotiate the tricky first approaches to adulthood. "Altogether, "declares the 165-page report, "nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances. The damage may be near-term and vivid, or it may be delayed, like a time bomb set in youth."

One hopeful sign, says educational psychologist Dr. Ruby Takanishi, 49, the Carnegie Council's executive director, is that adolescents actually crave the very support and attention they need. Takanishi, whose father was a merchant and mother a teacher, was reared on Kaua'i, Hawaii, and received her Ph.D. in educational psychology from Stanford. Married to Louis, 48, a fundraiser for nonprofit groups, she is the mother of Marika, 13. Takanishi spoke with correspondent Jane Sims Podesta in her Washington office.

What prompted the Carnegie panel to focus on early adolescence?

We believe the years from 10 through 14 are probably the most neglected and least understood phase of the first two decades of life. For some reason it's an age researchers have ignored. Most people don't realize it but an adolescent in this age group undergoes as many biological, behavioral and social changes as does a child during his or her crucial first three years. It's a period of great risk. It's also an age when you can catch kids and get them on the right track before their problems get set in concrete.

Why is it such a pivotal time?

If young people feel they don't have a future or a place in society, and nobody—not even their parents—seems to care about them, a lot of things follow. The natural experimentation and risk-taking among adolescents becomes more entrenched, and they're less careful to protect themselves.

Are parents giving their adolescent children too much freedom?

There seems to be a widespread assumption that when kids turn 10 or 12 they don't need supervision, especially after school. That simply isn't true—they're still kids. And they're beginning to think about what kind of persons they want to be when they grow up. It was amazing to me how we kept noticing children saying, "We wish our parents would pay more attention to us. We need it. They aren't here." They aren't saying they want someone telling them what color their hair should be—they're talking about help in making moral and ethical decisions.

Are parents ceding responsibility?

While it's true that adults need to pay more attention to their children, we realize the problem is more complicated than that. It used to be that families had support systems—communities and kin—to help back them up. Today not only have those support systems eroded, but there are new pressures on parents and families—economic demands that force them to work longer and harder to keep up. What we're saying is that while families are important, they don't exist in a vacuum. They need the public sphere—schools, employers, the government—to help provide a safety net.

How can schools do more for adolescents?

Fundamentally we need to have higher expectations and demand more academically from our students. We should also be looking at creating smaller schools. Recent studies show that juvenile crime rises between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. It parents can't be home to supervise kids, schools could stay open longer and become community centers.

What can be done for adolescents from broken homes who don't have adults they can rely on?

Community-based organizations need to develop systems to support them. We spotlighted a program started by the Ford Foundation in 1989 called the Quantum Opportunities Program. Ninth-grade students from poor neighborhoods in five cities—Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, San Antonio and Saginaw, Mich.—were matched with adult mentors who helped them with schoolwork, took them to plays and concerts and counseled them on job planning. The mentors stay with them from the age of 13 until they graduate. We found that these kids were more likely to go on to college and less likely to get involved in crime, go on welfare or get pregnant.

How can employers help support parents of young people?

They can offer flex time, as they sometimes do for parents of small children. In addition companies such as IBM and Toyota now help locate after-school care and activities for their employees' adolescent children.

What if we don't address the problems of young adolescents?

If we ignore the problems of young people, our nation is at risk. Today's adolescents can be the promise or the threat to our social and economic standing in the world. Our report is a wake-up call: We must stop neglecting the adolescents who are our future.

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