Enabling Adult Immaturity

Mike Males, c Youth Today, November 2003 (appeared in slightly different form in publication)

               “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 is an upside-down society that excuses grossly immature adult behaviors while punitively demanding perfection from teenagers.

               The results of this backwards thinking are alarming for all ages. The deterioration middle-aged adult behaviors has driven virtually every major American social problem over the last 25 years. The newest federal reports through 2002 show adults in the 35-64 age group now suffer a record three-fourths of hard-drug deaths and emergencies. Obesity, HIV, addiction, criminal arrest, imprisonment, and family disarray have exploded among middle-agers--the parents raising 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,” which blames kids for creating lifelong social problems because grownups are helplessly trapped in misbehaviors they started young.

               Excusing adult immaturity forms the essence of the slogan of Joseph Califano Jr.’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: “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 superficial doctrine--which is the basis of much of America’s ineffective prevention policy--is meaningless. Abstinence in youth does not CAUSE abstinence in adulthood. Rather, adult abstainers do so for the same reasons they did as teens: religion, culture, family, individual values. CASA’s statement is like saying: “A teenager given a Lexus is virtually certain never to get AIDS.” True, but only because a larger factor (affluence) selecting 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 finds that in states where adults drink, smoke, attend alcohol rehab, and use drugs more, teens are strongly 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 he cites reported 3.8 million 12-18-year-old binge drinkers, but Califano is famous for exaggeration.) Binge drinking is the bane of teens and young adults, chorus the University of Minnesota’s Cheryl Perry, Harvard University’s Henry Wechsler, and Prevention Researcher groupthinkers.

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

               That’s right: there are twice as many 40-age 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 wilfully ignore them?

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

               CASA and Prevention Researcher should be stressing the reverse: if parents and grandparents binge-drink, is anyone surprised teens do, too?

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

               America needs true grownups--not just adolescents forced to be adults because no one else will be.