Freedom: For Adults Only

Mike Males, Youth Today, November 2002

            In recent visits to Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, I saw adolescents routinely behaving in ways American experts condemn as horrifying. Ontario 18 year-olds queued in liquor stores and drank in pubs alongside elders. Teens in Quito, Riobamba, and San Jose thronged to late-night discos. Unchaperoned Ensenada middle-schoolers strolled hand-in-hand along late-night downtown streets after emerging from unrated movies. Latin American cybercafes (often managed by teens or children) overflowed with unsupervised youths clicking unfiltered computers.

            Laughed a Mountie when I asked if Toronto had a youth curfew: “Maybe for six-year-olds.”

            By American expert thinking, European, Canadian, and Latin American adolescents should be developmentally-damaged alcoholic felons. American experts rarely let mere reality affect dogma.

            Returning to the United States requires readjustment to Americans’ depressing anti-youth phobias. The ugly headlines in Houston (425 teens arrested for “hanging out”) and Davis, California (Classical music will drive youths from downtown, officials hope). Age-limit signs constantly reminding youths they’re too infantile for adult maturities like booze and “Bambis in Bondage.” America’s latest institutional conformities: The Prevention Researcher’s “Alcohol and Teens” and Packard Foundation’s “Children, Youth, and Gun Violence” recycle decades-old conventionalities and push more “messages” and “access” clampdowns.

            Yes, I was back in freedom-loving America, whose anti-youth repressions--mass curfews, media censorship, punitive drinking ages, constant suspicion, groundless policing, violent punishments, compulsory drug-testing--occurs nowhere else in such totality. Where surveys find two-thirds of American grownups display “stunning hostility” against kids. Whose authorities warn the mere existence of teenagers imperils society. Whose Supreme Court ruled children suspected of no wrongdoing must urinate in front of drug testers. Whose leaders refuse to sign United Nations youth-rights covenants endorsed by all other nations. Where politicians excuse their own sins but slam eighth graders with lifelong punishments for lesser indiscretions.

            Why does America fear and suppress its young like no other modern (or even semi-modern) society? Perhaps because other affluent nations are monocultures. Minority races comprise tiny fractions of the populations of Japan (1%), Germany and Sweden (2%), Holland and France (3%), and United Kingdom (4%). Homogenous Europeans invest in the young because the kids look like the parents.

            In contrast, the U.S. (31% minority) is racially diverse, especially among younger ages. In California, 60% of those over age 40 are white; 60% under age 25 are black, Hispanic, or Asian. We fear young people because, increasingly, they don’t look like the parents.

            Are grownups really that primitive? If someone can better explain why no other country habitually demeans, psychiatrically drugs, drug-tests, curfews, legally beats, banishes, imprisons, and even executes their youths as Americans do, I’m all ears.

            Challenging this theory is the fact that our Latin American neighbors are even more racially diverse: Mexico (40% minority), Columbia (42%), Ecuador and Brazil (45%). Yet, Latins don’t seem terrified of their kids and are far less officially repressive. As in Europe, Latin teens are treated pretty much as adults.

            American advocates endlessly denigrate our youths for not acting like European youths. Yet, these same advocates don’t criticize American politicians for not emulating European governments’ robust social insurance, health care, adult self-discipline, and youth rights traditions. Culturally, America isn’t Europe, they whine. True. So stop comparing our kids to theirs.

            Instead, consider multicultural models. Ecuador, South America’s poorest nation, is staggeringly diverse (large Amerindian, European, African, and mixed-race populations). Yet, in the last 40 years, Ecuador’s birth statistics (UN-certified as “virtually complete”) reveal enormous fertility declines among all ages. Once-high Ecuadorian teen birth rates have fallen 70% since the 1950s and are now below U.S. rates. How did Ecuadorian youths--much poorer, less served by health and sex-ed programs, unsupervised by curfews, drinking ages, and like “protections”--reduce births while U.S. “teen pregnancy prevention” fails?

            As the U.S. belligerently hectors the globe on liberty and morality, perhaps we should consider why the Land of the Free is the world’s most amoral dictatorship toward its young people.


Mike Males, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice senior researcher, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.