So it seems researchers have discovered something which dramatically reduces the chance that a teenager will use drugs, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, attempt suicide, experience depression, engage in violence or become sexually active at an early age.
It’s called loving parents.
Sorry for the sucker punch. Chalk it up to mild pique that it takes a federally funded study, four years of research, 90,000 respondents, 38,000 interviews and $25 million in tax dollars to confirm what ought to be obvious: Parents matter. Teachers, too, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
Kids who feel themselves loved, understood and noticed by their parents, kids who have good relationships with their teachers … these are kids who are more likely to avoid dangerous behaviors that can derail their futures.
This news is not new. I remember reading years ago about a survey in which kids ranked parents at the top - above sports heroes and movie stars - when asked who was most influential in their lives.
What would be new is if parents take heed.
We are at a curious pass in our cultural history. For reasons I can’t begin or pretend to understand, some parents don’t want to do the job. They are unwilling to make the rules, set the limits, suffer the intense, albeit momentary, hatred of the child who can’t get his way.
Or, they declare themselves helpless before the power of junk media, shrugging their shoulders at children’s misbehaviors as if to say, “Nothing I can do; they get it from TV. They get it from movies. They get it from music.”
Maybe so, but first they get “it” from us. We are the initial setters of examples, molders of mores, shapers of ideals. Children listen to and watch us in deciding who they want to be. Meantime, we’re fretting about whether Michael Jordan is doing a good enough job as role model.
I don’t mean to understate mass media’s power to sculpt and, yes, warp a young person’s perceptions and ideals. But at the end of the day, it’s not Jordan or the Spice Girls or Brad Pitt who sits across the dinner table from a child.
It’s her folks. Or at least, it should be.
Too often, it’s not. Too often, it’s nobody. Things are not as they were in the days of “Father Knows Best” and “See Spot run.” Life is faster and more fragmented than ever, our days transformed by women in the workplace, computers in the home, 24 hours and 100 options. The world has changed.
But this much has not: The passage from childhood to adulthood is still the toughest in life.
Still a frightening roller coaster between the swagger of impending maturity and the anxieties of a little child. Still a baffling process of grieving the person you were while discovering the one you’re about to be. And yes, still a time of acne, hair in strange places and voices changing.
It is hard on a child. Difficult, too, on a parent. Watching a son begin the last leg of a journey that will take him away from you. Realizing your baby no longer is. But they need us then, even more than when they were children, more than they know. Need us to guide them through life’s contours and mountains, pitfalls and pratfalls. Need us even when they roll their eyes like we just fell off the truck from Dorkland. Need us to notice them and support them and love them without limit.
We spend so much time beating our chests bewailing what government hasn’t done or what media have. So much time feeling helpless before forces that would tempt our children to ruin.
So much time. And it’s not like we have it to spare. So it shouldn’t take a federal study for us to understand that sometimes the best thing to do is also the simplest and most obvious.
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