From The Men They
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.
Chapter 17 - LATE
Adolescence, as we saw earlier,
is a stage rather than an age. The onset of the biological developments
of adolescence can be separated by as much as several years from
one boy to another. Yet there are some age-related events that are
milestones in a boy's career, none more so that passing the required
tests (written and road) and earning a first driver's license. In
most states the minimum age is sixteen, and in many families the
tests are taken by boys within a few days, or at most a few weeks,
of their sixteenth birthdays because they have been secretly practicing
as fifteen-year-olds. Having "wheels"
makes such a difference in a boy's life that it is the ritual that
separates early adolescence from late adolescence.
Charles McGrath, the editor
of the New York Times Book Review reminisced recently about
cars during his adolescence:
In the 50's and 60's, a
car was more than a ride. It was a passport to freedom (even if freedom
meant nothing more than cruising back and forth on the same well-traveled
stretch of blacktop), and it was the embodiment of sexual possibility.
Like many American boys of my generation, I grew up believing that
automotive expertise and success with girls were intrinsically linked.
. . . I could never afford a car of my own. When I went on dates,
I had to borrow my father's. . . . The goal was not motion but rest:
parking. My favorite spot was a reservoir not far from my house, where
on any weekend night dozens of cars would be nestled, nose in, against
the verge. There, with the radio playing softly and the window cracked
down an inch or two to let in the summer breeze, we earnest young
mechanics plied our trade, or tried to, kissing, stroking, petting-all
in an effort to rev what we had been taught to think of as the notoriously
balky female engine. Sometimes, in spite of our crude efforts, it
did spring to life, with an ardor that startled us both, and sometimes,
to tell the truth, it was we boys, scared, timid and clumsy, who needed
jump starting. . . . Girls, it turned out, were not as different from
us as we thought--except that most of them did not care about cars
This milestone arrived for
me in an unexpected fashion. As my sixteenth birthday approached, my
father tossed cold water on any thoughts of independence I was harboring—and
I was harboring quite a few. "A car is an instrument of death:'
he asserted with all the confidence one might expect from a chief justice
of the Supreme Court. There was, on this issue, no appeal possible
beyond my father's decision, and he promised that I wouldn't be allowed
to drive until I was eighteen. Then, old enough to vote and to join
the armed forces, I would in his eyes be old enough to drive.
I didn't take the ruling
too personally because I knew that my behavior in early adolescence
hadn't given my father any reason to think me less trustworthy behind
the wheel than my peers. For all I knew, he was thinking of how much
his car insurance premiums would jump with a licensed sixteen-year-old
in the family.
There the matter rested until
four months after my birthday, when my mother was admitted to a psychiatric
hospital for the first time for treatment of disabling depression.
Suddenly the prospect of my knowing how to drive soared in value. At
my father's insistence, I took a crash course—no pun intended—at
a Mount Vernon driving school, and then the two requisite tests. The
written test was a piece of cake, but I was nervous about the road
test. My examiner was nervous, too, as I recall. The vehicle was my
mother's blue and white 1956 Plymouth with a stick shift. My father
thought automatic transmissions were an unnecessary frill. What I worried
about was that I might stall out the engine when I shifted gears using
the clutch, or fail to do an acceptable piece of parallel parking.
I managed not to stall and I aced the parallel parking; the state policeman
testing me visibly relaxed. Along with my new chores as family chauffeur,
I had some memorable experiences in the old Plymouth.
By age forty, students of
midlife and its now celebrated crisis have told us, most men have reached
the highest plateau of their work lives or have a pretty clear idea
what that highest plateau is going to be; the knowledge of career limitations
itself is one of the stimulants of the midlife crisis. By age sixteen,
analogously, most adolescent boys know which of three tracks they've
chosen for the next five or more years. Many will finish high school
and go on to college or some form of technical training. Many others
will complete high school, find a job, and go to work, very likely living
at home for a time until they acquire some experience and savings, then
striking out on their own, perhaps marrying at a relatively early age.
The smallest group-yet a substantial number-will drop out of school,
perhaps find a job, probably at a low hourly wage, maybe drift into
substance addiction or crime. The dropouts have the least promising
prospects for adult life, and generally are aware of it.
About the time they get driver's
licenses, boys who stay in school begin to take on paying jobs-after
school, on weekends, or during holiday and summer breaks-that give them
money of their own and a taste of what full-time employment might be
As my schoolteacher brother
reminded me, every teenage boy has a job. It's called schoolwork, and
it has a weighty overtime component called homework. Despite its lack
of compensation, schoolwork is real work. It is demanding, it is more
or less relentless, it is tiring, and it is constantly monitored and
Those boys headed toward
the tracks of education or stable work take advantage of the final spurts
of development of the brain. One spurt occurs at age fifteen on average,
and the other from age eighteen to twenty. These spurts appear to coincide
with the best scores young males achieve on intelligence tests; they
also appear to be associated with the refinement of abstract thinking,
a prerequisite for mature and reflective thought. The only cognitive
edge boys have over girls lies in spatial reasoning, not to be confused
with the arithmetical part of mathematics. Boys display this edge before
age ten, and it lasts right through adolescence.
Stephanie Coontz notes that
two researchers in 1968 concluded that "readiness for adulthood
comes about two years later than the adolescent claims and about two
years before the parent will admit." Coontz thinks it likely the
degree of miscalculation has increased on both sides since the late
Two other variables that
are getting more distant from each other are the average age of physical
maturation and the average age of economic independence. The age at
which boys can support themselves, let alone a family, has reached a
new high in the past two decades. So there is a longer and longer period
when adolescents are sexually mature and physically and mentally capable
of adult work, but remain economically dependent.
As recently as 1940 about
60 percent of employed boys aged sixteen and seventeen worked in traditional
settings such as factories, farms, or construction sites, where they
labored alongside, and often as apprentices to, older men. By 1980 the
percentage of boys so employed had dropped to 14 percent. The bulk of
jobs available to boys are dead-end jobs such as in the fast-food business
where they get relatively little adult mentoring and have few opportunities
for significant advancement.
Teenagers with jobs are more
likely than their unemployed peers to express cynical attitudes toward
work, and to endorse unethical business practices; they are more likely
to agree with statements such as "People who work harder at their
jobs than they have to are crazy" or "In my opinion, it's
all right for workers who are paid a low salary to take little things."
Earlier generations of boys
may often have worked to help support their families, and that phenomenon
is not unknown today. But to judge from the adolescents I interviewed
in the past year, most work in order to earn money for their own consumption-to
maintain their own cars and entertainment, some of their own clothes,
and the expenses of dating. Many corporations have obviously targeted
them as an enticing market with plenty of disposable income. This pressure
to consume can take its toll on academic work and future opportunity.
Adolescent boys frequently put in so many hours each week in wage-earning
that they have no waking time left for homework; some of them fall asleep
in classrooms out of sheer fatigue.
Nearly all adolescent boys.
if asked directly and confidentially, will admit having been guilty
of offenses of one sort or another besides driving violations: for example,
under-age drinking, smoking marijuana. running away from home, petty
theft. disorderly conduct, vandalism. A 1998 survey of 20,000 middle-
and high-school students (both boys and girls) by the Josephson Institute
of Ethics showed that 47 percent admitted stealing something from a
store in the previous twelve-month period, up from 39 percent in a similar
survey in 1966, with a quarter of the high school students saying they
had committed store theft at least twice.
The report was released during
National CHARACTER COUNTS! Week in October of 1998. The data showing
very high levels of admitted stealing, lying, and cheating didn't seem
to jibe with the respondents' self image or with their perceptions of
parental values. Ninety-one percent of the students said they were satisfied
with their ethics and character. Almost as many believed that lying
and cheating hurt character. Eighty three percent said their parents
always want them to do the right thing. no matter what the cost: only
7 percent believed that their parents would prefer them to cheat if
necessary to get good grades.
Arrest data and adolescents'
own testimony suggests that the incidence of minor crime rises in the
early teenage years, remains high through the middle stage of adolescence,
and declines toward the end of adolescence. The curve of the data reflects
the waxing and waning of peer influence. As teenage boys spend more
and more time with boys their own age, they succumb more frequently
to peer pressure to commit illegal acts. As they become more selective
about their friends in late adolescence, many of them resist activities
that involve breaking laws.
Effective response to any
act of juvenile delinquency depends on ferreting out the principal
motive. Some transgressions are acts of aggression. Boys in groups
may playoff each other's aggressiveness and commit acts most of them
would be incapable of—or at least far less capable of—if
they were acting alone. Sometimes the aggressiveness is an expression
of targeted resentment.When teenage boys disfigure the school walls
with graffiti, it isn't hard to infer the object of their resentment.
Other acts of delinquency,
however, seem to be acts of deliberate risktaking more than aggression.
Early experimentation with drugs and alcohol often has this motive.
So, too, may petty theft-"Can I do this without being caught?"
Within the dynamics of peer groups, members are often dared to commit
illegal acts as proof of their masculine credentials. The less confident
a boy is of his standing within the group, the more vulnerable he is
to proposed tests of his daring.
Preadolescent children often
display a strong sense—some of it innately temperamental, but
some of it learned from protective parents and other adults—of
caution about new and risky ventures. This caution dissolves in early
adolescence as a boy further distances himself from his parents and
other adults, sometimes deliberately flaunting his parents' sense of
caution. But another factor here is that adolescent boys simply don't
assess risks the way most adults do. Many boys have a sense of invulnerability
to danger. "It can't happen to me" is a line many boys carry
in their imaginations, while "It did happen to me" is an
adult confession they may decline to heed.
For most teenagers, a brush
with the law doesn't augur long-term antisocial behavior. However, boys
who have many relatively minor encounters with the police are certainly
at risk of becoming serious offenders. About 12 percent of violent crimes
(homicide, rape, robbery, and assault) are committed by teenagers, overwhelmingly
by boys. About 22 percent of property offenses (burglary and theft)
are committed by teenagers, overwhelmingly by boys.
Some of the factors linked
to adolescent delinquency are poor academic performance and low verbal
ability, rejection by peers in earlier childhood, growing up in a home
ridden with conflict, and close associations with other delinquent
boys. Individual episodes of adolescent crime are replete with the
judgment of bystanders: "I can't believe [Rick] would do a thing like that!"
Gerald Patterson and his colleagues have done substantial research
into the antecedents of youthful brushes with the law. One common pattern
is of a boy growing up in a family beset with much internal conflict,
where lax and inconsistent discipline leads to boyish conduct problems,
followed by academic failure and rejection by peers in middle childhood,
culminating in the boy's joining a deviant peer group in which he is
motivated to repeated antisocial behavior.
When I try to draw a profile
of the sexual development and behavior of the later teenage boy, I
am more than ever aware of the tension between statistics and individual
cases. By age sixteen, many boys have developed active interpersonal
sexual histories—either heterosexual or homosexual—but
many others of their peers haven't had a date yet, and are relying
on the media, fantasies, and masturbation for sexual pleasure; the
specifics of counseling a boy's needs are going to vary considerably
depending on where he stands in the range of sexual maturity and experience.
As recently as the 1970s,
the division of males who had or had not had at least one experience
of sexual intercourse by age eighteen was about even, with 55 percent
on the experienced side. In twenty years the percentage of boys with
experience of intercourse by age eighteen has risen to 73 percent. Since
the average age of first marriage for males in the United States is
twenty-six, boys face on average a period of more than a decade between
the onset of puberty (a process completed in about three years) and
Social and cultural factors
might intervene to reverse the trend of early sexual intercourse for
males, just as a rising tide of teenage pregnancies has recently been
slightly reversed. But it is unlikely that a society can keep most of
its males chaste through a decade during which they reach the apex of
sexual drive and their attention is captured many times a day by sexual
thoughts or images. It is not surprising at all that 93 percent of American
males have had sexual intercourse before marriage, or that one of fifteen
males fathers a child when he is still a teenager. Since 85 percent
of teenage pregnancies are unintended, we can safely surmise that many
of the children fathered by male teenagers are at best mixed blessings.
Who should teach adolescent
males about sex, and what should they teach them? It is far easier to
prescribe what kind of person should do the teaching than to know who
that person might be in a given adolescent's environment. The teacher
can be either a man or a woman who is knowledgeable about the information
and wisdom to be transmitted, comfortable with the subject of sex itself,
and who does not bring a personal sexual agenda to the discussion.
If you ask teenagers today
whom they most rely on for knowledge about sexuality, they say they
look most to their parents, then to peers, then to schoolteachers,
then to the media. Their parents—mothers significantly more frequently
than fathers—acknowledge that they talk to their children about
sex far more than their own parents talked to them about it. But they
also indicate a good deal of discomfort about the responsibility and
wish the schools would accept more of it.
Surveys make a good deal
of the fact that despite all of the instruction about the physiology
of sex, a large proportion of adolescent males don't understand much
about fertility cycles in females. Some of the reticence of parents
to be responsible for counseling their sons about sex is that they themselves
have forgotten much of the relevant biology of reproduction, and don't
want to discuss the experiential side of sex. The mark of this silence
about experience is that many adolescents can't imagine their parents
having sex; parental sex is either mysterious or even slightly repellent
If we examine parental and
school teachings, we find a predominant wish that adolescents would
practice sexual abstinence, but that if they can't hold to that goal,
they should at least avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases,
and avoid causing pregnancies. These concerns are undeniably important,
given that a million teenage girls become pregnant every year (many
of them to older than teenage males) and that 3 million teenagers are
infected with a sexually transmitted disease each year.
What is missing in this approach
is an acknowledgment or acceptance of the adolescent drive for pleasure.
Adults have important interests, too, in avoiding sexually transmitted
diseases and unwanted pregnancies; but these concerns take their place
in the context of the attempt, through all of the complexities and frustrations
involved, to have satisfying sex lives.
The formal and informal sexual
education of boys, I believe, rarely pays sufficient attention to both
the positive and the cautionary aspects of sexual engagement. There
is no socially endorsed means of teaching an adolescent boy how to
cope with the nervousness that typically affects a male with a first
or a new sexual partner; how to control the impulsivity that accompanies
sexual excitement; how and when to elicit assent by a partner to his
sexual initiatives; how to communicate with a partner in order to discover—and
care about—what gives her pleasure; how to reduce the manipulative
and aggressive scripts in order to allow sexual activity to be more
playful, more intimate, and more loving; how to heighten both the control
and the pleasure of sex by making it more verbal, more articulate.
Despite what teenagers report
about depending on parents and teachers for sexual information and
advice, I believe they actually depend more on each other and on what
they glean from a blizzard of media messages ranging from the sublime
to the pornographic. Many boys are on their own, learning as they may
from their peers, who often exaggerate and distort, and from erotic
literature that often downplays the search for mutual pleasure in favor
of mute, impulsive drives toward orgasmic relief by males pressing
ever ahead to the next
"base" Some males pass their entire sexual lives rarely experiencing
the transformation of sexual excitement into mutual passion. Any romantic
themes in the media are often vastly oversimplified. The line between
reality and fantasy gets very blurred.
Adolescent discussions and
media presentations (including movies, videos, talk shows, and sitcoms)
need infusions of knowledge and insight that parents and teachers (and
other concerned adults such as physicians, clergy, and lawyers) could
effectively provide if they were willing to accept and honor, rather
than to attempt to deny or proscribe or shame or riddle with fear, the
adolescent's sexual drive.
One way boys reduce anxiety
about the risk of sexual engagements is to consume alcohol or drugs.
Their parents use this method on a wholesale basis, so it is not surprising
that adolescents borrow the method. They may also thereby either reduce
their capacity for performing sexually, or provoke sexualized aggression.
(Not a few rapists appear to be trying to compensate for feelings of
In groups, adolescent males
may give each other nerve that many of them would lack if relating individually
to young women. The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has shown in
disturbing detail how alcohol and pack behavior work together in some
male college fraternity parties. In these situations, boys are free
of the constraints of living with parents. (The same kind of events
can happen with high school students when Mom and Dad go away for a
weekend under circumstances that permit an unchaperoned teenage party
in their house.)
Sanday interviewed some fraternity
members and the girls they deliberately gang-assaulted. One male group
described their objectives as "working a 'yes' out" of their
dates. Their techniques included inviting dates from out of town who
would not feel self-confident and protected in the unfamiliar environment,
or inviting dates whose style of dress suggested they might be sexually
receptive, or inviting dates of lower social class standing who might
feel they were winning acceptance at a higher social level. The dates
were plied with alcohol until drunk or un resistant and then drawn
into a bedroom. Sometimes the room designated for such sexual scenes
had peepholes through which other members of the fraternity could watch.
After the fraternity brother had sex with his date, he would leave
the room and other brothers would take their turn, subduing or threatening
the young woman to the extent necessary to achieve sexual compliance.
Some college administrations are now concerned about the social dynamics,
particularly the abuse of alcohol and sex, of male students living
in unchaperoned groups and are taking steps to prevent such practices
as Sanday has described.
Adolescent and Gay
A very small percentage of
males discover themselves to be homosexual or bisexual as they grow
up. For them, sexual maturation is a particularly demanding, sometimes
hazardous, process; as many as a third are physically assaulted by gay
bashers inside or outside their families before they complete adolescence.
Adults often exhibit a degree
of amnesia about their sexual awakenings. For both heterosexual and
homosexual boys, the experience of this awakening is something shared
mostly with each other. Adults say very little about the experience
itself. Every boy finds it mysterious, exciting, confusing, and frustrating.
Many boys who will eventually have well-established heterosexual orientations
have at least one homosexual experience as an adolescent, either with
another boy or with a gay adult testing their orientation. As many as
half of the males who eventually establish a homosexual orientation
have experienced heterosexual sex, either during the period when they
were uncertain of their inclinations, or as an attempt to adopt the
predominant orientation, only to have it prove unsatisfactory to them.
Both heterosexual and homosexual
males like to think of their orientations as destinies foreordained
at birth, but it isn't quite that simple. Some adolescent boys, either
because of the strong cultural preference for heterosexuality or because
they were somehow sexually different then, establish heterosexual orientations
in adolescence lasting into early or middle adulthood, and then change
orientation and identify themselves as gay.
A sense of being "different"
assails many homosexual males while they are still in elementary school.
In some instances, this sense of differentness is mainly an internal
perception, but in other instances a boy may be perceived by others
to be different and singled out for teasing or taunting at school
or at home, or both-as lacking masculinity.
Researchers are very much
divided on the origins of homosexual orientation. Perhaps tolerance
of homosexuality would become a less divisive issue in our society if
indisputable evidence could be found linking sexual orientation to genetic
inheritance. No such evidence, no gay gene or heterosexual gene, has
yet been clearly identified. There is some evidence that male homosexual
orientation is more closely related to maternal than to paternal lineage,
but even that evidence settles very little. The fact that identical
male twins are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than
are fraternal twins also suggests a biological component.
For every geneticist looking
for a biological link, there is a behavioral expert offering an explanation
involving the childhood experiences and environment of the boy. When
I was growing up, homosexual orientation was often blamed on overprotective
mothers who didn't encourage their sons to develop heterosexual relationships
with their peers. More recently, cold and distant fathers have received
much of the blame once heaped on too protective mothers: the homosexual
boy, in this formulation, seeks the acceptance and love from other males
that his father never offered him. As with the biological explanations,
there is something plausible about the various behavioral explanations,
but none has won acceptance as a comprehensive and solidly confirmed
For every biological or social
scientist who has addressed the etiology of homosexuality, there are
several moralists lamenting what they believe is the perversity of homosexual
practice. Many of them base their intolerance of homosexuality on their
reading of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles, but there is no more scholarly
consensus about how to interpret the few biblical references to homosexuality
than there is consensus among scientists about genetic or interpersonal
factors. Such attitudes, however, are influential. The Boy Scouts of
America, citing the organization's private rather than quasi-public
standing, does not now permit acknowledged homosexuals to take positions
of leadership or accept known homosexual boys as scouts.
A homosexual youth lives
in a glass-house environment in which sexual orientation is exaggerated
far out of its proper perspective in his life. A heterosexual boy is
deeply affected by his sexuality, thinks about it, dreams about it,
talks about it—especially with his peers—and expresses
it in personal or interpersonal action. Yet his sexuality, central
as it is to his identity and life, doesn't stimulate the same constant
sense of vulnerability. He isn't teased in a hostile way about being
heterosexual. Everyone makes so much of homosexuality that it's difficult
for a gay adolescent to get his sexuality in proper perspective. Difficult,
too, to anticipate where rejection will lie. Sometimes adolescent classmates
are relatively tolerant and parents are completely intolerant.
There is enough uncertainty
about parental response, linked to the need most adolescents have for
continuing financial and emotional support from them, that parents
are not generally the first recipients of male homosexual disclosure.
Siblings or other peers are usually the first to hear. A large proportion—half
or more—of gay adolescents do not disclose their orientation
to parents until they have left home for college or other pursuits.
Even so, most males anticipate a higher level of acceptance of the
disclosure to parents than they receive. In one recent study, half
of both mothers and fathers reacted to their college-age sons' disclosures
of homosexuality with disbelief, denial, negative comments, or silence.
Eighteen percent responded with acts of rejection including attempts
to convert the son to heterosexuality or to cut him off financially
and emotionally. Parents often feel guilty: What did I do wrong? It
is indicative of the differences in relationships that mothers are
usually informed face-to-face while fathers are as often informed in
writing as in conversation.
Many issues young homosexual
males confront are embedded in the life of Dan, a sixteen-year-old.
He remembers feeling attracted to men as early as age five. When he
was in fourth grade in California, he watched a gay actor on a talk
show recount that getting turned on by Calvin Klein male underwear
ads made him realize he was gay. "And I said, 'That's me, too,'"
Dan recalled. "But I kept thinking, of course I'm straight. I'm
going to grow up and have girlfriends and have kids. I began dating
girls in fifth grade. In seventh grade, I dated a beautiful girl who
kept pressuring me to have sex—she wanted to know what made me
horny. What I realized was that there's a big difference between finding
someone attractive and being attracted to them sexually and emotionally.
That was when I knew that I was at least bisexual.
"The summer after seventh
grade I came out to most of my friends that I was bisexual, and they
were cool about it. There were other guys out at the high school, and
some in the middle school, too. I was afraid of what everyone would
think, and I didn't tell my parents. To deal with my anxiety I started
using drugs—a lot of painkillers, some codeine.
"Just before eighth
grade started, my parents moved separately to Connecticut." That
year was Dan's worst year so far: "absolute hell"
"Immediately I was labeled
a faggot, and I had never been called that before I moved. I would
get punched and spat on by people passing in the hall. There were gay
teachers who would get made fun of, and wouldn't respond. So I really
didn't feel comfortable. If gay adults weren't safe from taunting,
I certainly wasn't going to be safe."
I asked Dan how he explained
the abuse by other students. "They're just not sure of themselves,"
he said. "A lot of them have grown up with a hatred of gays. I
find that many guys are threatened by how comfortable I am with my
sexuality. That's not to say they're gay, but they're questioning their
own sexual confidence."
In ninth grade, Dan began
sexual activity with men, some in their twenties, others in their thirties
or older. He meets many of them in gay clubs. He also feels confident
initiating contact with strangers in public, in stores, for example.
He is diligent about safe sex and careful not to make himself vulnerable
to sexual exploitation by drinking too much, but he has a considerable
number of sexual contacts during a year. His sexual experience and self-confidence
are beyond the reach of his gay, and also many of his heterosexual,
schoolmates. Dan has had only two brief relationships with schoolmates.
His insistence that boyfriends be as open as he about sexual orientation
is too public for their comfort. Lacking heterosexual friends, he has
no schoolmates he spends time with outside of school.
His family circumstances
and his homosexuality have pushed Dan into a kind of premature adulthood.
"I think of my father as my roommate;' he said.
"Isn't that a lonely
way to live?" I asked.
"I really enjoy my independence;'
he replied, "and there's no way I could go back to having a curfew."
not as rare as one might think—detachment of Dan's parents from
his life accentuates but doesn't define the consequences of Dan's homosexuality.
The depression, the loneliness, and, indeed, the danger attendant to
his sexual relationships is in part a consequence of homophobia, but
his perception of his parents' preoccupations with their careers, his
hypersexuality, and his self-destructiveness are themes in many boys'
lives, whether or not they are gay.
There aren't many self-acknowledged
male homosexuals in any high school class, and if their sexual orientation
is considered socially unacceptable or even contagious by heterosexual
age-mates, they will not have a very large pool of potential friends.
Homophobia is exhibited by some women, but by and large it is a sentiment
perpetuated by males in our society. It incites crude and cruel behavior
in middle schools, and even more frequently in high schools.
Among boys aged fifteen to
nineteen, suicide ranks as the third most frequent cause of death. The
suicide rate has been climbing slowly but steadily since the 1960s.
The most frequent cause of death in this age group is accidents, many
of them vehicular and many of them associated with alcohol, which does
seem to justify my father's belief that the automobile is an instrument
of death. The second most frequent cause is homicide, which reflects
the distinctive access to firearms that adolescent males have in the
There are some gender-based
differences in adolescent suicide. Girls attempt suicide more frequently
than boys, but boys complete the act more frequently than girls. Girls
tend to employ passive methods such as drug overdoses that are less
disfiguring and less certain to be lethal, while boys are apt to use
more violent and certain methods such as hanging or shooting themselves.
Boys don't typically commit suicide as an extreme reaction to a single
precipitating event, even a great disappointment. Careful examination
of individual cases shows that what appear to be immediate precipitating
events are better seen as the culmination of a set of difficulties the
boy has experienced over a substantially longer period of time. In a
study of 154 adolescents who killed themselves, the researchers concluded
that a sense of hopelessness was the most critical factor.
Suicide sets off such an
intense and prolonged reaction among immediate family and friends that
the question of whether they should have been able to prevent it is
inevitably raised. Warning signals have been defined, including unusually
stressful events in a boy's life, mood changes, disturbed sleep and
eating patterns, statements suggesting despair, and even verbal mention
of suicide. Only the last of these symptoms, however, is specifically
predictive of suicide plans, and it may be a way of expressing despair
rather than a forewarning. Parents of adolescents shouldn't generally
regard themselves as on a chronic suicide watch.
What does matter is whether
parents, teachers and other concerned adults consistently try to maintain
close relations with adolescent boys. There are many reasons to do this
besides suicide prevention. Adults who are close to kids and not disposed
to deny the evidence before their eyes and ears will sense major mood
shifts and can raise concerned inquiries or guide boys to professional
help if the mood shifts seem beyond parental remedy. Sometimes a change
of school or a new activity or expressions of interest and concern from
other people will effectively counter a major downward mood swing. Adults
who are relatively detached from their children may not notice signals
Some suicide attempts are social in
ways of showing how desperate and unhappy a person feels. Others reflect
a person's ambivalence, a wish both to end it all and not to end it-but
to have relief from the pain of despair.
Lives on Hold
There is a curve to adolescence
that gives rise to optimism. At the beginning of puberty, most boys
are reasonably obedient sons and schoolboys. As sexual maturation occurs,
boys draw away from family intimacy. They experiment with sex, alcohol,
tobacco, and perhaps other drugs. They excel in risk-taking. When they
get their driver's licenses, their independence takes another quantum
leap. They get jobs. They stay out late and sleep late every chance
they get. They buy and wear clothes that irritate their parents. They
adorn themselves with fancy haircuts and tattoos. The adults in their
lives watch this process with a mixture of anxiety, fascination, and
horror. The wisest of them repress some of their impulses to object,
complain, worry aloud, or counsel without invitation.
Most of the sons, toward
the end of high school, turn back toward more closeness with their families.
As they begin to look ahead to college or full-time jobs, they see that
family support is indispensable to their futures. Also, they see that
they have already won considerable independence; the battle doesn't
have to be rewaged every day. They have won space of their own that
no one wants to take away from them.
And so all should be well,
right? Family relations patched up again, high school graduation on
the horizon, early adulthood in reasonable proximity. Yet it doesn't
all feel right. I circle back to Stephanie Coontz and an observation
she made almost in passing in The Way We Really Are: "It's
not that we have more bad parents or more bad kids today than we used
to. It's not that families have lost interest in their kids. And there
is no evidence that the majority of today's teenagers are more destructive
or irresponsible than in the past. [Perhaps the data cited in this
chapter shows them to be a little more destructive and irresponsible.]
However, relations between adults and teens are especially strained
today, not because youths have lost their childhood, as is usually
suggested, but because they are not being adequately prepared for the
new requirements of adulthood. In some ways, childhood has actually
been prolonged, if it is measured by dependence on parents and segregation
from adult activities."
We have, to use Coontz's
term, made adolescence too "roleless". We have designed educational
structures for teenagers that many find boring, unlinked to any path
to the adult world. We have neglected to give them any significant
public space of their own. We have kept extending the amount of education
needed to impress hiring institutions almost as a way of keeping late
adolescents/young adults from competing in job markets before older
adults want them to.
In addition, the facility
of certain older teenagers for grasping the complexities of fast evolving
technologies such as information science and "ecommerce" terrifies
older adults who cannot absorb social and technological change as quickly.
This may result in a kind of unconscious conspiracy to keep teenagers
in limbo for quite a few years. They do not feel needed. Why should
we be surprised if, in their separate subculture, they treat their
boredom and comparative irrelevance with behavior adults don't admire?
The predominant approach
to adolescence today is to balkanize the issues. Safer sex. Reduce crime.
Just say no to alcohol and drugs. Indeed. these issues do develop lives
of their own. But they must be seen in the context of what we believe
adolescence to be. A redefinition of adolescence to give it serious
and honored purpose would not fail to affect each of these issues.
Chapter Seventeen: Late Adolescence
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