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The Young ... and the (Restless) Grown-ups

Conversations among grown-ups about kids tend to move in one of two directions. Either kids are held up as paragons of innocence, or they are damned as representative of everything wrong with society today.
Julia Bryan-Wilson, Steven Rubio, and Megan Shaw, Issue Editors

Issue #47, January 2000

Conversations among grown-ups about kids tend to move in one of two directions. Either kids are held up as paragons of innocence, or they are damned as representative of everything wrong with society today. These opposing views point to different aspects of childhood and our reaction to kids: that on the one hand children, especially very young children, are without sin, while on the other hand children, especially teenagers, represent a sinister future. We never lack for sappy paeans to the innocence of childhood, but neither do we lack for policies that demonize teenagers.

Children are lightning rods for our hopes and fears because they, in their "unformed" state, distill our insecurities about society. We see ourselves in them; we project onto them everything we desire along with everything that repulses us. For example, we pathologize those who are "unproductive" -- and children, especially teens, are cast as the ultimate time-wasters. Hence President Clinton pours millions into after-school programs that are not meant to foster creativity, but are designed to keep kids preoccupied with dull, highly supervised busywork. Kids' actual humanity is lost in such an approach; we forget to treat them as people because we're so busy using them as representatives of larger concerns. Meanwhile, children spend their lives as symbols for adult fantasies and fears. The psychic damage incurred when kids are denied all agency is destructive in itself. But there are more concrete social responses to children that cause more than psychic damage.

As if to prepare today's youth for absolute obedience in penal systems or bureaucratic institutions tomorrow, freedom and basic human rights for kids are rapidly eroding. California's recent "Juvenile Crime Initiative" (Prop. 21) will make it illegal for more than three kids to stand outside together if police suspect that they look like gang-members. Kids as young as 14 could be tried as adults and sent to adult prisons. But teens already find themselves criminalized daily -- especially teens of color. Around the country, harsh curfews are in place for those under 18. Parents have the legal right to force "misbehaving" or opinionated children into prison-like boot camps where orders must be followed, or else. Schools have become high-security zones where any form of privacy is forbidden (lockers are outlawed, metal detectors are installed, and school administrators decree that all backpacks must be see-though). Kids and teens are treated as if they are the "property" of their parents and the state. They are shipped off to schools that increasingly outlaw any expression of self like colored T-shirts, they are scrutinized by the police, and they are punished in large numbers for stepping outside their homes at the wrong hour of the day. Then we wonder why they often have so much rage.

This issue marks an attempt to open up lines of communication among adults and adolescents. Speaking as parents, as activists, and as former kids ourselves, we hope to initiate a dialogue that spans generations. In this capacity, we regret that we were unable to secure the contributions of any youth writers to this issue.

Mike Mosher's study of leftist youth in early-70s Ann Arbor reminds us that young people do not have to wait for adult sanction before taking action to improve their lives. Steven Rubio, in his look at the 'empty nest syndrome,' examines youth-adult relationships from the grownup side, and concludes that adults who are cutoff from interaction with young people, whether by choice or by circumstance, are missing out on a powerful vitality that can reenergize their lives. The scapegoating of youth around the issue of drugs is the focus of Mike Males' essay, which catalogs various attempts by seeming 'liberal' grownups to stifle young people in the name of helping them. He points out the inconsistencies in the work of drug liberalizers, whose priorities are increasingly easy to confuse with those of anti-drug activists.

Stefani Woodson writes about how television constructs social space for children, a space that looks very different to those with children than to those without. Her perspective on Teletubbies and Barney and Friendsreveal that those two shows are structurally very different, and pose issues to grown-ups in different ways, for different reasons. Aaron Shuman investigates difficulties in establishing homes that face people who are on the other side of adolescence, as well as many youth. Finally, Charlie Bertsch describes the experience of passing counter-culture down from one generation to another. His essay addresses the complicated issue of how an anti-authoritarian navigates the role of fatherhood, which necessitates becoming authoritarian to some degree.

While this issue was being edited, a new young person was born: Coltrane Tryk was born November 14, 1999. Issue editor Megan Shaw attended his mother Maggie, her oldest friend, during her labor, and had the tremendous and indescribable experience of watching him enter the world. The fact that his birth coincided with the work of editing of this issue lent an acuteness to the subjects considered in the issue. It was impossible for this issue editor not to wonder how each of these subjects -- youth liberation, leaving home, youth drug policy, TV for kids, the availability of homes, and music for babies -- will affect his life directly. We cringe at the thought of a new person being born into the kinds of prejudices and Draconian control measures that face young people today, and we wonder how to create a safe and liberating space for Coltrane and for the other children in our lives. May he be allowed a full measure of humanity that can't be taken for granted. We give him a hearty welcome to the world.

Copyright © 2000 by Julia Bryan-Wilson, Steven Rubio, and Megan Shaw. All rights reserved.