The Secret Life of Your Teen
She was walking across the sand, marching over the dunes of Avalon last summer, when she saw him. Them. Er, it.
It involved Ethan, her 14-year-old son — “a good-looking kid, a sexy kid,” Allison calls him proudly. Anyway, she explains, “He was lying there on his towel, and lying right on top of him was this girl.”
Allison, a successful physician on the Main Line, glanced around the beach. She knew the girl, and could see her mother sitting not far away, seemingly oblivious to the fact — or maybe pleased by it, who could tell? — that her bikini-clad daughter was presently joined at the loins with Allison's shirtless son. Allison's sister was another story.
“You have to do something,” she said as Allison sat down next to her, a few beach towels from Ethan.
Right! Do something! But … what? A full frontal confrontation was certainly one option, but did anybody really need that on a gorgeous summer day down the Shore? Then, suddenly, Allison remembered: Like any properly equipped 21st-century teen, Ethan was permanently attached to his cell phone. She scrambled for her own cellie and punched in his number.
“Hello,” Ethan mumbled.
“Ethan, it's your mother. Now listen to me: Either you come over here right now, or I'm coming over there.”
She saw Ethan's head pop up and swivel around. Allison waved.
She repeated herself, and a moment later, it was Ethan who was trudging over the golden Avalon sands. “What's the problem?” he moped.
Allison explained that re-creating Boogie Nights here on the beach, in front of their friends and several hundred members of their income set, was perhaps not the most appropriate activity for him and his young female companion. Ethan grunted, groaned, then spun around and assumed a more PG-rated position on his towel. Crisis over. For now.
But as she tells the story, Allison's voice mingles incredulousness and anxiety. She mentions everything else she's found herself dealing with — the drunk kids showing up at her house, the oral-sex offers Ethan has gotten, the other parents who just seem so clueless about it all — and she sighs. “It's the rodeo,” she says. “It's the Wild West out there.”
In November of 1988, this magazine featured on its cover a goofily grinning 30-something couple, the woman clearly with child, alongside the breathless cover line: “PREGNANT AT LAST! A GENERATION TAKES THE PLUNGE.” Inside, the cover story detailed how, after dropping out, tuning in, turning on, dropping back in, and then buying houses with seriously awesome hardwood floors, the baby boom generation had at long last decided it was time to reproduce.
Well, that was a sweet 16-and-a-half years ago, and those boomers' babies are now full-fledged adolescents. How are their parents doing? Put it this way: The generation that took the child-rearing plunge now finds itself in over its head trying to raise its teens. “A nightmare,” one parent says. “Horrible,” agrees another. Says a third, “I feel like I have to be a babysitter again.”
Part of what has them so distraught, of course, is the age-old tension between generations. Indeed, current complaints about kids' constant instant-messaging are really just an update of “Would you please get off that phone?!” That said, there is plenty of evidence that, particularly when it comes to sex, these are not your father's teenagers.
“I asked my 14-year-old son's girlfriend what she wanted for her birthday,” says Cindy, a single mother of two boys who lives in West Chester. “She told me she wanted to go to Hooters, so she could see what her competition looked like.” (Adds Cindy, “I took her. I think she saw the girls really weren't that hot.”)
Then there are the blowjobs. “You've heard about the oral sex, right?” three different parents asked me while I worked on this story. The prevalence of oral sex among teenagers — and the view of many that it's not really sex — has lately caught the attention of everyone from Oprah to Katie Couric. Apparently, it's a growing phenomenon — several Main Line educators say they've seen episodes of it as early as middle school. And kids affirm that it happens.
“There's this girl in my grade who, um, gives blowjobs constantly,” says a sophomore who attends a Main Line private school. “I mean, in one weekend she could give five.” One recipient, according to the story making the rounds, was a 20-something stranger standing by his car who had simply called out to the girl and her friends, “Anyone want to blow me?” Ask, apparently, and ye shall receive. (See our commissioned poll, “Do You Really Know What Your Kids Are Up To?,” on page 83.)
This is not to say that every teen has gone wild. But particularly in some of Philadelphia's more affluent suburbs, there is a deep and growing fear about the culture teens are living in. It's a world where dating is passé, and no-strings-attached sex is trendy. Where drinking and drugs aren't just available, they're expected. Where you're nobody if you aren't packing a cell phone and a Visa Bucks card. Little wonder there's a serious outbreak of teen angst. Only this time, it's the teens' parents who are feeling forlorn and anxious.
Now, if you have been paying attention to the world for the past three or four decades, you'll note a couple of ironies here, starting with the fact that this generation of parents caused its own parental units — a pause here, please, in loving memory of the Coneheads — more than a fair share of headaches. More to the point, this was the generation that was so earnest about parenting its kids. (Indeed, they were the first to figure out “parent” could be used as a verb.) They waited until they were “financially ready” to conceive, pumped pre-birth Mozart into their wombs, and never let their new arrivals touch toys that weren't educational. More than anything, they made sure that the lines of communication were always open, so that their children would make “healthy choices.”
But lately, at least one Main Line mother wonders if that was always the best thing. “In a lot of ways, I think we've caused the problem,” she says. “We've given these kids so much.”
As it turns out, the generation that took the parenting plunge a couple of decades back really did have a fundamentally different approach to child-rearing from its parents. Partly out of necessity (two-career couples, increasingly hectic schedules) and partly by design (the notion that everything in a kid's life should be enriching), boomer parents more or less flip-flopped the way childhood had always been done. To oversimplify a bit: Things that were once left free and up to the kids — play, sports, spare time — became tightly structured and highly supervised, while adult things that previously involved at least some semblance of parental or cultural rules — dress, sex, spending money — became far looser. Mommy and Daddy honor your desire to dress like a $20 hooker, dear; just don't let it interfere with your Italian lessons or SAT prep course — you only get one shot at fourth grade.
The result is a generation of teens who are bright, articulate and savvy about the ways of the world, but who've been given the freedom — or even forced — to deal with things they're not quite ready for.
The most hot-button of those behaviors, clearly, is sex. As cable TV and the Internet have become integrated into our lives, the amount of sex out there to be seen and soaked up has grown exponentially. And not just in designed-to-provoke places like The O.C. or the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, but in more Middle American spots, too. A few years ago, JC Penney, of all companies, ran a commercial showing a teen girl in her room, wearing a pair of low-slung pants. “You can't go to school looking like that,” her mother says, shaking her head. At which point the mom walks over and tugs the pants down.
For parents, the effect of all this sexual noise has been a growing uneasiness. The reason Janet Jackson's “wardrobe malfunction” and Monday Night Football's TowelGate aroused such reactions wasn't that parents feared their kids would turn to stone if they saw a nipple or an ass cheek. It was aggravation that the sex line seems to keep moving, that no place is safe anymore. The feeling is a bit like trying to escape a smoker who just won't move. At a certain point, you want to turn around and snap, “Look, I don't care if you smoke, but would you please not do it near me?”
We know the impact of secondhand smoke. How about secondhand sex? Some speculate it's actually changed kids' bodies. “The age of puberty for girls used to be 12; now it's as early as eight,” says Sherie Saner, a psychologist at the Baldwin School. “The hormones in our food may have something to do with it. But some experts say that as we get exposed to more mature images, we start maturing earlier.”
Whether or not it's affecting their bodies, there's little doubt it has affected kids' brains. Parents and educators say they see girls being sexually aggressive at younger ages. Some might consider that a victory — teenage girls going toe-to-toe with boys on the horniness scale. The problem is, those girls seem to see themselves as merely sexual. Their cry isn't “I am woman, hear me roar.” It's “I am sex kitten, hear me purr.” Or perhaps it isn't really about sex at all. When it comes to oral sex, girls tend to be on the giving end, rarely on the receiving end.
No less heartbreaking is the fact that many teenagers have downloaded adult attitudes about love. Talk to teenage girls, and you'll hear some who sound world-weary about relationships they haven't even had yet. “Mostly, guys and girls are just friends,” says Amy, a 14-year-old from Phoenixville, when I ask about relations between the sexes at her school. “We don't really like to date. It just kind of messes things up.”
Sex, of course, is not the only area where teenagers have turned into cultural Mini-Me's. There is also the issue of money. One recent afternoon, I am on the phone with my friend Steve, who is talking about his 14-year-old stepdaughter, Rachel, a freshman at a local parochial school.
“By the age of 13 or 14, these kids can drop designer names,” he complains. “Rachel's grandmother just bought her a Prada purse. She shouldn't even know what that is.”
She does, though, in part because Prada — and the rest of corporate America — wants her to know. Sherie Saner says she recently did a fair amount of research on “tweens” and was astounded by what she found: “They are becoming the group that advertisers target the most, because all of their income is expendable, and they have a lot of it.” Teen Vogue might be ridiculous, but it isn't an accident.
But kids like Rachel also know from Prada and Kate Spade because parents (or at least relatives) have been willing to fund teen consumer culture — sometimes to an astounding degree. MTV's My Sweet Super 16 — a reality series chronicling the lavish birthday parties parents bankroll for their progeny — recently featured an episode about Hart, a junior at Episcopal Academy in Merion. (Hart is the son of caterer Peter Callahan and the stepson of clothing designer Josephine Sasso; their wedding was featured in Martha Stewart Living.) Near the end of the show, Peter revealed that the party, which was held in an Old City studio space and featured a bevy of dancers brought in from New York as eye candy, cost $250,000. And presumably that didn't include all the duds Josephine Sasso doled out to some of Hart's female friends, more or less as a bribe to get them to the party (which was competing with a school dance).
Not every parent is dropping a quarter mil on a birthday party, but there are plenty of other extravagant gifts being given to teens — including new breasts. “In some large metro areas — and I think Philadelphia is no different — we've seen breast augmentation surgery become a popular sweet 16 or high-school graduation gift,” says psychologist David Sarwer, of Penn's medical school. And why not, when one of the hot topics in pop culture is whether Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have had their boobs done.
If such lavishness makes you feel uncomfortable, you aren't alone. Some parents worry about not only excessive materialism, but also whether they've made life too easy for their kids. One mother, brought up in an old-school household where the kids did plenty of chores, says she views her daughter's job as being a student — and that's the reason she and her husband wash the dishes each night while her daughter “goes up supposedly to study. But whether she's studying or talking on the computer with her friends, I don't know.” What's more, the mother has lately started to realize that the activities her daughter has learned the most from are her summer job and teaching Sunday school, where there's a demand to accomplish something and to be accountable. She's grown the most, in other words, not when something's been given to her, but when something's been asked of her.
The other concern among parents is that consumerism has given kids a warped view of reality. And teens aren't the only ones whose vision gets clouded. Linda, an attorney who lives in Ardmore and whose two kids recently graduated from Harriton High, remembers traveling to one of her son's baseball games in Maryland. As she looked at the girls from the other school, she thought how unattractive they seemed compared to the natural beauties at her kids' school. But the longer she looked, the more she realized the Maryland kids were just normal teens; the Harriton girls' “natural beauty” was the result of a fortune spent on haircuts, makeup and clothes.
The Hooters girls never are quite as hot as you think, are they?
So where are the parents in all this? Actually, that's what some of their fellow parents would like to know. One of their biggest complaints is about grown-ups who, because they're either blissfully ignorant or too caught up in their own lives, simply don't give enough supervision to their offspring.
Allison, for example, has a rule: If Ethan is invited to another kid's house, she calls to make sure a parent will be around. Many are happy that she's interested. But not all. “I've had parents tell me, 'Oh, we may go to dinner for an hour or two, but we'll be here,'” says Allison. “'So really,' I tell them, 'you won't be there.'” Then there are those who get defensive, who insist their kids are trustworthy. “But it's not a question of trust; it's a question of supervision,” explains Allison. “We give our kids sex ed, and that's fine. But it doesn't teach you what to do in the passion of the moment, about what you might do if you have the opportunity.”
Of equal concern are parents who seem to have ceded power to their children. You see this manifested in two ways, starting with adults who have the “They're gonna do it anyway” philosophy. They let kids drink beer in their basement, so at least they'll be able to make sure they're not driving. They're free with contraceptives, so at least no one will end up pregnant. The intention is fine — “What we really want is for kids' decisions not to be life-altering,” says Steve Piltch, head of the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr — but the effect may not be. What signals are kids getting of what is and isn't okay to do? One of the hallmarks of this generation of parents — and educators — is that it tends to describe behavior as healthy or not healthy, appropriate or inappropriate, risky or not risky. Rarely is any action labeled simply, well, wrong.
“As a parent, the line you draw is often arbitrary and ridiculous, but you have to draw the line,” says Bucks County psychologist Michael J. Bradley, author of the acclaimed parenting book Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! “It's like the speed limit. We know people are going to exceed it by 10 or 15 miles an hour, but that doesn't mean we don't have one.”
Which brings us to John, another lawyer living on the Main Line, who has two sons. The oldest, a 17-year-old senior, is a bright kid (1300 on his SATs) who has driven his parents mad. He drinks, smokes pot, stole prescription pills, does whippits, and has had several drinking-related run-ins with the police. “He's very blatant about it,” John says of his son's behavior. “He leaves the beer bottles all over his room.”
To deal with the situation, John and his wife, who has a background in social work, have tried a variety of tactics, including a series of psychologists, and drugs for the son's diagnosed ADD. None of it seems to have made any difference. “When he goes to a counselor,” John says, “he becomes a Boy Scout and insists this is the norm — everybody in high school is doing this.” John also notes that while he and his wife have struggled with the issue of letting their son suffer the legal consequences of being arrested, in the end they've gone out of their way to get him off.
Now, I am in no position to judge John's abilities as a parent; for all I know, he and his wife have prevented something even worse from happening with their son. But as we talked, I couldn't help thinking about the wrath I would have felt from my own parents had I left beer bottles in my bedroom as a 17-year-old. One parent of a teen told me that she and her husband have come up with a standing rule: If it's illegal, you can't do it. How novel! It strikes me that many parents of this generation, a generation so uncomfortable with authority, have struck a deal with their children: You act a little more like adults, we'll act a little more like kids, and we can all meet happily in the middle somewhere, free from the traditional generational tension. Only that doesn't always work so well.
“To see your kid in a jail cell, screaming and cursing like he's a common drunk … ” John says when I ask what it was like the night his son was arrested. He gets quiet, searching for the right words. “Well, it's embarrassing, to say the least.” I got a feeling it was a lot more than that.
No wonder John and his wife are raising their 12-year-old differently: “With him, we're trying to squelch it before it starts. Whenever he starts with any talking back or attitude, we tell him, 'We're not taking it from you.' In a way, it's unfair. We're coming down hard on a kid who's a good kid.”
It will be worth it, though, if all that's piling up in his bedroom is laundry and Dr. Pepper cans. b