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Why Do Adults Hold Teenagers and Children in Such Low Esteem?

by Heidi Bright Parales

Photo illustration of father and son confrontationKids and teenagers are ruder and wilder and more irresponsible than ever before. This is the conclusion that could be drawn from a recent national study by a public policy research organization based in New York. The study, titled "Kids These Days: What Americans Really Think about the Next Generation," found a stunning level of antagonism not just toward teenagers but toward young children as well. Ninety percent of the respondents said youngsters have failed to learn values.

"Adults are not confused and they're not ambivalent," says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda, which conducted the study. "Instead, they're virtually riveted by the need to teach kids integrity, ethical behavior, respect and civility." Only 12 percent of the 2,000 adults surveyed said it was common for children to treat people with respect.

Are kids and teenagers really so bad these days? Several researchers at the University of Kentucky certainly believe these negative perceptions are understandable. One reason is that the role of children in society has changed significantly from previous generations, according to William Turner, associate professor of family studies. "Children are far more visible today," he says. "Children are assuming adult roles earlier than they used to."

In previous generations, children remained close to their families longer -- they worked on the farm, in their family business or in their neighborhoods. "There was far less contact between adults and children who were not their own," Turner says. "Today, however, more children are working and interacting with others away from their families or familiar environs. Adults encounter more children they don't know than in previous generations."

Because they interact with children and adolescents more, adults tend to see more aberrant behavior than they might have in earlier times, when adult-child interactions occurred less regularly, he explains.

At the same time, other social norms are in flux, Turner adds. "Whereas a generation ago children were likely to be encouraged to be polite, courteous, and respectful, especially toward adults, today messages from the significant adults in their lives are likely to emphasize self-respect, self-assertiveness and self-esteem. Children are constantly being reminded of the virtues of standing up for their rights and having positive self-esteem."

These messages often pose a conflict for young people who may not know where to draw the line between asserting themselves and respecting others, he says. "Whereas there is virtue in these self-respect messages, unfortunately, the messages extolling the importance of respecting others, especially those who are older, are often lost."

As general exposure between adults and children has increased, adults also receive more exposure to the aberrant behavior of some kids through the media, according to Turner. "Children are often presented as violent, dangerous and disrespectful toward adults."

In contrast, he says, TV shows in the '50s to the '80s tended to present kids in a more favorable light, and conflicts could be resolved in half an hour by all-wise parents and a little ingenuity. Consequently, adults often expect children to be like the Brady Bunch or the Huxtable Kids, and instead are confronted with latch-key youngsters having to raise themselves, or street gangs, teenage parents and drop-outs.

The news media also tend to report violent behavior more than in the past, Turner says. Landmark events such as children murdering their parents occurred in previous decades, but those events were far less likely to receive the barrage of media coverage they get today, he says. "Many of those events were kept quiet because those crimes were committed by juveniles. Today, these events are widely reported in the media, with one consequence being that adults characterize the whole generation of adolescents by the actions of a few," he says.

Professor of psychiatry Otto Kaak (pronounced "cake") agrees. "Adolescents who go on killing sprees--that gets widely covered," he says. "The media don't talk too much about the kid who got the scholarship; that doesn't seem to get much play."

Movies also affect cultural attitudes toward children. For example, "The Bad Seed" and other films where children embody evil can cause a negative attitude to become ingrained, says Kaak. "There seems to be some fascination with kids embodying evil. As popular as some of these films are, you have to think they have an impact on adult perceptions."

Overall, Kaak says, adults' negative perceptions may have to do with how they were brought up, and using that experience as a standard. "There have always been a few kids who don't do well. The problem comes when we overgeneralize that fact to the entire group."

Photo of William TurnerWilliam Turner says that one reason for adults' negative perceptions about adolescents these days is that in previous times crimes committed by juveniles were generally kept quiet.

Are these negative perceptions based on reality? Perhaps, though several UK researchers responding to this study hold some reservations.

One such reality is purely biological. Catherine Martin, an associate professor of psychiatry at UK does research on the risky behavior of teens. She says she believes if adolescents are irritable, they have plenty of reason to be.

"The biological changes an adolescent goes through aren't really appreciated or accommodated by adults," she says. A teenager's hormone secretion cycle, for example, is extremely active during the night, she explains, which causes teens to need more sleep, generally, than they get.

"Students at this age are undergoing very rapid changes in hormonal rhythms," Martin says. "For adolescents to be in school -- in class -- at 7:30 in the morning runs squarely against their biological clocks. Teens are the most sleep-deprived group in our society."

Apart from the physical changes of adolescence are the changes in the structure of our society in recent years, says Joanna Badagliacco, assistant professor of sociology. "I think children are facing different things than we have faced," she says.

One difference is access to more media. "This generation is far more influenced by change and what's available to them," she says. "We use the TV, videos and the Internet to baby-sit kids, and they see a lot of different things there that influence how they think they ought to behave, or what is 'cool.'"

Another new reality is that gangs, formerly thought to roam only in poor inner-cities, have become more visible now even in upper-income communities, says Turner. Along with the growing gang problem is the greater acceptability of drug use among kids, he adds. "In many instances now, the cool kids are the ones on drugs. There has been a change in the culture in general about this," he says.

Part of this might be due to the fact that many of the parents of these kids smoked pot themselves when they were adolescents in the '60s and '70s, he says. Some parents now have a conflict about what message to give their kids about drugs, especially if they have continued to use drugs on a "recreational" basis. The children say to them, "You did it then, and you're still doing it. So, why can't I?"

Even if the parents don't use drugs now, the messages might be the same. Parents who bought into the hippie philosophy may have experimented with free love and free thinking, and many of them passed along these values to their children -- that they should express themselves, not be conventional, look for new and different experiences. "I especially see this in highly educated people who value independence and free thinking," Turner says. "Some of their choices in raising their children had consequences unforeseen by the parents."

Another consequence of teaching children to stand up for themselves is their greater aggressiveness, says Turner. Along with this is a growing reluctance among adults to attempt to correct negative behavior in others' children. "Before, adults would correct others' children, and the children's parents would thank them for doing it," Turner says. "Now, children are more savvy -- they know the other adult can be accused of child abuse."

According to the Public Agenda report, only 33 percent of Americans feel very comfortable telling a neighbor her child had gotten into mischief. One California respondent said, "Now if I go out there to say something to somebody else's kid, I may get cursed."

One of the biggest structural changes in this generation is the growth in single-parent households and families in which both parents work outside the home. Children are more often left to navigate much of life on their own, says Badagliacco. Turner agrees. "Parents are very busy with their jobs and often work on weekends," he says. "Many families rush through homework and dinner, and then it's time for bed." This lack of parental time has contributed to a reduction in children's participation in activities that teach values, such as scouts and the "Y."

Badagliacco addressed other current economic realities of life by adding that the United States is the only first-world country that doesn't put sufficient money into taking care of young children, making life a greater hardship for many families than it could be.

Photo of Otto Kaak"Adults thinking about children like this is really nothing new. Since Plato's time--or maybe before--adults have generally thought the next generation is terrible, that they have no respect for their elders, that they're going to pull us down." --Otto Kaak

Another economic reality is the hopelessness faced by children in the inner cities, she says. "Finish high school to work for minimum wage?" she asks rhetorically. "They don't have any hope for surviving well, and we don't give them the opportunities."

Turner sums up the reality behind the negative perceptions: "Our culture is much more violent and there are much greater consequences than in the past," he says.

But perhaps the old cliche rings true: The more things change, the more they remain the same. According to Kaak, "Adults thinking about children like this is really nothing new. Since Plato's time--or maybe before--adults have generally thought the next generation is terrible, that they have no respect for their elders, that they're going to pull us down."

Badagliacco adds, "It is a major myth that there was a time in the past when the family unit was just fine, and now the next generation is causing the break-up of society. Every generation has thought the next generation had problems, and today the adults see the children as disrespectful, lazy and living by different values."

Turner agrees. "I'm not so sure it's tremendously different from times in the past," he says. "Generation X is portrayed as having no real values, causes or beliefs. It's called the Me Generation because they are considered selfish, without a social consciousness.

"But when I talk to them, I find diversity, and I find many are passionate about many things. We're living in a time when there is no great cause to rally around, like the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam. There is nothing so unifying or dramatic. We don't know how to label them, and this leads to some of the negative perceptions about them.

"Every generation has some negative thinking toward its adolescents," he continues. "Parents have always been concerned about the next generation, though perhaps not to the same extent as now. Adolescents are trying to find themselves, establish their own identity. In the process, they often reject the values taught to them. But there is evidence that most come back to their parents' values as they mature."

Kaak supports this claim, citing a study on the younger generation's values conducted by Daniel Offer at Northwestern University. This study found that adults' perceptions that children and adolescents have a very different "code of value" are incorrect. In this Chicago-based study, Offer found that about 80 percent of the group they surveyed has pretty much the same values as their parents. "This work has been replicated by others," Kaak says.

Perhaps the negative perceptions of adults are based more on fear than reality, suggests Badagliacco. "As baby boomers are getting older, they are becoming more fearful about who will take care of them when they no longer can take care of themselves," she says. "Many adults now find themselves a sandwich generation, taking care of both their parents and their own children. If teenagers are rejecting our values, and not acting the way we expect them to, will they help their parents when they need them to? Those are serious fears for aging Americans because we don't have societal custodial care."

Photo of Joanna Badagliacco"It is a major myth that there was a time in the past when the family unit was just fine, and now the next generation is causing the breakup of society," says Joanna Badagliacco.

The issue of socialization also comes into play, Badagliacco says. Children are not isolated -- once they start to watch TV and go to preschool, they are socialized by other influences. This continues as they enter churches, schools and are more exposed to the media.

According to the study, there also is a tendency for adults to blame schools for the moral problems of children. The public wants the schools to supplement and reinforce values that parents should supply. However, many adults in the study pointed out that the social environment tolerated at school undermines what parents are trying to teach their children at home.

Badagliacco points out the problem here is that parents are willing to blame the schools but don't go in to assist the teachers or support tax increases for schools. In addition, she asks, "Why don't we pay teachers well?"

Overall, says Badagliacco, "This country really needs to see children as a public asset, a group we should nurture and assist. Not everyone is willing to do this."

Turner adds, "I think families and schools have to work much better together if we're going to see changes. I think as a society we have to reassess our values and decide what's important to us."