Holt Uncensored

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by Pat Holt

Friday, June 7, 2002


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Here we are again in the lecture hall at a California middle-school. Now it's the day after Laura Sessions Stepp has asked a hundred 8th and 9th graders about the pressures they feel as teenagers in the modern age (not her term - see #324).

But today these same seats that rise steeply from the lectern area are being filled with the kids' parents, most of them in their mid-40s and 50s, most of them white, about 40% dads and 60% moms - and all of them signed up for a full day's seminar about education and their kids.

Laura is the keynote speaker for the day, and having read her book, "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence," I assume she's going to start with a humorous anecdote about her own son, Jeff.

This is the story that begins the book and one that Laura, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, has used many times to break the ice and get everybody comfortable at conferences like this.

The anecdote is about the time Laura and Jeff, then 11, spent a day off together boating around Lake Occoquan in Northern Virginia. There Jeff had amazed Laura "as he lugged a 30-pound motor down to the shore and attached it to a small skiff ... [and] steered us in and out of narrow inlets as we marveled at the fall foliage and the great blue herons."

The afternoon still young, mother and son played 18 holes of miniature golf, bought pumpkins and apples on the way home and talked candidly "about kickboxing and television commercials and the ups and downs of friendship."

At the end of this "perfect" day for both, Jeff walked into the house and headed for his computer to play a game of "Red Alert." When Laura stopped him with the call, "Homework first!" he wheeled on her.

(As Laura recalls it, "Kaboom. You would have thought I had asked him to hug me in public.")

"Why don't I ever get to decide things for myself?" he yelled. "You're always telling me what to do!" An argument began, then escalated quickly out of control. Finally, Jeff "swept past, leaving me with this: 'I hope you know how much I hate you right now.' "

Laura was stunned. "Only a few hours earlier he had been piloting our boat with the assurance of someone twice his age. Now he had morphed into an angry toddler. One minute I was a hero, the next, a villain. I was confused. Was he becoming an adolescent? Please God, not yet. I wasn't ready for *that*."

Laura tells me later that the reason she decided not to start her lecture to the parents with this anecdote (she puts it in the middle, where it gets a big though slightly pained laugh) is because "for one thing, Jeff *hates* it now, but more than that I got tired of that story - it wasn't as relevant or timely any more."

So she starts her lecture this way:

"When Patricia Johnson heard the explosion of the second World Trade Tower on September 11, she began running from her office on nearby Church Street in lower Manhattan and did not stop until she had reached her daughter's intermediate school on West 77th Street, more than six miles north. She found her daughter Tiffany in a classroom and held her close for a very long time.

"We all felt that urge that Tuesday, a primordial compulsion to collect our babies and slip into our caves and never come out again. I know I still feel that way, and my baby is 17."

She goes on to say that even though parents know "we have to get on with our lives and allow our children to get on with theirs," the questions every family faces as they watch their kids "take another step away from us with each month, each year" have become more urgent and profound.

Today in particular, Laura asks the audience, "what can we give them so they will feel empowered to fight whatever monsters they may encounter, imagined or real? What do they need in that particularly stressful time known as adolescence *besides* our love and legs strong enough to run six miles to find them?"

Sitting there among the parents, I find myself watching Laura and thinking what a great gift every Author Who Lectures brings to audiences. It's the ability to zero in and bring to life the essential message that's often buried in the book, so that people who don't consider themselves readers or who might buy it but never read it can come away with a fresh approach or new plan they can put into practice the instant they walk out the door.

In this case Laura brings out the kinds of questions parents ask themselves every day yet too often don't find the time to articulate. For example: What do kids need in adolescence when, like Jeff, they're simultaneously clinging to parents and pulling away? When they're acting like mature adults and dependent children at the same time?

Among the many answers Laura mentions is the fact that adolescents are uniquely affected by the negative ideas and images that surround us all. For one thing, the media are out to exploit and sensationalize them (she mentions the cover story in Time magazine after the Columbine shoot-out called "Kid Killers").

But you can imagine the reaction when she states that a severe negative feeling often comes from parents themselves. Yesterday, she tells them (as reported in #324), when she asked what they thought a few years ago about the word "teenager," their kids responded with positivism and hope. ("Cool!" "More privileges!" "More responsibility!" "Being taller!" "Being an individual!").

But when she asked the kids what words their parents used when they heard the word "teenager," the response was negative and full of dread ("Trouble!" "Rowdy!" "Moody!" "Pain!" "Alien!" "Terror!" "Dangerous!") Even Laura, in the anecdote above, uttered many a parent's cry, "Please God, not yet. I wasn't ready for *that*."

How negative is the teenager's world of today? Laura's speech lists a few examples:

  • The conventional wisdom in the media is that focusing on positive stories about teenagers won't sell magazines or newspapers. It's not just "Killer Kids" that attract readers, the thinking goes, but stories ranging from low test scores to teens dumping babies in dumpsters or, better still, offing themselves (not Laura's term). Even grown-ups (whoever they are) aren't subjected to such wholesale stigmatization.

  • At a time when early adolescents are more than willing to take on new responsibilities, modern society in all its protective rules and laws has taken away the kinds of jobs that used to be offered to kids under 16.

  • Low expectations can be crippling. "Well-off parents in particular seem to assume their kids cannot do more than the schoolwork, sports and music lessons in which their kids are already involved," Laura notes.

  • "The age at which kids first take unhealthy risks is getting younger. Small numbers of 7th and 8th graders in this country are engaging in oral sex, drinking beer, even ingesting the drug dujour, Ecstacy." These "small numbers" dominate the talk in schools and social environments, inviting the kind of negative coverage the media believes generates higher ratings and sales of publications.

  • Finally, criticism from parents can have its own negative effect. As students in yesterday's assembly said to Laura, "Tell [our parents] that a B is not the same thing as an F." When the audience hears this, a low but audible groan fills the auditorium.

But that world of negativity has little to do with the effect parents can have on their kids, Laura says. "We learn nothing if we focus only on kids as problems. Our kids are not problems. They are priorities. We must ask ourselves not only what is *not* working in our families, but also, what *is* working. We must look for and build on the best in our kids, while being alert for the worst. We can learn from the normal many, as well as the abnormal few."

It's a point that's obvious to everyone but not often applied in practical ways: "We don't want our kids *just* to avoid drugs, alcohol and early sex," she says. "We want also to encourage the positive - to love Steinbeck and play a Steinway; marry well and make life better in their community. We want to let them know that there is always hope, and we certainly don't do that by focusing only on problems, potential or real."

It's an issue Laura says is of universal interest among parents because the preteen and teenage years of 10 to 15, are the "make-or-break" years, according to the latest research. "The early adolescent years are certainly not our last shot at making a difference," she says, "But they are our last *best* shot."

To demonstrate this, she screens a film for this predominantly white audience about the 12 adolescents whose lives she features in "Our Last Best Shot." And what an eye-opener it is. African American, Latino and Caucasian kids are seen growing before our eyes in the year Laura spent observing, talking and living with each of them.

We see how true it is - as every parent knows - that "their bodies are growing and changing at a faster pace than they ever will again." But so, despite the occasions they seem to walk around like zombies, are their brains, which grow faster, too, says Laura, than they ever will again.

And although the families in this film have different socio-economic backgrounds, different educational levels and different racial experiences, "the interventions that parents succeed with, as well as the mistakes they make, are strikingly similar," Laura says. "Good parenting looks the same in all neighborhoods and all families. So does bad parenting."

All her research has led to this terrific affirmation for parents, especially those who feel helpless raising "problem" kids:

"Rather than think you're not up to the task, ask yourself, in what ways are you a good parent *already*? Do more of that. And in what ways are you confusing your kids? Make some changes there. When you think about it, an amazing number of developing character traits are simply two sides of the same coin - is she bossy, or a natural leader? Is he a dawdler, or easy going? Mouthy, or expressive? Which side gets the polish is up to us."

At the end of the speech, Laura asks, "Can anyone tell me who the following kids were: David Brandhorst, Bernard Brown, Asia Cottom, Rodney Dickens, Dana and Zoe Falkenberg, Christine Hanson and Juliana Valentine McCourt?"

A dozen parents know immediately. "Yes, those were the boys and girls, ages 3 to 11, who died in the air on September 11. Their parents can't run six miles to find them now, and no longer have the opportunity to rethink how they're raising them. But we have that chance with our children."

I've described Laura's talks at this middle school at length because she impresses me as typical of midlist authors who are able to keep their books alive by finding and speaking directly to target audiences all over the country.

Cynics might say that Laura is simply exploiting the good luck of being considered an authority in her field: She gets all expenses paid plus an honorarium; she benefits from a local bookstore selling a hundred or so of her books after the lecture; her talk with students the day before gets the kids excited - they talk about it at home with their parents, who are thus further motivated to attend the keynote address the next day and buy her book.

But watching Laura get herself revved up to speak to these crowds, rewrite her speech to suit each audience and the issues of the times and offer the essence of her book in ways each parent can use immediately upon leaving the conference, I'm further amazed by how much work and time it takes to keep a book selling these days.

Maybe this whole column is a plea to return to the backlist approach of selling books: Long after publishers have gone on to other lists, and long after the media have reviewed and featured these books, booksellers are still directing customers to the appropriate shelf, readers are still spreading word-of-mouth, teachers and librarians are still considering these titles and authors are still speaking to potential readers in ways that may, as in Laura's case, be life-altering.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I loved the Part I article on Laura Stepp. As a psychotherapist, this sentence stood out for me: "And the questions they carry with them into their teens - am I loved and loving; am I 'normal,' am I competent - do not vary."

Those questions, if not answered, can be carried lifelong. I see adults every day in my office who are still asking them way past 40.

Tina B. Tessina, LMFT, PhD

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