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In fact, American adults think they're hateful little buggers, says a new survey.

By Lori Leibovich

Published July 11, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

everything for the children. From Hillary Rodham "It Takes A Village" Clinton on down, all adults seem to care about is the children. We berate ourselves, as a recent rash of books has noticed, on not spending enough time with them. Politicians don't just kiss babies anymore; they litter their speeches with what they will do, and what their opponents won't do, for America's children.

Actually, this might all be a giant myth. According to a new survey, we don't really like our children all that much. In fact, we are so negatively disposed toward them that little more than a third of American adults think American kids will make the world a better place in which to live.

The telephone survey of 2,000 adults, called "Kids These Days: What Americans Really Think About the Next Generation," found that adults are even becoming fearful of preteens, children ages 5-12. They also blame parents for what they regard as American kids' spiritual and moral bankruptcy.

Salon spoke with Jane Johnson of Public Agenda, the New York organization that conducted the survey, about why adults have little hope for the next generation.

Why does the older generation distrust and dislike the younger generation so much?

They believe the younger generation is in crisis -- a crisis of learning right from wrong, of learning discipline and responsibility, respect -- the kinds of values that Americans are convinced make the country a better place. They see a crisis of conscience among the nation's young people.

Haven't adults always thought teenagers have had a crisis of conscience?

Yes, and we were not so surprised to find that people had some negative things to say about teenagers. We were far more surprised when we asked about children ages 5 to 12. About half of the people had negative adjectives for those kids -- they're spoiled, they're demanding, they're not polite in public. That was more surprising.

Did the people you talked to know any kids? You weren't just going to old age homes and talking to cranky geezers?

In the study we distinguished between people who don't see young kids or teenagers very often and people who have regular, daily contact with youngsters -- through a church group or because they have kids of their own. And we found that the views and judgments of the people who have a lot of contact with youngsters was not significantly different from that of the general public.

What specific images did your survey group have of young people?

Through our focus groups the image that came up a lot is of teenagers with a lot of time on their hands, hanging around, and eventually getting into trouble. One in five of them said they routinely, virtually every day, encountered gangs in school or in their neighborhood.

Your survey also found that adults were fearful for young people, as well as of them.

There was enormous fear for these young people. Eight in 10 of the people we surveyed said it is much harder to be a young person these days. They felt that it is very, very easy for a young person to lose their way these days and get into something that was really going to destroy their lives. There is also the fear of young people getting into such trouble they become a danger to society, and that the world is a much more dangerous place for these young kids. The ease of getting drugs, the fact that the gangs and the violence seem to be in virtually every neighborhood. Even in the most posh suburban neighborhoods, parents and adults were concerned about these things. Disputes used to be settled with a fistfight, now they are settled with a gun.

And they blame parents for teenage immorality.

Yes. They admit that it is harder to be a parent, but they still blame parents.

Did your group suggest any solutions?

When asked, they immediately leapt to improving the public schools. They say that the schools have the kids for 12 years and they should do a better job, not only in teaching academics but reinforcing the values of honesty, of responsibility, of keeping your word, of being fair in dealing with other people, of respecting others.

What about the government? Did they think it should do more for kids' health-care and child-care programs?

No. They sense that the crisis is a moral one and that government programs don't really address morality. Some government programs, particularly welfare, have, in their mind, a track record of doing evil, not good. People hear about terrible crimes committed by very young people. It frightens them and appalls them and it leads them to this kind of thinking. Minority parents were much more concerned about a lack of good programs in the community for the young people.

Instead of just complaining about young people, did any of the adults you spoke to want to do something to help young people, like volunteer?

Even though large numbers of people said volunteering is a good thing, fewer than four in 10 do it on a regular basis. We found, actually, that a lot of adults voiced concern about whether they would be well-received, whether the people they were helping would be grateful for the help.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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