"Let's stop hand-wringing over these self-obsessed, destructive, navel-gazing suburban punks ..." Salon readers sound off on Elliott Currie's book about the crisis of middle-class adolescence.

By Salon Staff
Published March 8, 2005 5:37PM (EST)

[Read "The Whatever Culture," by Corrie Pikul.]

Elliott Currie is correct: There are not enough support systems for families, and too many parents have no idea how to be a parent. I was fortunate; I had parents who knew what they were doing and were great role models -- as people and as parents. I told my children from an early age that I expected them to do their best, in school, as people, in life. And I was there to support them; sports, dance, music, plays, clubs, whatever they did, I got them there and showed up to applaud them.

As a parent I was often accused by other parents of demanding too much of my children; one mother offered to "take them in" because I pulled my daughter from a sport when she didn't live up the agreement we'd made about her participation.

Today my daughter is a teacher, something she has aspired to since childhood. My son is about to graduate from college. They both volunteer in their communities. The daughter of the woman who thought I was mean works at a car dealership.

--Kathleen Schultz

I'd love to tell my beloved, liberal Salon that I care about the sniveling, well-off teens Elliott Currie interviewed, but I don't. The only thing these kids are victims of is their own (and perhaps their parents') false expectations that they have the right to be blissfully happy 24/7.

People have children for whatever selfish reasons of their own, without caring that they're bloating our world with a commodity we need less of -- not more. The least parents could do is raise their children to understand that there are billions just like them, and they'll have to achieve to stand out. Unfortunately, parents have done exactly the opposite: Gen Y has been raised in an anti-reality vacuum. Everybody's a winner, everybody gets a trophy, even the preschoolers get a graduation ceremony, everybody's special, there are no such things as wrong answers, don't say no to them -- it hurts their widdle self-esteem. As always, once the kids are no longer small and cute, the truth dawns: You're not special, you can't have everything you want, there are no do-overs, and the weak members of the herd are culled by the lions. When you stumble, there are a billion others, bloodthirstily waiting to take your place. Life's tough.

Hell will freeze over before I'll volunteer to "aftercare" a bunch of violent wastoids who've flushed every advantage they've been given down the toilet, and I'd hope America's valuable, hardworking retirees don't cast their pearls before these swine, either. Older volunteers could get hurt, and no one, least of all their attackers, would care. In classic Gen Y style, parents would probably sue those same volunteers for defending themselves against attacks.

Let the kids fail. No, really. Let them perish with needles in their soft, milk-fed little arms, blaming their parents for it all, for not buying them camera phones, cars, manga DVDs or ponies. Let them drunkenly plow their mommies' SUVs into telephone poles in the wee hours of Saturday mornings, hemorrhaging as they blame their underpaid teachers for not meeting their insatiable needs for attention. Let the spoiled, miserable attention whores cut, burn and mutilate themselves to death because they're obsessed with boffing some boy. God forbid they read books once in a while, get hobbies, or consider the needs of someone besides themselves for a split second. We've got enough good humans in need; we don't need to waste our resources on the willful fuckups.

There are plenty of decent kids out there who chose not to ruin their bodies and lives with drugs and alcohol. Thoughtful, creative, observant kids, maybe the class nerds, maybe the children of immigrants, maybe the kids who have to share bedrooms with their siblings and don't have all the coolest toys. Let them inherit the world, and let's stop hand-wringing over these self-obsessed, destructive, navel-gazing suburban punks.

--Gaby Kaplan

I'm sure Elliott Currie's heart is in the right place, but I'm afraid he misses the boat by a substantial margin when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of the creepy malaise haunting today's white suburban teen. This malaise, ever-adapting and yet always the same, keeps pace with the rapid shifts in pop culture; I can remember when it manifested itself as innocently as hitchhiking and dope-smoking and cow-tipping.

For teens, the concept of what's "cool" is paramount in deciding how to act, whom to emulate, where to transgress. Cool is now defined by far more violent and infinitely less constructive role models than Jack Kerouac or Charlie Parker (they were both druggies, but at least they also created stuff, right?). The "new" sources (I'm sure I'm five years out of date) are Jackass and Internet porn and thrash metal and "Mortal Kombat" and "Grand Theft Auto," etc. Hey, generating sociopathic consumer teens is a billion-dollar branch of the military-industrial-entertainment complex!

A teen who says "I don't care" is simply affecting the most cardinal of cool poses; Currie's theory of "care-lessness" is quaintly (and bafflingly) pre-media -- almost 19th century. To think that Columbine (and the other performances put on by armed teens acting out their dreams of inhuman cool) could have been averted with some "good counseling" (talk talk talk) is naive and almost irritatingly out of touch.

You want to influence the consumer? It starts with the Content Provider, dude. I mean that in the largest sense.

--Shawn Casselle

I was fascinated by your article on "The Road to Whatever." I thought I was the only one who believed that teens these days lack a sense of sureness and importance in their own existence. I'm only 22 years old, but as a student teacher in an inner-city school and especially as a substitute teacher in a relatively affluent suburban high school, I have been privy to some of the worst of today's adolescents. I've seen gang fights, bulimia, drug use, cheating and latent racism. Though the schools I've had the privilege of working for have different kinds of problems, they all have the same underlying roots. Many teens feel overlooked, victimized and unloved.

While they are important, I hesitate to assign their feelings as much weight as the author does, however. I've no doubt the kids the author worked with were completely sincere with him about their feelings and frustrations. Heck, I remember expressing those same thoughts not too long ago when I was in high school. But I think maybe, just maybe, that much of what they said can be attributed to their limited understanding of the motivations of others. Looking back, my friends and I constantly felt harassed by our counselors and teachers and hectored by our parents. But most of us grew up -- or at least I did -- and now I see that the adults in my life weren't victimizing me. Most of the time, they acted in my best interest, even if I didn't understand at the time.

I think if Mr. Currie went back to talk to these youngsters five, 10, or even 15 years down the road, when they have had the opportunity to mature, or perhaps have children of their own, the results of his study would have a bit more perspective than they do now.

--Blanca Ramirez

I teach college at a state institution where I see a lot of middle- and upper-middle-class kids, and I have to say, this article couldn't be more dead on. Sure, I see some kids who come from supportive homes, but more and more of my students -- and remember, for the most part, these are kids who've made it to college -- have parents who pretty much gave them their walking papers when they turned 18, some even earlier than that.

Divorce and remarriage seem to factor in a lot here; I've talked to many students whose original families broke up fairly recently and they just don't feel comfortable -- or welcome -- when their parents remarry. And I would wager it's hard to feel welcome when your parents don't even have a bedroom for you. Moreover, this is also an issue in kids getting thrown out -- when there's a stepparent involved and no one's getting along, someone has to go.

As a result, many couples (especially girls) move in together far before they're ready to, just to have a place and a "family" to call their own, if only for a little while. When that relationship ends, they're on their own again and while they may crash on mom/stepdad's couch for a little while, that's not seen as a permanent solution. Instead, it leads to a string of forced cohabitation arrangements that aren't in anybody's -- least of all society's -- best interests.

There's a large segment of society out there for whom parental responsibility ends when the kids outgrow their Oshkoshes. I see these kids every day, marvel at their ability to cobble together productive lives for themselves, and worry about their future. They don't deserve this.

--Stephanie Vanderslice

Critics may have a problem with the lack of science in Elliott Currie's conclusions, summarized in Corrie Pikul's piece. But his conclusions connect with the findings that cognitive scientist George Lakoff discusses in his book "Moral Politics." Lakoff analyzes the Strict Father model (conservative) and the Nurturant Parent (liberal) model as part of the worldview of these two groups. He concludes that the Strict Father model, as applied to childrearing, has unintended negative results -- very close to what Currie has observed.

--Cheryl Stafford

Mr. Currie -- is it "selfish" for parents to try to stay in their home state when housing costs skyrocket? Part of the "whatever" problem is the economics of modern life -- with housing costs so high, both parents end up working far from home, leaving teenagers (and preteens) adrift without a guide. Nor can this be based solely on the culture of "shopping for happiness" -- aka spending more than we need to reward ourselves for all our hard work. Even a starter home in the distant suburbs (more than an hour from the city) in my state averages more than $380,000. In major metropolitan areas, if you want to have one parent staying at home, often the only real solution is to move somewhere cheaper, likely to another state, away from the critical child-friendly support network of family and friends.

Most of our friends who have kids live far out in the hinterlands where they can afford houses, adding hours to their dual commutes -- which cuts way back on their, and their kids', time with family and friends. [That lost time] could be a key support to giving children a sense of their place in a well-ordered society, rather than as charter members of the uncaring, "whatever" generation.

So, to Mr. Currie's barbs about selfish parents, I can only respond, "Whatever."

--Suzanne Lewis Ship

Thank you for reviewing Mr. Currie's book. It is always amazing to me the number of parents who hate -- yes, hate -- their children. There were six of us, all born in the "good old days" of the 1950s. Our parents didn't drink, smoke or curse; and they were always in church yammering about how wonderful Jesus was. They are also the most morally depraved people I have ever personally known.

Their poverty probably made their rage and anger worse. They were themselves the victims of neglect and brutal treatment at the hands of their parents. Mr. Currie's comment about parents throwing out their children really hit home. I left home at 17; my sisters were tossed out to fend for themselves before age 20. We have two suicides and more emotional damage than you can measure, but thankfully, none of us had children. The horror stopped with us.

I encourage Salon readers to read the book by Sarah Hrdy, "Mother Nature: Women, Infants, and Natural Selection." Perhaps we should just pay people not to have children?

--Moira Kelly

Elliott Currie's "The Road to Whatever" displays a resurgent social phenomenon that I like to call the Tom Wolfe Effect. Take one white male "anthropologist" (preferably beyond late middle age, at the very least), add a series of "interviews" with a limited number of teenagers whose "trust" he has managed to garner, throw in some sex and drugs, and get yet another alarmist version of the same story: the drama and crisis of the white middle-class adolescent (or college student). Parents everywhere look on in horror as they discover "the truth" about their children!!

To all that I say: Enough already. Elliott Currie joins a long line of uninformed alarmists trying to play up drama and crisis in white middle-class culture. (Perhaps because white people have stopped buying equally reductive books about working-class African-American boys?) If he's that concerned about the "Road to Whatever," he should do something about it -- something, preferably, that doesn't involve a book contract for a tired, rehashed treatise.

--Jacqui Shine

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