the lost children of rockdale county
Adrift in America Michael D. Resnick, Ph.D. is a sociologist and professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, and director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center.
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It's hard to view a story that is so starkly told. It certainly wasn't clear who was the more lost: the children, or the parents of Rockdale county. It should be said from the outset that this story does not tell us about all of our children. It does not tell us about all parents. Yet....this depiction of adolescents, their parents, their community resonates beyond the limited portrait of a single setting. There are messages in here for all of us who work with and on behalf of young people, and who love and care about kids.
That this portrait of going to extremes is not an isolated incident is shown in the repetitions of the next generation - the young girls and boys who themselves are already enacting the empty dramas of adolescents but a few years older than themselves. We heard a lot about emptiness. Houses that were empty and devoid of supervision, adult presence, oversight. There was for far too many of the adolescents a fundamental emptiness of purpose; a sense that they were not needed, not connected to adults, to tasks, to anything meaningful other than the raw and relentless pursuit of pleasure. And what empty pleasure- seeking it was. On reflection, so many of the girls indicated that they were feeling that emptiness, and one suspects that had one dug just a bit deeper, many of the boys would have reflected similar sentiment. Back in 1970 in his now classic book The Pursuit of Loneliness, sociologist Phillip Slater spoke of American culture at the breaking point, and one that willingly, senselessly embraced alienation and disconnection. That drama was played out with such pathos in the lives of these adolescents who were driven to extremes of self-destuctive behavior by a very normal and healthy need, the need to belong. Bereft of meaningful expectations, responsibilities, healthy options for recreation and entertainment, and with a notable absence of adults who were capable of being adults and active, involved parents, these young people turned to the basest of impulses within and among themselves, with startling and pathetic results. What our research is showing--indeed what the research of many colleagues who focus on risky behaviors and protective factors in the lives of young people has shown--is that parents, families and adults outside of the family are fundamentally important to the healthy development of youth. It would seem that some parents in America embrace the myth that once their sons and daughters make it past childhood into adolescence, what they, the parents, say or do or hope or believe is no longer relevant. Granted, many adolescents are very skillful at telling us, as adults, that we have become irrelevant in their lives. And WE make the mistake of beliving that! What is clear from the national studies of adolescent health and resilience is that caring and competent adults who recognize, value and reward pro-social behavior in young people can have a profound effect on what adolescents value and believe, about themselves and the world around them.

But the impact of connections in the lives of adolescents does not stop at the borders of family. Indeed, we understand that adolesents who feel closely connected to their schools, are adolescents who are emotionally healthier, and far less likely to engage in risky behavior than their counterparts who feel no sense of community in their school - where school is not functioning, in the words of sociologist Roberta Simmons, as "an arena of comfort". Without question it is the formation of friendship networks within the school that help to provide that sense of community, along with the perception that teachers care, that teachers are fair, and that school is a place where one 'belongs.'

That this portrait of going to extremes is not an isolated incident is shown in the repetitions of the next generation - the young girls and boys who themselves are already enacting the empty dramas of adolescents but a few years older than themselves.

But none of this is inevitable. Adolescents' quest for independence and the desire to immerse themselves in the blended identity of a peer group does not automatically consign anyone to a whirlwind of self-destruction. Most appealing about this piece of journalism is its call to self-examination by parents, by adolescents, by a wide range of players involved with kids. Rather than resignation or despair, the underlying take-away message must be one that assures that there is always something that can be done. It requires our attention, our energy, and our care - and these very human elements are what truly make a difference in the healthy development of our children, in Rockdale and throughout the world.

Michael D. Resnick, Ph.D. is a sociologist and professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, and director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center. The Center is devoted to conducting and disseminating research and information on best practices, programs, and policies that prevent pregnancy among adolescents, and promote the healthy development of youth. Resnick has particular interest in the study of risk, resiliency and protective factors in the lives of youth, and how that research can be used in programs, policies and practices with and on behalf of youth.

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