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Freedom: For Adults Only

From Youth Today, November 2002, Vol. 11, No. 9

By Mike Males

In recent visits to Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and Ecuador, I saw adolescents routinely behaving in ways that would horrify American experts:

Ontario 18-year-olds queued in liquor stores and drank in pubs alongside elders;

teens in Quito, Riobamba and San Jose thronged to late-night discos;

unchaperoned Ensenada middle-schoolers strolled hand-in-hand along downtown streets at midnight after emerging from unrated movies; and

Latin American cybercafe (often managed by teens or children) overflowed with unsupervised youths clicking unfiltered computers.

Laughed a Mountie when I asked if Toronto had a youth curfew, "Maybe for 6-year-olds."

By American expert thinking, European, Canadian and Latin American adolescents should be developmentally damaged alcoholic felons. American experts rarely let reality affect dogma.

Returning to the United States requires readjustment to our depressing anti-youth phobias: ugly headlines in Houston (425 teens arrested for "hanging out") and California (where officials hope classical music will drive youths from downtown Davis). Age-limit signs constantly reminding adolescents they're too infantile for adult maturities like booze and porn flicks.

And in America's latest institutional conformities, the Prevention Researcher's Alcohol and Teens and the Packard Foundation's Children, Youth and Gun Violence both recycle decades-old conventionalities and push more "messages" and "access" clampdowns on youth.

Yes, I was back in freedom-loving America, whose anti-youth repressions - mass curfews, media censorship, punitive drinking ages, constant suspicion, groundless policing, violent punishments, compulsory drug- testing - occur nowhere else in such malicious totality.

Where Public Agenda surveys find that two-thirds of American adults display "stunning hostility" against kids; whose crime authorities warn that more teens in the population means more crime; where the Supreme Court ruled that children suspected of no wrongdoing must urinate in front of drug testers.

Where leaders refuse to sign the modest United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, endorsed by all other nations; and where politicians excuse their own drug use but slam eighth-graders with lifelong punishments for lesser indiscretions.

Why does America fear and suppress its young like no other modern (or even semi-modern) society? Perhaps because other affluent nations are homogeneous.

Minority races comprise tiny fractions of the populations of Japan (1 percent), Germany and Sweden (2 percent), Holland and France (3 percent), and the United Kingdom (4 percent). Europeans invest in their young because the kids look like the adults.

In contrast, the U.S. is racially diverse (31 percent minority), especially among younger ages. In California, 60 percent of those over age 40 are white, while 60 percent under age 25 are black, Hispanic or Asian. We fear young people because, increasingly, they don't look like the adults.

Are grownups really that primitive? If someone can better explain why no other country habitually demeans, psychiatrically drugs, drug-tests, curfews, legally beats, banishes, imprisons and even executes their youths as Americans do, I'm all ears.

Challenging this theory is the fact that our Latin American neighbors are even more racially diverse: Mexico (40 percent minority), Colombia (42 percent), Ecuador and Brazil (45 percent). Yet, Latin Americans don't seem terrified of their kids and are far less officially repressive. As in Europe, Latin teens are treated pretty much like adults.

American youth advocates endlessly denigrate our youths for not acting like European youths. Yet, these same advocates don't criticize American politicians for not emulating European governments' robust social insurance, health care, adult self-discipline and youth rights traditions. Culturally, America isn't Europe, they whine. True. So stop comparing our kids with theirs.

Instead, consider multicultural models. Ecuador, South America's poorest nation, is staggeringly diverse, with large Amerindian, European, African and mixed-race populations. Yet in the past 40 years, Ecuador's birth statistics reveal enormous fertility declines among all ages. Teen birth rates have fallen 70 percent since the 1950s and are now below U.S. rates. How did Ecuadorian youths - much poorer, less served by health and sex-ed programs, and unsupervised by curfews, drinking ages and similar "protections" - reduce births while U.S. "teen pregnancy prevention" fails?

As America belligerently hectors the globe on liberty and morality, perhaps we should consider why the Land of the Free is the world's most amoral dictatorship toward its young people.

Mike Males, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice senior researcher, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Contact:

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