Published in the February 20, 2006 edition of the Ventura County Star
"I know I'm not supposed to say this," she sobbed, her tears tracing channels down her carefully powdered cheeks, "but I simply don't deserve a rotten kid like this."
It's the ultimate parental nightmare. Your formerly affectionate child, who only a few years ago counted you as his or her "hero," is seemingly transformed, overnight, into a defiant, hostile-to-the-max, delinquent.
These days, not only do money and valuables turn up missing but you can't be sure that your offspring, with plummeting grades and a record of truancy, will even graduate from high school. You stuff down your frustration, however, in hopes of avoiding but another out-of-control shriek-athon.
So, what are your options?
For parents who can pony up the$3,000-$5,000 monthly tuition, there are residential rehab programs, also known as "behavior modification centers," "wilderness programs" or "emotional growth boarding schools." Seduced by the claim that "brat camps" offer a safer alternative to America's "mean streets," where 1.5 million teens end up each year, some 10,000 to 20,000 parents submit their kids to controversial confrontational therapy, delivered without federal oversight, in isolated locales.
A recent Justice Department report, which compared residential programs with traditional correctional facilities for juvenile offenders, concluded that neither "is more effective in reducing recidivism." In late 2004, the National Institutes of Health maintained that "get tough" treatments "do not work and there is some evidence that they may make the problem worse."
Another pricey but sans any-sort-of-guarantee option is professional counseling. Don't expect, however, the psychiatrist or psychologist specializing in adolescent behavior problems to become a surrogate parent to your kid---not even for $200-$300 an hour. The shrink will simply coax you into encouraging independent thinking, validating feelings, and communicating without making personal attacks, withdrawing love, or inducing guilt. What finally dawns on most therapy alumni is there is no shortcut to parenting---you simply have to put in the time.
So, how about a solution that costs a paltry $12.95? Jose M. de Olivares serves up an uncomplicated three-point "Streetwise Strategy" in his 146-page"Bring Them Back Alive" manual, that both parents and teens can read.
De Olivares, who shaped national youth policy for 24 years as a regional director of the Job Corps, contends that any teenager who breaks the law is, in essence, choosing "the street" over mainstream society, even if he or she remains comfortably ensconced in a bedroom equipped with TV, computer, and X-Box.
For four decades, de Olivares has helped teenagers straighten out their lives by pulling no punches. He advises that there is no future as a lawbreaker---"You get what you need and want and hold on to it any way you can, one day at a time, for as long as you can," but ultimately you "will end up dead or in jail."
Furthermore, de Olivares, who has also worked in law enforcement and drug treatment, points out that teens who fail to operate within mainstream limits, can't expect to be protected by police, who, in fact, become but another adversary to avoid. The street kid, whichever side of the tracks he or she calls "home," dwells in a brutal world without trust, compassion, or escape.
What is especially compelling about de Olivares' approach is his strategy of offering teens a choice: either navigate through an unsympathetic criminal justice system or agree to a positive non-punishment selected to "make things right." Those who opt for the latter not only find themselves growing a behavior-altering conscience but also increasing the odds of securing a permanent place in the mainstream, where, as de Olivares succinctly puts it, "you can keep what you get."
Finally, de Olivares assists young people in redirecting the talents and/or attitudes that landed them into trouble in the first place. De Olivares is a former gang member who eventually stumbled upon a victim he couldn't intimidate. Robbie, a natural born athlete possessing maturity beyond his tender years, was able to perceive a level of physical prowess and courage behind de Olivares' posturing that could pay off for him on the football field. Robbie's gutsy "I dare you" not only propelled de Oliveres into trying out for the team but turned the author's life around as well.
Sixty years ago, public school teachers rated talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls and cutting in line as the chief disciplinary problems they faced. A recent poll, however, reports a very different "Top Five"---illegal substance abuse, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault.
This might be the precise time to once again ponder the words of J. B. Priestley: "Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves."