Stephanie Wright was not going to be made a fool. When her teenage son asked to be dropped off at the movies for the first time, she knew what was really up. "He'd meet his friends at the theater, and they'd sneak off somewhere to drink or make out or party or whatever," she says.
"I'd drop him off, say goodbye, then circle back," she told me over the phone, unmistakable delight crackling in her voice. "I was going to catch him in the act!"
It didn't quite go down like that. She circled back and watched as her son, Baxter, now 15, went inside the theater. Oh he's good, Wright thought. Really selling it. She circled again, but couldn't find him. Determined not to be outfoxed, she arrived for pickup 30 minutes early and kept a low profile.
This paranoid routine, Wright sheepishly admits, happened quite a few times over the years—more often than she cares to reveal. Through all her stakeouts, hideouts, and circle backs, she never once caught Baxter sneaking off to crush beers or smoke cigarettes. In fact, she never caught him doing anything remotely devious, dangerous, or destructive. To this day, Baxter has exhibited none of the behavior she believed—through living her own party-hard teenhood—he would naturally and enthusiastically engage in at his age. Finally, it dawned on her: Baxter was a good kid. A lame kid. His friends were, too. And Wright couldn't have been happier.
A new study, out last week from San Diego State University, suggests she's got a lot of company. "The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976–2016," and its accompanying book by one of the same authors, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, are both the result of an ocean of data that serves to prove just what their titles suggest, and what Wright had come to learn anecdotally: Teens are different now. The cig-smoking rebels, beer-swilling miscreants, and lip-locked lovers hiding under the bleachers have slowly been culled from their numbers. The liquor cabinet can safely be left unlocked. The car can remain parked in the garage undisturbed. Teens are "increasingly putting off traditional markers of adulthood," as the Washington Post put it.
The numbers in the study may be pretty eye opening to those who don't have their own lame teens—rates for drinking, sex, drug use, and most of the (for lack of a better term) societal expectations of teendom have fallen across the board over the past few decades. Baxter is certainly doing his part. He has never done drugs and has no interest in alcohol. "It's shocking. But also... great. Such a relief," says Wright.
The same is true of Kyle Gionis's son, Donovan (17), and Betsy Atkinson-Senter's daughter, Kate (16). It's true of Jenny Thompson's two stepdaughters, Isabel (17) and Emma (14), and she has no doubt it will remain so for her son Jack, who just turned 13. It's true of Aaron Belz's three teenagers—Eli (19), Natalie (18), and Amelia (15)—though he admits the boy had a brief thing with cigarettes.
Jackie Kerr-James's son, Daniel (15), doesn't want to smoke weed or—as his mother did when she was his age—feel the need to drink a case of beer on the beach and not make it home for the night. He'd rather watch Star Wars. The once-common stumbling blocks of teenhood never tripped up Bridget King's daughter, Caroline, now 21, and have yet to provide a challenge for her son, Jacob (17).
For these parents, this development is both wholly unexpected and completely welcomed. They're simply thrilled to death about their lame-ass teens.
"I completely expected drinking, huge parties, and broken curfews," says Atkinson-Senter. "Kate not only refuses to drink, she won't even go to a party if she knows there might be a chance there will be drugs."
"I expected nihilistic, self-destructive tendencies coupled with a hatred slash total disavowal of me and everything I stand for," says Gionis. "That was basically me when I was his age. But I have never seen any evidence in his behavior that would indicate he has any interest in drugs or alcohol or generally reckless behavior, so I never worry about that."
According to the SDSU study and iGen, the reasons these parents' expectations have gone unfulfilled are many, but most can reasonably be chalked up to the fact that we live longer now. As a result, life is slower—there's no rush to front load a life with adult pursuits before reaching actual adulthood. But it's also become a bit harder in some respects, and the ways in which it has have been (literally) sobering, say the parents, who believe the highly competitive nature of modern education plays a very significant role in their teens' focus. Add to that a perilous job market, and they say it's easy to understand why more teens are happy to walk the straight and narrow. They fear a slipup could do permanent damage. This high-wire stress act accounts for the "less happy" bit of iGen's subtitle.
"My teen and her friends are going to school in a very competitive academic world," says Atkinson-Senter. "They are leaning on every other extracurricular activity they can get involved in to help them stand out on a college résumé. Getting good grades no longer cuts it for getting into the school you want."
"In my day, you could bumble through practically any major in college and still get an OK job afterward," says Gionis, whose son plans on one day being an engineer. "That's just not the case anymore, and I think kids are aware of this. It's almost like they know they can't afford to fuck around. It's sad!"
Also: the internet. It has changed teen lives in ways both subtle and obvious. Because of it, teens know more, these parents say, and are simply more aware. They're connected and engaged to one another and the world at large through their phones. This dampens, slightly, the desire to go out, and can also account for growing scarcity among their ranks of carefree Spicoli-types. "You can't get pregnant or buy beer while you're sitting on the computer at home—not yet anyway," says Thompson.
"When I turned 16, the car was freedom," says Kerr-James. "I couldn't wait to get out of the house, go see friends. I'd volunteer to do the grocery shopping, so I could get out of the house and drive to the store. [My son] Daniel could take it or leave it. He doesn't need to leave. He can Facetime or Skype his friends. He knows what they're all doing through social media. He's not missing out on anything."
All three of Belz's teens are healthier, more sensitive, less angry, and aren't saddled with the self-loathing he remembers carrying when he was their age. "They just don't seem as troubled," he says. He and the other parents believe their teens are better off for it, not convinced of the notion that, by not fucking up or participating in these rites of teen passage, they'll miss out on some of life's bigger lessons or experiences.
"I messed up plenty," says Kerr-James. "I can teach him what I learned."
"Whoever wants their kid in trouble, has never had a kid in real trouble," says King. "I've helped many girlfriends with kids going through the worst possible things—heavy drug use, prison, pregnancy, shoplifting, fighting. My own children see friends and peers making the stupidest choices and then confide in me that they are so glad they're not in that same boat."
Wright made plenty of dumb choices in her teens too, she says. Her advice to Baxter about them: "Do better than I did. Make smarter choices." She's thrilled that, for now at least, he has, and doesn't believe the lessons she learned were worth the price paid. She's happy her son has opted out.
Belz agrees. "I don't believe kids need a wild phase to be well adjusted. If you can avoid being a teen mom—or going to rehab— avoid it," he says.
"Kids are in many ways more savvy now than we were," Gionis says, attempting to sum it all up. "Maybe they are lame. Or maybe we were just dumbasses."
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