For example, the murder rate
among 14-17 year-olds
increased 165% in the last ten years. Every day 135,000 children take
guns to school in this country. 70% of the 12-13 year-olds know someone
their own age who: drinks, 44%; does drugs, 33%; has a gun, 29%; has
been to jail, 27%; who has a child or is pregnant, 20%; who has been
sexually abused, 12%. Those are the statistics of 12-13 year-old
children in this country some of whose peers fall in those categories.
Since 1950, the number of
American children living in mother-only
families has quadrupled, from five million to nearly twenty million.
Since 1970, the number of single parents has tripled, from about four
million to twelve million. About 26% of households with children under
18 now have only a mother at home, and another 4% have only a father.
The percentage of first births to American teenagers— teenagers who
have their first child—that occur out of wed－lock has increased over 30
years from 33% to 81%. The percentage of teenage first-time mothers in
America nearly equals that percentage in Jordan, the Philippines, and
Thailand combined. One out of every six children in America is a
stepchild. One out of every eleven adults is divorced, three times that
proportion in 1970.
In the 1970's I did, in fact,
work with this population. I worked with
children and families at risk. These were children who were adrift and
in trouble with the police and the courts; they were involved in drugs,
gangs, violence, and truancy; they had been sexually abused, and they
were sexually abusing. These were products of neglect and
underparenting. In the 1970's, I worked in the Central Valley of
California with exactly this population. Now I read the statistics to
find that most of these have tripled or quadrupled since the 1970's, so
I can't imagine what it would be like now.
But now, I work at the other end
of the spectrum with young people
surrounded by privilege, prestige, a material and a social cornucopia.
They wear the best clothes, attend the best schools, and live in the
best communities. These are the honored and the elite. They are
products of excess and overparenting. It is the trouble these youths
face that I would like to call attention to today.
I have to say that I feel
somewhat uncomfortable speaking for this age
group, because obviously I am of a different generation. However, since
they themselves often find it hard to put their words—their
pain—forward, and I think that is part of the problem, I will try to
express what I have gleaned from teaching and talking with them. If I
am inaccurate in my assessment, I hope they will correct me.
I work every day in the Bay Area
with young people, quite a few of whom
are Asian-Americans who are what I call "burning out." They are
desperately struggling to maintain their health and sanity under
inordinate pressure, stress, and insecurity. I will give you some
examples, using pseudonyms, rather than actual names.
The first example is "M". This is a factual account. "M" is nineteen
years old. She graduated at the top of her class, all advanced
placement courses. She was a Science Olympics winner. She entered the
University of California, Berkeley, with almost half of her college
credits already behind her, having taken them in high school. She is,
as she calls herself, an over-achiever. She is driven, desperate for
approval, and yet never content, no matter how much approval she
obtains. She has been undertaking a double major, and is now
considering undertaking a triple major. A triple major takes five to
six years of undergraduate work to complete. She is considering doing
this not in order to gain more knowledge and become a more
well-rounded, Renaissance-type person, but rather, to insure that she
will have first-choice access to fame and prosperity.
She sees eating and sleeping as
a hindrance to her multitasking,
non-stop pace that she maintains. She told me, "If I could do without
food and sleep only two hours a night, just think how much I could
accomplish!" As a result of not knowing when to stop, her health has
declined, and she is now suffering from repetitive stress syndrome,
sometimes called appendinitus, carpal tunnel syndrome. This ailment is
no longer limited to her wrists and arms, but extends throughout her
whole body. This student sometimes gets to the point that she is unable
to walk. As she makes her way across campus to get on with her triple
major, she often experiences such extreme pain shooting down her legs
that she is forced to stop and kneel on the spot.
She attempted a quick cure, by
going to Student Health Services and
obtaining prescription drugs. Of course, none of these drugs could
provide a real cure. She was told that, in fact, the only way for her
to get well would be to change her lifestyle. This was impossible for
her to accept and sent her into a state of despair, because to change
her lifestyle would challenge the very basis of her reason for being.
It was scary. But even more scary to her than that was the fear that
she would disappoint her parents and lose their love and approval,
which were conditioned upon her continuing to perform and to excel.
I asked her what motivated her.
Everything in her life, down to her
major (science, math, engineering, and computer-technology, which was
responsible for producing her carpal tunnel condition), her friends,
roommates, housing, and vacations were all chosen, directly or
indirectly, by her very caring and supportive parents. She has no will
or life of her own. She is successful without joy, accomplished without
satisfaction, externally loaded with honors and externally hollow and
anxious. She lives under unbearable pressure.
When I asked her, "Couldn't you
just say to your parents, 'Mom, Dad, I
would like to take a break from school in order to get my health back.
I might even want to change my major and study religion, philosophy, or
the humanities. Maybe I would like to go to a less competitive school,
perhaps a small school in the Midwest.'"
She told me, "As soon as I
hinted at this, my parents said with a
smile, 'We moved to the United States for you; we moved to California
for you; we moved to Berkeley for you; we have sacrificed and done
everything for you—for you to be successful, Number One, the best! We
love you so much!'"
Then she shrugged and said, "So
this is 'filial devotion'. It is so
twisted. Instead of making me feel wholesome and happy, I constantly
carry around a feeling of guilt, like a heavy anchor hanging from my
I asked another undergraduate, a
young, male Stanford student, "Why do
you feel so hollow? You have everything!" His answer: "I have
everything, and yet nothing. Although I study hard and achieve, I have
lost the human way of life. My whole life is squeezed and pressured to
focus on success. I and most other kids like me don't really know how
to be a person. We only know how to compete and to climb, but not how
to behave civilly, or even normally, with our friends and others. We
don't even know ourselves. It's easy to criticize gangsters, but the
attitude of most of my peers is even harder than a gangster's. We care
little for real friendship and public spirit. We are groomed to
compete, to be cutthroat, and to claw our way to the top, no matter
who we step on to get there. The funny part is, we are stepping on
ourselves and can't stop. I know it. I know I will probably pass this
along to my own kids, but I feel trapped in it." Those were the exact
words of an undergraduate Stanford student whom I talked with.
To be continued