Corrie Pikul

A new book says uncaring, punitive adults — parents and professionals alike — are responsible for an epidemic of checked-out, drug-taking middle-class teens.

In his new book “The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence,” Elliott Currie, an internationally recognised authority on youth and crime, says that irresponsible adults are responsible for the current epidemic of troubled, drug-addled teenagers. In an angry indictment of middle-class culture, Currie claims that punitive and uncaring parents, hands-off institutions and a societally pervasive “sink or swim” attitude are largely responsible for the problems suffered by many teens. Currie is also the author of “Crime and Punishment in America,” a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Currie spoke about parents who don’t have time for their troubled kids, teachers who don’t bother to help their floundering students and teens who don’t care about anything.

You talk about a state of the teenager’s mind that you call “care-lessness.” What do you mean by that?

“Care-lessness” is coming to a state where you really, truly don’t care what happens to you - you don’t care whether you live or die. You don’t care what happens to anybody else, either. I got that word from interviews with the kids. It came up again and again. Let’s talk about this “crisis” of middle-class adolescence. Do teens have more problems today than they used to?

I do think there are several ways in which things have gotten worse: There are the school shootings, the emergence of white gangs as a suburban phenomenon (that existed when I was a kid, but not on a level they do today), and especially, the prevalence of drugs.

You write that while our society assumes that teens with alcohol or drug problems must come from a lenient, overly indulgent family, the truth is the exact opposite.

There may be kids who decide to drink themselves into oblivion because people are too nice to them, but I haven’t met them. I’ve talked to plenty of kids who get to that place in their life because people treat them badly. It is not just the parental pressures to do well. It’s growing up in a family where if you don’t do well, you get thrown out of the house. And if you don’t do better than everyone else in school, your parents tell you that you are a piece of crap. An extraordinary number of kids in the book were thrown out of their home at least once. In addition, a study (by the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire) found that nearly one parent in five had threatened to throw a teenage child out of the house during the previous year. This seemed to be the default response of parents to their kids when things got really bad. In the book, you describe the way we deal with our troubled adolescents, with an attitude of “harsh individualism” and sink-or-swim “social Darwinism,” as being particularly American condition.

That attitude is more extreme in America than anywhere else. It goes along with other things we see in us that differentiate us from other industrial societies. We are the country that doesn’t provide much of a safety net to our people. We are the quickest to incarcerate people if they break the law. We have no universal health programme. We don’t give family allowances. One of the reasons these problems are getting worse is the hardening of the culture that lies behind this. Careless individualism has become our modus operandi. This behaviour has roots in our individualist heritage, but it is sharpening in the 20th and 21st century. People are unwilling to take responsibility, unwilling to think about the consequences of their actions, whether it be barreling down the freeway in a Hummer and not caring about other drivers, other people, or the environment - it’s the same mentality.