And what about older children and teens? Sadly, we're no longer shocked to hear of such things as an eight-year-old child in the heart of the Midwest—Indianapolis, Indiana—pointing a gun at a classmate because the other child teased him about his ears. Twelve-year-olds in affluent Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., were regularly holding sex parties where oral sex was de rigueur, according to the Washington Post. But was anyone really surprised?
Teen suicide rates are now the third leading cause of death among fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds and the fifth leading cause of death among ten- to fourteen-year-olds, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In the fifteen to twenty-four age range, suicide rates have tripled for males since 1950, and doubled for females.
There have been widespread rumors about declines in youth violence. But according to a 2001 report from the Surgeon General of the United States, these rumors are not accurate. The report states, "This report has looked beyond arrest and other criminal justice records to several national surveys in which high-school-age youths report in confidence on their violent behavior. These self-reports reveal that the propensity for and actual involvement of youths in serious violence have not declined with arrest rates. Rather, they have remained at the peak rates of 1993."
The report goes on to note that arrest rates for teens committing violent crimes has begun to climb again.
Of course, most of what I'm describing is really the extreme, right? Well, yes. After all, thankfully, most six-year-old kids don't beat up their teachers. So these studies and anecdotes describe an increase in problems on the far side of the ledger. But before we collectively breathe easier, we have to admit the scary part: the entire child behavior spectrum has shifted in the wrong direction.
This comment came from a grandmother in Florida who wrote to me in response to a column I'd written on out-of-control kids:
Today I am very much involved in taking care of the children in the church nursery, and there is a little three-year-old girl who will scream and throw tantrums and throw everything in sight if she is not catered to constantly. The parents of this little girl do cater to her every whim, and they want everyone else to do the same. This little three-year-old is definitely in charge...
Such behavior is so common that it's become "the new normal." Every one of us could tell a story like that grandmother's.
I recently took one of my daughters to her gymnastics class. While waiting for the class to start, several children were chasing one another around a small enclosure, and it seemed certain someone was going to get hurt. One mom told her three-year-old, Eric, to walk, not run. Eric continued to race around and around. His mother told him no fewer than five times to stop running. Finally, he slammed into my little Madeleine (who was none the worse for wear, really). Eric's mom said, "Eric, you've had enough. I want you to sit down now!" Eric's response? He looked directly at his mom, got up, and started racing around again. And her response? She and another mom looked at each other, shrugged, and giggled.
Whatever the extenuating circumstances might have been—the mother didn't want a scene or Eric was wound up—one thing is clear: Eric is used to disobeying his mother with impunity. And she is used to it, too.