Two days after getting her driver's license, the 16-year-old is flying down a back street after the cops busted a house party. Her 15-year-old friend's head is hanging out the window, Toni-permed hair whipping in the wind, Bartles & Jaymes cooler in her hand. The one in the back seat drops her clove cigarette, burning another hole in the cheap upholstery of the wreck bought off the classifieds. No one can hear her screaming over the metal mix tape.
"Eighth grade. That's when I started all that," the mom of an eighth-grader says. "I was a typical latchkey."
She and I were remembering our teen years, Gen Xers largely ignored by our busy boomer parents. We're quiet for a moment as we smile at the memory of dozens of those nights. Nothing like it. That freedom. The craziness. The total insanity. Wait. How is it possible we survived?
Our eighth-graders are at a table eating healthy burritos made with brown rice. They're singing songs from the musical "Hamilton."
"I can't imagine them doing what we did," my fellow mom says. "No way."
But is that good? Didn't all that wilding build character, fuel a sense of adventure, create self-sufficient self-starters who knew how to make their own bologna sandwiches and scrape together enough cash to buy a car?
Yes and no.
Statistics say most teens today are living radically different lives from those their parents and grandparents led.
Nearly every teen who ever listened to the Rolling Stones on an eight-track tape in high school also drank alcohol. That's 93 percent of teens between 1976 and 1979 who drank, according to a study published this week in the journal Child Development.
Today? Only 67 percent of teens have had a sip when they were growing up between 2010 and 2016.
Even more astonishing is the whole lack of driving thing. The other day, I was hanging out with a group of parents who said they started drinking at 14, 15 — one had a fake ID when he was 16. One didn't start until she was 20. Okay, so the 7 percent is represented here.
But all of us — every single one — got our driver's licenses the moment we turned 16. Unless we flunked the test (once or maybe twice). Then we raced to retake it.
Today, just a little more than half of teens (18 and under, not 16 and 3 hours old) are getting their licenses.
"My daughter says she won't even need a license because it'll all be driverless cars by the time she's 16," said one of the dads, maybe a little hopefully.
So why are we all so sad about this? Isn't this a pretty good outcome after all those Mothers Against Drunk Driving rallies and smashed-up death cars dragged in front of high schools during prom season?
This change in American teendom is across all socioeconomic, geographic and racial groups: urban, suburban or rural; rich, poor or middle class; brown, beige or white. American kids are safer than they've ever been.
They're also not dating or having sex at the same rates previous generations did. They're in no hurry to get away from their parents.
And it's not just because of smartphones (the downward trends in "Risky Business" behavior started years before the iPhone). Or because kids get all the sex they need from secretly downloaded porn and their adrenaline rushes from video games.
Plenty of people worry this generation is a bunch of boring snowflakes, doughy pashas who'll never know how to make pillows look like a sleeping body and slip out the window.
Really, stop. These aren't the things that make or break character.
The statistic we should all freak out about and work to reverse is the one about teen employment.
In 1976, 76 percent of teens had already held a job and earned a paycheck. Now it's just 55 percent, according to the study.
Because it's not flying down the highway, sneaking out or beer-bonging that gave us backbones. No, the fastest path to independence, resilience, empathy and the thing we all want for our kids — grit — is a job.
I got that old car off the classifieds thanks to hours of waiting on tables. That was the sweetest trophy I ever earned.
Then it was the achy feet, smell of cigarette smoke and maple syrup in my hair that helped motivate me to go to college. It was the boss who bragged about grabbing women — and grabbed at us when we bent over at the ice station — that taught me about sexual predators. It was seeing Javier the busboy get ready to work another shift in another restaurant every night that taught me more about the determination of immigrants.
Make sure your kid gets a real job. Not just raking leaves for you or pretending to help out in your friend's office.
And no, don't say the jobs aren't there because the immigrants took them. For years now, from boardwalks in Jersey to water parks in Ohio to pools in California, employers have been desperate to fill their summer jobs.
Used to be that 60 percent of American kids had summer jobs scooping ice cream or guarding a pool or something like that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 40 years ago. Today, it's barely 35 percent.
Boardwalks and amusement parks have had to import international students to fill the jobs American kids don't take. (Notice how Svetlana is running the Scrambler? It's because Dad thought Kaitlyn was too precious to take that job.)
Next year, skip another month of robotics camp. Forget the beach lacrosse tournament. Let your teens get a job. Preferably a physically demanding one.
That's where they find the grit they'll need when they finally grow up.
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