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The kids truly are all right

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
  • Laura Sessions Stepp: Adults don't realize teens are doing better on many fronts
  • Stepp: High school smoking and drinking has declined, number who fight down
  • Fewer drink and drive, she says, and teenage pregnancies have declined remarkably
  • She says other changes show they're doing well except in one area: They're fatter

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence."

(CNN) -- Stop anyone on the street who looks, say, older than 40, and ask whether teenagers are doing better or worse than a decade or two ago. Odds are she or he will say worse -- and be wrong.

Hollywood writer and director Lisa Cholodenko was correct: The kids are all right. In fact, according to a massive study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenagers are doing better on a bunch of important measures, even as they've increased in number and diversity.

Every time I talk to parents, I am moved by how few know this. Or, if they've read about it, how they don't believe it. Peter Benson, president of the Search Institute, a youth development think tank, also runs into this skepticism.

"If we did a poll of American parents," he says, "and asked, 'How many times have you seen research about adolescent pregnancy showing that kids are being more responsible?' the vast majority would say, 'I've never seen that.' But if you ask them how many times they've seen stories about kids sexting pornography, they'll say, 'I see something on that every day.' "

Few measures of teen well-being are as remarkable as the decline in teenage girls getting pregnant and giving birth. According to a newly released study by the National Center for Health Statistics, 39 of every 1,000 girls ages 15-19 gave birth in 2009, a historic low. Experts attribute this in large part to the wider availability of information about, and access to, reliable contraception as well as a small decline in the proportion of teens having sex.

Other positive markers are found in the CDC's 2010 report. Since 1990:

• The proportion of high school students who smoke has declined, and so has the proportion of those who drink.

Few measures of teen well-being are as remarkable as the decline in teenage girls getting pregnant and giving birth.
--Laura Sessions Stepp

• Fewer underage teenagers are driving. Fewer teenagers drive while drinking or ride with drivers who are drinking. More students report wearing seatbelts and significantly fewer are involved in fatal car crashes.

• Firearm-related deaths have declined. So has the percentage of high school students who fight or carry a weapon.

• The percent of high school students who have seriously considered suicide has declined. So has the proportion of suicides.

One serious problem, according to the CDC, is that more teens are getting fatter. A lot fatter. But aside from that, they appear to be taking better care of themselves than the generation that preceded them.

So why can't parents acknowledge this? Parenting experts will tell you that one of the most effective ways of raising a young child is to catch him or her "doing something right." Isn't it time we shifted our focus to what the older youth are doing right and encourage them to continue? As many teens lament, "Why is it that parents only pay attention to us when we get into trouble?"

A mother myself, I understand how easy it is to be discouraged by the almost daily news reports of youthful misbehavior. Journalists and TV hosts regularly interview social scientists on the problem du jour, and those experts reach back into their university training where they learned what amounts to a delinquency model of adolescence.

As Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, once said, successful adolescents are treated as "escape artists," who have managed to get away from the negative influences of their peers. So parents may think their kids are OK and still trash their kids' friends and classmates.

Parents also worry about other parents who, if you believe television, are either AWOL, morons, or, like the parents in Cholodenko's "Kids" movie, trapped in their own neuroses. Apparently a lot of grownups are worriers: A survey by Benson's Search Institute found that more than two out of three adults thought other parents were doing only a poor-to-fair job raising their children.

We've all heard that anti-parent litany: Other moms and dads don't spend time with their children; they don't set limits; they're friends, not parents, to their kids.

We may need to rethink that. If teens are doing better, and parents are, as the experts tell us, the biggest influence on their children, then many parents must be doing something right. Let's help parents understand this by reminding them that they are more influential than they think, that their influence has not been lost to peers and popular culture and almost any way you count it, the kids are all right and getting better.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura Stepp.