19 June 2006

Wednesday June 14, 2006
The truth is out
WONDER of wonders, a study that actually publicly says some tough things! I’m referring to the results of the 2001 International Medical University survey of 4,500 Malaysian adolescents that was featured in the Sunday Star.
You have to forgive my wonderment; I am just so used to surveys that either sidestep the issues, declare that everything is going just great or simply don’t publish the results because they gave a less than rosy picture of our society. There was once a survey of Muslim women done by an Islamic institution that didn’t even ask if religion played any role in their lives. Let’s not ask the difficult questions in case we don’t like the answers, right?
I guess it’s because IMU is a private university that they can actually release less than palatable results. And guess what, the results show that some of our teens are not the clean-scrubbed well-behaved children we’d like them to be. They smoke, they drink, they take drugs, they have sex, they sometimes try to kill themselves, and sometimes succeed. Not news to NGOs, counsellors and any teenager with the least bit of sensitivity to his surroundings. Our kids are having problems but who’s listening to them?
To be fair, we’ve tried to address some of these problems. But almost always from an adult perspective, with very little input from young people themselves. Time and time again, “just say no” campaigns have failed but we keep seeing the same tired slogan repeated endlessly in big expensive advertising campaigns. Do they work? We don’t know because nobody tracks the effectiveness of these campaigns with indicators that are actually measurable.
Young people have problems saying no even when they know the negative consequences of what they do because they don’t know how to deal with peer pressure. We tell kids to say no without telling them how. As adults we have forgotten how important it is for young people to be accepted by their peers. What more in this conformist society where we regularly disparage any form of individualism. So if a young person is trying to assert his or her individuality by refusing to go along with the crowd, he or she risks ostracism and isolation. Considering how often adults themselves yield to peer pressure and act like sheep, why should we be surprised that teens act the same way?
The other important finding from the survey is that adults, especially parents, simply cannot get away with the old “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Parents who smoke have no moral authority to tell their kids not to smoke. Kids can see through hypocrisy every time. If parents set bad examples, their children will follow, just as if they set good examples, they will also follow them. I don’t know any brats that come from nice parents. Their brattiness has to come from somewhere. This is why teachers have a problem when parents complain if their kids are punished. Basically they know that they can’t change the kids without changing the parents.
This is not to say that school has no place at all for positive influences. Young people can learn many good things at school. As long as these are taught well, and every effort is made to ensure that every child gets the information they need. But they can’t get it if they are distracted by other problems, they find school a scary place because of bullying and they get no help in actualizing the positive information they receive. Our school system is very much a one-way delivery system; as we long as we deliver the information, we think the job’s done. What the kids actually do with it seems not to be our concern.
And let’s repeat it, we need sex education in school. The survey reported that only 5.4% of the adolescents said they had ever had sexual intercourse. But sexual activity covers a wide spectrum of behaviours, intercourse being only one.
A study in the United States recently found that teens who are sexually active tended to lie about taking abstinence pledges previously. On the other hand, teens who took such pledges also tended to lie about previous sexual activity. In other words, teens are not going to tell the truth about sexual activity to adults. In our country, where there is so little sex education, even teens’ definitions of sexual activity may be inconsistent.
If we want to truly help our young, we need to face up to the truth about them. If this means having to talk about smoking or sex to 10-year-olds, then that’s what we have to do, as unpalatable as that may seem.