Responsibilities of parents

02 November 2006

THE CONDUCT and behaviour of young people has often been a matter of concern to their elders. Complaints have come down to us from Classical times and before, many of which refer to drunkenness. This was the subject of a European survey published this week. Unfortunately, a historical perspective does not relieve unease. Of the 2000 15- and 16-year-olds questioned in the UK, more than a quarter (26 per cent of boys and 29 per cent of girls) had indulged in binge drinking (defined as more than five alcoholic drinks in a row) at least three times in the previous month. Even allowing for teenage bragging, it is a worrying trend that so many young people are making themselves so vulnerable.

These figures should be viewed in the light of the 2004 British Social Attitudes, which contains an essay on young people’s views of sex, marriage and gender ( News, 3 December ). Of the 663 12- to 19-year-olds questioned in 2003, 85 per cent agreed that it was all right for a couple to live together and not marry; 54 per cent thought pre-marital sex was "not wrong at all" (only five per cent thought it always wrong); and only 34 per cent thought that under-age sex was always wrong.

The 2003 sample took a more permissive approach than those asked the same questions a decade earlier. But horrified condemnation will achieve nothing: it has had no discernible effect on earlier generations of young people. A better response would be to begin by celebrating the openness and idealism of young people, and their refusal to make rules about the behaviour of others when it falls outside their experience. That said, young adults are hungry for guidance, a fact known to retailers and advertisers, if not to parents. The Social Attitudes research suggested that many teenagers continued to model their views on those of their parents. For once, the notion of blaming the parents could be right.

There is another influence. The researchers discovered that adhering to a religion significantly modified views on sex and marriage: 71 per cent of believers thought it all right for a couple to live together and not marry, compared with 92 per cent among non-adherents. The first of these figures is still high, but it is a mark of the effect that a church can have on those within its sphere of influence. Impressionable teenagers and young adults are susceptible to many malign pressures; the possession of Christian parents and a personal faith remains their strongest defence. However disaffected young people appear, the example, support and encouragement of older friends and family will help to carry them through.

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