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Michele Willens

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Face It: The Kids Are Not All Right

Posted: 01/22/11 02:21 AM ET

I am constantly being scolded for asserting -- self pityingly -- that everyone else has perfect and perfectly happy children. I may finally be disabused of that belief.

Last week in Santa Monica, a 14-year-old boy announced to his baseball teammates that he was going to kill himself. He started running and they tried chasing him. But he got to the elevator of a nearby hotel first, and jumped to his death from the top floor. Everyone who (thought they) knew him claimed he never expressed the slightest distress and his grandmother said, "He was perfect, period." The same week, a young college sophomore I know got a firsthand look at one of her dorm mates just after she had hung herself in her room. My young friend says they are all in shock and trying to deal with it.

Obviously, these are dramatic and still rare incidents. Nevertheless, there are just too many young people suffering and too many parents wondering what they didn't see (let alone may have abetted). Evidence of this heightened anxiety is much discussed and well understood. Countless college students, for example, are worried and frightened about the kinds of jobs they might or might not find, or will have to settle for, once they graduate. To their credit, it is not entirely about economics. Many seem genuinely concerned that they won't find work that brings both satisfaction and a decent income.

And it is no secret that such pessimism has led to the bipolarization of young America. There is legitimate concern that prescriptions are being handed out too easily, too frequently. What did all our predecessors do when they were blue? But when we hear of real life horror stories like the ones above, not to mention the Tucson massacre, we have to wonder. While that one was an extreme case of a young mind gone mad, clearly there were signs of festering instability that went unnoticed or unattended to. We can only hope it will serve as another warning to all parents not to be afraid to ask for, and even insist on, help.

Perhaps no amount of responsible parenting would have made a difference in Arizona. But I believe there just may be an entire generation under us that consciously or unconsciously blames us for talking a big game, but refusing to play fair.

The Boomer's boomers are aware of the great music we made, the causes we fought for. We are thrilled when they finally come around to appreciating Dylan and The Beatles, when they want to go out and do community service. But what have we actually shown them, except that we were ambitious, competitive and avaricious? And not just for ourselves, but for them as well. We want them to be successful and conscientious, to enjoy the fruits of the freedoms we worked to attain. Do they feel grateful? Probably. Pressured? Likely. Smothered? Often. Depressed? Why the hell not?

They look around the country and see little hope for themselves because of their parents' role in the Greediest Generation. They look around the world and see trouble spots that threaten their own security, consume their country's resources, scream out for humanitarian aid. We are not to be blamed for the perilous situations of the world, perhaps, but we are to be blamed for not better understanding how they could be bringing our children down.

And down they are, often under the façade of temporary bravado. They may smile brightly, chatter incessantly, and be the life of the party. Yet, inside resides a silent, restless rebellion. They may graduate top of their class. But that could make the necessary fall from the crowded perch only more dangerous.They may appear to be "perfect, period." But it is becoming apparent that not only are they not perfect, they should not be expected to be. We need to keep a watchful eye, and listen very carefully -- even when they aren't talking.