White House convenes conference on teen-agers
President, first lady announce initiatives aimed at increasing parental involvement
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday announced several new initiatives aimed at helping parents raise healthy teen-agers during what the administration says is the first White House conference entirely devoted to the topic.
President Bill Clinton
"If there is one message we hope to send with this conference, it is that each of us has the power to make a difference in every teen-agers life. It is not just a task for parents," Mrs. Clinton said.
Administration officials say the aim of the conference, "Raising Responsible and Resourceful Youth," is to underscore some of the persistent misconceptions that parents have about the teen years, and to provide them with strategies -- at federal, state and personal levels -- to help their teens navigate a safe passage to adulthood.
"If we can't deal with these big social issues now when we're prosperous, if we can't strengthen the bonds of our community, when will we ever do it?" President Clinton said, explaining that "it's good economics to balance work and family."
The president announced he will sign an executive order to bar discrimination against parents in the federal workplace, as part of the government's effort to help provide parents with more time to spend with their teens.
"Believe it or not there are still some employers who are reluctant to hire or promote employees who have children," Clinton said. "The goal of this order simply says 'no glass ceiling for parents.' "
Clinton also called on Congress to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act and to include low-income parents in the federal Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), in which all 50 states now participate.
"The United States has been great at creating jobs, but we still have done far less at balancing the needs of balancing work and family than any other industrialized country," the president said.
In addition, the president and first lady launched the "Time with Your Teens Campaign" -- a public education campaign aimed at reducing teen violence, pregnancy, smoking and other high-risk behaviors -- as well as two Web sites that will provide information for teens and parents.
Clinton noted that while today's teens are healthier and more prosperous, significant "opportunity gaps" persist between white and minority teens, especially in areas of smoking, violence and pregnancy.
Listening to teens
Although the conference brought together some of the nation's foremost experts on teens -- including scientists, psychologists, doctors, school officials and parents -- it was the voices of the teen-agers themselves that helped to highlight issues of particular concern.
"If you ask teens and you listen to teens you can hear it in their voices directly and indirectly that growing up feels tougher than it ever has before," said Mrs. Clinton.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
One teen attending the conference with his father told CNN on Tuesday that what teens need most is guidance.
"As my father has guided me, I think he's put me on the right path," said 17-year-old Edwin Speaker. He said he developed a close bond with his father, Edd Speaker, by participating in activities together.
"You just establish a bond by communicating with your child and convincing them that it's OK to tell you about different things," said Edd Speaker, who spoke at the conference.
"If it's tough to be a teen-ager today, it's even tougher to be a parent. They feel inadequate and anxious about navigating those teen years," the first lady said, adding: "We're all worried about the choices our teen-agers make, the single bad decision to drink, try drugs, drive too fast."
Making time for family life
Throughout the day, meeting participants are discussing the risks and challenges facing both teens and parents. Some experts say that while it appears that teens seek independence and solitude, they actually yearn for more time with their parents, underscoring points made the Clintons.
"In a study that I just did, I found that it was older children, not younger children, who felt that they didn't have enough time with their parents," Ellen Galinsky, president of The Families and Work Institute, told CNN. The institute conducts studies on the way that work and home life affect families.
The conference also will examine ways that communities and employers can help parents find more time to spend with their children. Ben Casey of the Dallas YMCA discussed results of a recent poll showing that, despite current positive trends, parents remain anxious about the well-being of their teens.
"The teen years should be among the best years of a persons life," said Casey. "They are the critical years in which they serve as the basic platform on which an adult is eventually shaped."
Teens participating in the survey rated "not having enough time together" with parents and education as their top concerns. The poll also found that many families do not eat meals together more than a few times a week, and that many teens watch television and surf the Internet unsupervised.
Brain growth spurts
The conference also highlighted recent brain research indicating that the preteen years are as important in setting patterns for adult behavior as the first three years of life.
Scientists had believed that brain development slowed after the first few years of life and that the brain was essentially organized by the time a child enters the first grade. The research, first published late last year and then in the March issue of the journal Nature, showed that in teen-agers up to age 15, there are
peak growth rates in areas of the brain associated with language and associative thinking.
"Sometimes we give up on kids early and feel that they are already doomed for certain fates, but from the biological perspective there are still lots and lots of opportunities for change during the teen years," said Dr. Jay Giedd, a National Institute of Mental Health child psychiatrist who worked on the research.
CNN Medical Correspondent Eileen O'Connor and The Associated Press contributed to this report.