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Has Teen Courtship Gone Wild?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today we are talking teenagers and the things they do for love or whatever it is. Take the Virginia teenager who recently got a helicopter to fly over his school to drop a stuffed bulldog and a red bandana parachute as part of his invitation to a girl to the fall dance.

Now, some parents blame reality television for spreading the idea that teens need to go way over the top to impress their dates or find love or celebrate milestones. And here's a clip from MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" to give you an idea of what we're talking about.


MARTIN: So is this just harmless - even if expensive - fun or something more disturbing? Joining us to talk about that are Eric Deggans. He is the father of three, including two teenaged girls, and he's also a TV critic for the Tampa Bay Times. John Duffy has a teenaged son. He's also a clinical psychologist and author of "The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens." And Carol Cain is the mom of three, including a teenaged son, and she blogs about her family at GirlGoneTravel.com.

Welcome to you all. Thanks so much for joining us.

CAROL CAIN ALVAREZ: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DUFFY: Thanks for having me.

ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So Carol Cain, I'm going to start with you because when we put this idea out there to kind of our regular panel of contributors, most of them came back with the chorus of: this is ridiculous. What is wrong with these people? But actually, you defended the young man in the helicopter caper and his dad, who helped him secure the helicopter. Why did you think that was OK to do?

ALVAREZ: I mean I think that, you know, it's not so much that it was OK as much as, you know, he's trying to live up to some sort of expectation that either society or his parents have put him up to, you know, and maybe it's part of my idea that kids need to kind of learn, you know, to kind of make better decisions in the future.

Unfortunately, you know, I don't think that he's going to - you know, if he continues to do this, he's going to have much left to give as he gets older.

MARTIN: Empty pockets. Lint in his pockets.

ALVAREZ: Exactly.

MARTIN: Eric Deggans, what would you think if a young man asked out one of your girls this way?

DEGGANS: I think I'd be answering the door with my trusty shotgun and I'd be cleaning it when he walked up. You know...

MARTIN: Why? What's so terrible?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, my sense, number one - well, first, I want to point out that I'm actually a father of four, but my oldest son is out of the house. So I have three at home. Three girls, two teenagers. And my sense with them and their friends is that it's a much more low key kind of thing. They tend to be friends with the guys they're going out with before they go out with them and that makes me much more comfortable as a parent because I have an opportunity to get to know these guys just a little bit before things between them and my daughter get a little more serious. And there's a sense that there's something there beyond sort of surface flash or whatever. They're bonding over things that really matter, like shared interests and interest in each other rather than some sort of flashy limousine or some sort of flashy party that they throw.

MARTIN: You know, we do know, Eric - I'll just stick with you for a minute here. We do know that a lot of kids do love shows like - some of these reality shows like "Say Yes to the Dress," for example, or "Guy Code" or "Glee," for example, which is not a reality show, where just kind of, you know, crazy stuff happens.

Do you think, though, that television does influence what they think is normal dating?

DEGGANS: I don't think there's any doubt that television, for all of us, sort of shows us what's possible out there and expands our boundaries of what we think is acceptable. If we see people doing something that we've always wanted to do, it's just a signal that, hey, you know, we can actually do that.

But you know, I think their peers are way more influential on them than anything they see on TV. When my kids watch "Say Yes to the Dress" or "Project Runway" or "Glee," which they all - they love all those shows, those things are entertainments that are kind of a little separate from their lives, but if their friends - their best friends are doing something, that makes them actually want to do it, I think, a lot more than seeing it on television.

MARTIN: John Duffy, what do you think? And I do want to say that we are talking a little bit about two different things here. We're conflating two different things. One is we're talking about spending a lot of money, and the other is we're talking about just over the top gestures, which may or may not involve a lot of money. The helicopter case, for example, the young man got the help of someone to get the helicopter to fly over. He didn't rent it, you know, and there were consequences, unfortunately - fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view - for the pilot. Apparently this was not appreciated by the border patrol, whose helicopter it was.

So John Duffy, what do you think about this?

DUFFY: Well, right. You're right. Apparently a gesture can be too grand. Overall, I think I agree in large part with Eric. I do think that the "Glees" and the "Say Yes to the Dresses" and the reality shows of the world today have something to do with how our teenagers respond. But I think once friends get involved and there's some peer, I won't say pressure, but some peer one-upmanship, by and large good natured, but that the gestures become grander and grander and what becomes lost is that kind of personal contact and that connection underneath the enormous gesture. And it seems to me every year the gestures get larger and larger.

MARTIN: We're talking about over-the-top teen gestures with our parenting roundtable. Clinical psychologist John Duffy is with us. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, TV critic Eric Deggans and blogger Carol Cain Alvarez.

Now, you know, we reached out to some teens. You would imagine we'd like to hear from them on this as well, so we reached out and we spoke to Raul Espana. He's a student from Lane Tech High in Chicago and this is what he told us.

RAUL ESPANA: Our football captain of the varsity team asked his girlfriend to the homecoming dance through the megaphone during a pep rally and it was really sweet because there was about two to 3,000 kids watching. It is the thought that counts. It's always great for guys to go to the extreme. It would bring great memories for both for the couple and everybody else that witnessed it.

MARTIN: Now, Carol, I understand that you actually asked for a big romantic gesture when you were in high school in the Dominican Republic but it didn't go as well as the young man had hoped. Do you mind telling us about that?

ALVAREZ: Well, you know, it kind of brings back to what I think this girl is going through right now. And, you know, I was 15 at the time and I lived in a third world country and at the time the big thing to get was a Care Bear. You know, it was, you know, I know now that's laughable but, you know, it was really expensive and this guy wanted to go out with me and I didn't think he was going to be able to afford it so I told him yeah, if you, buy Valentine's Day if you get me this really overpriced American made stuffed toy I'll go out with you and he got it, to my surprise and I didn't go out with him. I, you know, I ended up telling him I'm sorry. And I think that, you know, I think that...

MARTIN: Carol, for shame.


ALVAREZ: I know. I was 15. But that, you know, that brings a lot to the fact that, you know, this young girl, her reaction, you know, her comment to the press in that well, we're just friends, it's not like that, you know, if guys are still asking her to go to homecoming dance is because the guy that she likes hasn't asked her yet. And, you know, it may be sweet and it may be grand, only if the girl that's being asked likes the guy that's doing it, otherwise it becomes, you know, this pressure and this burden to have to, you know, say yes and if you don't say yes then what kind of person are you and how ungrateful are you. And I don't think that, you know, maturity has developed enough to really understand that level of pressure for the other person involved.

MARTIN: That's an interesting point, John Duffy.

DEGGANS: Yeah. If - could I...

MARTIN: Oh, go ahead, Eric. Go ahead.

DEGGANS: If I could break in...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

DEGGANS: I think that's an important distinction because I don't have a problem with grand gestures between people who already have a relationship. You know, like if my oldest daughter's boyfriend decided to do something grand I would think it was sweet because they've been going out for more than a year now. But to do that with someone that you don't have a connection to and you don't even know if they like you, that's the problem because the first thing you're sort of advertising to them is I'm the guy who's going to rent the Lamborghini, rather than I'm the guy who vibes with you over "Glee," or I'm the guy who cares about how you feel about how your SAT test went.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting point. Interesting point about the pressure, though. John Duffy, what do you think about this? I have to tell you, I go back and forth on this myself. Because on the one hand, on the one hand we in recent years, we've criticized young people a lot - teenagers, college students - for being more interested in hookups than in real relationships.


MARTIN: And so then when somebody is going on a quest for girl then we criticize them. So it seems as though they're in a kind of a bind here that, you know, what's wrong with putting a little extra effort in? But then there are the other issues that these folks have talked about.

So John Duffy, how would you advise parents to handle this if they see that, you know, this is something that their kids are interested in? What would you advise them - what kind of conversation would you advise them to have?

DUFFY: Yeah. I mean I think these guys are right, that the plight of a teenage boy in particular who is asking out the teenage girl is particularly tricky the grander the gesture because there is that possibility that he will be shot down. You know, I think it's important that parents kind of get back to basics on some of this stuff and talk to kids about why they are drawn to this other person, whether they think this other person is drawn to them, and what the message is behind the gesture. In other words, if it's something really, really grand is that really something that you want to put out there or is your message something a little more muted and you want to have a personal discussion with this person?

MARTIN: Eric, you can tell me, just between us and our thousands of listeners...


MARTIN: ...did you ever go all-out for girl and did it fall flat or how did it go?

DEGGANS: That, I follow my own advice, man, I don't get grand until I know for sure how the reaction is going to be.


DEGGANS: I'm a very safe bet when it comes to that, you know.

MARTIN: You're going conservative with that. It's mostly conservative.

DEGGANS: I'm going very conservative.

MARTIN: Risk averse.

DEGGANS: You know, the greatest thing I did was when I met my, the woman who would become my wife, she was on a date with another guy. It's not when I met her, but I saw her and decided that I wanted to go out with her and I did go up to her and suggest that maybe she have that guy take her home so I could take her on a real date, which is what happened.

MARTIN: Ooh. OK. Smooth.


DEGGANS: Definitely.

MARTIN: Eric Deggans is the dad of four and he's a TV critic for the Tampa Bay Times. He was with us from their studios. Also with us, John Duffy; he's a dad, a clinical psychologist and the author of "The Available Parent - Radical optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens." He was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. And Carol Cain is a mom of three. Her blog is "Girl Gone Travel." She was with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Thank you all so much.

ALVAREZ: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

DUFFY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.