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    Stepp offers useful insights on families


    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000

    Laura Sessions Stepp has been a cutting-edge journalist for a long time. At the Charlotte Observer, she served as part of a reporting-editing team that won journalism's most prominent award, the Pulitzer Prize, for an investigation into dangerous workplace conditions at the normally sacred textile industry.

    Later, at the Washington Post, Stepp broke new ground in the coverage of specific religions and overall spirituality as part of daily life. Then, still at the Post, Stepp turned her attention to improving the coverage of children and families. For many years, she has been a guiding light at Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families, an innovative think tank at the University of Maryland. Now she has turned her initiative, her originality, her reporting and writing skills toward producing her first book.

    Although a longtime admirer from afar of Stepp's journalism, I approached this book with some hesitation. Why? Because a couple of years ago I read and reviewed a journalistic treatment of adolescence that is on my short list of great narrative nonfiction. That book is A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence by Patricia Hersch (now available in paperback from Ballantine). I wondered when I saw Stepp's book whether she could find anything new and important to say post-Hersch.

    She has. Part of her wisdom derives from her personal experience as the stepmother of two daughters (now grown) and the biological mother of a son (now 16). But a lot of Stepp's wisdom in this book derives from the reporting she did across the nation over many years.

    Stepp spent time near home and with academic experts. She spent the bulk of her time, however, in three carefully selected communities -- large, medium-sized and small -- immersing herself in the lives of youngsters ages 10 through 15. The large is Los Angeles; the medium-sized is Durham, N.C.; the small is Ulysses, Kan. In addition to geographic diversity, Stepp sought economic, ethnic, gender and academic diversity, achieving variety while avoiding extremes.

    To get a handle on specific lives that would provide the focus for compelling storytelling, Stepp ended up focusing on a total of 12 youths in those three locales. Her main criterion for choosing those 12: "Could that child and his or her family teach me and, by extension my readers, something important about raising young adolescents?" Stepp never doubted that all children and their families have interesting stories to tell. She was determined, though, to transcend "interesting" to reach "insightful."

    Stepp learned quickly that although each family's circumstances differed, the intellectual and emotional needs of their youngsters had many common denominators. Also, she saw, the actions of parents that succeed and the mistakes they make are similar. "Good parenting looks the same in all neighborhoods and all families," Stepp says. "So does bad parenting."

    Stepp already had three generalized insights in mind based on her reading of others' research. First, that adolescence is a time of growth rivaling infancy in its speed.Second, that biology is not destiny, that parents (and other adults) can do plenty to nurture adolescent growth. Third, that parents must get involved in their children's lives early and often to achieve maximum impact.

    As she moved beyond those useful insights, Stepp noticed that the youngsters whose lives she had entered spent most of their time figuring out four things: What kind of person they are; how, if at all, they fit in with others their age; what they were learning inside and outside school; and how to create distance from the adults in their lives without severing their ties to those adults. Stepp used those categories to organize her book.

    What Stepp has produced is mostly journalism, partly self-help. That unusual combination occasionally is jarring, but mostly works beautifully. After I have finished re-reading it, it will wind up on my shelf next to Patricia Hersch's book.

    Steve Weinberg, a freelance writer of nonfiction, is the father of a 20-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.

    Our Last Best Shot:

    Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence

    By Laura Sessions Stepp

    Riverhead Books, $25.95

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