Helping Teens Outgrow Adolescence

Efforts underway locally to begin a youth center have prodded me into thinking again about how teens become adults.

Cover of Escaping the Endless AdolescenceTurning its youth into adults is vital for this rural area, since the majority of students who go off to college never return. Unless the teens who stay here after high school become productive members of the community, the brain drain will kill it.

In Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before they Grow Old,  Joseph and Claudia Allen  discuss how parental and societal desire to shield children from responsibilities of adult life have backfired.  Instead of helping teens, we’ve turned them into wimps who can’t fill out a job application without asking Mom what to write. We’ve kept teens doing fun activities  instead of challenging them to tackle something tough but important.  Many of today’s teens don’t feel capable of doing any adult task alone: They suffer from what the Allens call “chronic success deprivation.”

The answer is not creating places where teens can gather to learn from other teens how to behave. That postpones or detours teens’ development into adulthood.

The answer is putting teens into situations where they work alongside adults to accomplish goals that matter to the community.

Principles for teaching adult roles

Escaping the Endless Adolescence provides five principles to guide parents and communities’ efforts to help adolescents morph into adults:

1. Include them.

Giving teens opportunities to participate in the adult world taking on adult responsibilities at home, school and in the community. Genuine volunteer opportunities are good. (Required “volunteer work” and school-sponsored volunteer days are bogus.)

2. Go with the flow.

Build on teens’ desire for autonomy. Given them tasks they are capable of doing that need to be done. Then let the teen figure out how to do it.

3. Connect, connect, connect. 

Adults need to keep offering a relationship even when teens act as if they don’t want to interact with other adults, including their  parents.

4. Ramp up the challenge.

Teens respond to real challenges that are adult-like, that leave them with a sense that what they do matters in the adult world, that they can function competently and succeed in the adult world.  Often that means turning over to teens something they can do but which well-meaning parents or teachers didn’t want to burden them with.

5. Give it to them straight.

Teens see through the “everybody is a winner” baloney. They need to experience some of the unpleasant aspects of adult life, such as getting negative feedback.

Adults often fear that helping teens grow up will take far too much time and energy.  In truth, teens are as skillful as toddlers at mimicing adult behavior. They just need good models.

Teens learn by observation

In the late 1980s, the New York State Education Department asked the distance learning program I directed to test distance learning with students identified as likely high school dropouts. At that time, it was widely believed that only the very best students were able to learn via technology.

Four schools agreed to participate. They selected students who had failed at least two eighth grade classes and were seen as unlikely to complete high school. Studentz were told they would be allowed to enter ninth grade that fall only if they completed the 20-day program. Completion meant only that they showed up for three hours those 20 days.

We pulled together a team of four teachers, put them in four different schools, each with a small group of students. Each teacher was responsible for presenting material in a certain subject to the entire group via the technology. In addition, the teachers had to do right along with their studentswhatever tasks the presenter assigned.

By the third morning, every student was saying, “please,” “thank-you” and “excuse me.”  Nobody told them to do that: It was what they heard adults do.

We also saw a big change in how students handled frustration. They observed how teachers responded to technology glitches or to another teacher’s difficulty using the technology. Those adults didn’t  resorting to name-calling or smash something.  They suggested options.

Those behavioral changes may seem trivial, but they signaled the students’ eagerness to prove they were up to adult challenges.

Not one of the students missed a class.  One pedaled a bike five miles to and from class when he didn’t have a ride.

They were on time.

They participated.

And all but one graduated high school within five years.

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