By Larry Hayes
In 1995, the Carnegie Corporation churned out “Great Transitions,” an authoritative survey of the research on early adolescence. Here’s the problem: How many youth workers, teachers and parents have read it? Linking research findings on youth with the face-to-face youth work remains one of the most daunting and frustrating tasks of the trade.
Laura Sessions Stepp shows us how to do it.
Using “Great Transitions” as her starting points, the Washington Post reporter distills the extensive research on this stage of life and makes it accessible, serving as mediator between the academics and adults trying to figure out what’s going on with the moody teens in their lives.
Spending weeks at a time with a dozen kids in their early teens, Stepp has produced what may be the best popular treatment on this difficult, puzzling and most misunderstood period of people’s lives. The compelling story offers lessons for youth workers, parents and teachers.
The author immediately makes clear that she does not view adolescence from an ivory tower: The first young person we meet is her teenage son, Jeffrey.
And although she’s a parent, this is no tract of 10 easy lessons for grown-ups. Stepp picked out three communities in different parts of the country, and became a kind of cultural anthropologist as she entered the lives of families with young teenagers, chatting with them around the dinner table, hanging out with them in the mall, sitting with them at church and watching them fidget during boring English class.
She observed the kids, their families, their friends and their schools in such contrasting communities as Durham, N.C., Los Angeles, Calif., and Ulysses, Kan. To gain full cooperation, she assured the kids and families that she observed and interviewed that she would not use their real names.
Spending weeks at a time with a dozen kids in their early teens, Stepp has produced what may be the best popular treatment on this difficult, puzzling and most misunderstood period of people’s lives.
Early on we encounter Eric in Los Angeles. The boy lives with his father, who helps him chart his way through dangerous neighborhoods and nurtures Eric’s interest in sports. The boy also benefits from the long-distance encouragement of his mother. And from the age of eight, Eric participates daily in the Challengers Boys & Girls Club, where youth workers help with homework and get kids involved in sports and other games. The payoff of all this caring is evident even in small ways. In one scene we find Eric tenderly changing the bandages on his father’s arm, after the father has had glands removed in surgery.
Stepp weaves such touching narratives around lessons drawn from research and from her own observations. Among the key issues for future success, she says, is for young teens to discover their own competence. This means adults must let them make mistakes and not ridicule their fumbles. It means pushing them into activities they haven’t tried before – even allowing them to take some risks.
Troubles with Adults
As we follow the lives of the young people, we’re reminded that their problems aren’t merely the curse of a stage in life. (Stepp labels it a myth that early adolescence is inevitably unpredictable and volatile.) Rather, many of the most acute problems grow out of family life or school.
Consider Chandler, in Durham, N.C. Her parents appear to have been in continual conflict with each other and are at odds over how to handle the girl’s flouting of family rules. She’s given no chores, no responsibilities. There’s little consistency in the management of the child, a theme Stepp returns to several times and emphasizes at the book’s close.
Chandler’s parents become so desperate that they place her in a psychiatric hospital, which gives the family some respite and appears to help the girl. What really stabilizes Chandler’s life, however, is her parents’ divorce.
In another family, a grandmother plays the main caregiver to her two granddaughters, Angela and Alana. The mother had abused drugs and had little contact with the girls; the father had to work two jobs and couldn’t spend enough time to raise them on his own.
The grandmother intuitively senses that what the children needed most is for an adult to listen to them. Such anecdotes remind us of the profound influence that listening to a child has on the child’s healthy development. Stepp points out that while we assume teenagers are by nature taciturn and quiet around adults, most will talk non-stop when a caring adult listens with genuine interest and without censure.
Another girl, Libby, spent her early years in Israel. Moving to L.A., she sees herself as an outsider. She places high, perhaps unreasonable expectations on herself. Never mind “peer pressure,’ Stepp says. Many young teens are the victims of “me pressure.” Despite her drug experimenting and lots of conflict with her mother, Libby eventually finds constructive outlets: writing poetry, studying the guitar.
While many parents in Stepp’s accounts disappoint – some with alcohol problems, some overprotective, some simply cruel – several of the teachers are shockingly incompetent and insensitive. (Calling a youth “stupid” in front of other students, for instance.) Lonely, often insecure adolescents are stuffed into large classes, housed in the impersonal bureaucracy of huge schools. Stepp shows how school practices thwart the very relationships and experiences that, as research shows, young teens need. (We do meet a couple of outstanding teachers, a caution against any generalizations from this book.)
State policy-makers can inject their own legalistic remedies into the education equation. North Carolina legislators passed a law requiring schools to suspend students for an entire year for any violation involving a gun. That punishment seemed excessive in young Mario’s case; his offense was merely to store an unloaded gun (that his friends found) in his locker. It took the intervention of a prominent youth worker, Al Singer, to get the boy into an alternative school. Singer, head of Durham’s Child Advocacy Commission, also got the boy a tutor, gave him work around the office and took him to Durham Bulls baseball games.
Stepp weaves such touching narratives around lessons drawn from research and from her own observations.
Those youth workers, teachers and parents familiar with research on adolescents will recognize Stepp’s recommendations: listening, helping kids make connections with at least one adult, talking openly about sex (and not merely the biology of sex), generously dispensing back pats and hugs, and acting as a role model for the development of character.
“Our Last Best Hope” puts a human face on these strategies, and provides flesh-and-blood young people to help us put research together with the real world.
Larry Hayes is the retired editorial page editor of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and former president of the Education Writers Association.