Richard Lerner

The Tufts University developmental scientist challenges the myth of the troubled adolescent in his new book, “The Good Teen”

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

WEB EXCLUSIVE - Extended Interview

How did teenagers get such a bad rap?

You can go back to the time of the Greeks and find teenagers causing problems. The scientific study of adolescence began in 1904, with G. Stanley Hall, one of the leading psychologists in the United States. Hall believed that all of our ancestral adult stages were compressed into a single life span, and that adolescence was the period when we went from being beast-like to civilized. He started adolescents off with this perception that they were biologically constrained to be in "storm and stress"—his phrase. For most of the 20th century, people used this model not only to study adolescents but describe them, to talk about them as dangerous to others.

When did people start shifting their thinking?

As early as the 1960s research began to show that only a small minority of the pathways through adolescence were characterized by storm and stress. But even today, if you ask typical parents why their kids are doing well, they say, "They're not taking drugs, they're not engaged in unsafe sex, they're not drinking alcohol, they're not engaged in crime." We all too often define young people as being positive because of what they're not doing. That's a very dispiriting message.

Tell us about the "5 C's."

The 5 C's are competence—not just academic but social, vocational and health competence. Confidence. Then character, that it's fundamentally important to do what's right. Connection, or working collaboratively with parents, peers, siblings, teachers, coaches. Finally, caring, a sense of compassion or social justice.

How do we foster these?

Through programs that embrace three characteristics: sustained relationships between adults and young people, teaching knowledge and skills to navigate the world and—this can be the most difficult—allowing kids to use those skills in valued community and family activities. Let your kids plan family vacations with you. Let them help set the menu for dinner. Or, if the parents give resources to charity, let young people help make that decision. And even though school administrators wince when I say this, let young people be on school boards. Let them sit on the Chamber of Commerce.

Can we take what we know about "positive youth development" and implement it anywhere to anyone?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus