Richard Lerner- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian
Current Issue
July / August 2014  magazine cover

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Richard Lerner

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The rule in human development, though it took a long time to recognize, is diversity. Every person is different, even monozygotic twins. No two people are in same place at the same time across their lives. You meet Honda hybrid, which is what I did. My neighbor didn't, and he still drives an SUV. We all come to any after-school program, any educational program with a different history. Where you are will depend on how far you can go. But the fact of the matter is, humans retain plasticity [the ability to change] across all their decades. There really is no young person that can't be improved. How much can they be improved? In what areas? How greatly they can be facilitated? That depends on a host of individual differences. But there is no young person who, in principle, cannot be enhanced.

How come some kids with these good characteristics still engage in problem behaviors?

The reason is, there are multiple determinants of behavior. The most popular activity kids engage in is sports. In sports you might get a message of competition: the only way you win is by your opponent losing. However, in youth development programs you get quite a different message of cooperation and collaboration. If a kid is engaged in sports and youth development programs at ten years old, he might be a little confused by these two messages.

Isn't a bit of rebellion OK?

Is some testing of limits good? Well, yes. Kids need to know how to deal with failure or blocked goals.

What can be done to reverse the myth of the bad teen in the mind of the general public?

Policy makers get re-elected by decreasing crime in their district, by lowering teen-pregnancy rates, not by promoting confidence in young people. People tell me all the time, the only way to change policy in this country is to give a politician a problem they can solve. I'm saying there are not just problems, there are possibilities of positive characteristics in kids. That won’t change unless members of our communities begin saying to politicians, yes, we want to prevent, but what are we doing to promote?

Can you sum up your findings in one sentence?

The capacity for young people to develop in positive ways, and to make important differences to themselves and others, is phenomenal.

What kind of adolescent wants to grow up and study adolescence?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus