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A Recipe for Responsible Teenagers

Teens have a need to be seen as valuable, contributing members to society.

Key points

  • Stereotypes about teens can create self-fulfilling prophecies for their behavior, either in a positive and negative direction.
  • Teenagers have a fundamental need for autonomy, and a desire to be seen as valuable, contributing members of society.
  • If given more opportunities, teenagers may rise to the occasion; otherwise they may seek autonomy by rebelling.

The following is Part 2 of my previous post, How Stereotypes About Teens Cause Harm.

We have seen that perpetuating negative stereotypes about teenagers creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that motivates irresponsible behavior, and even shapes teenage brains to become more impulsive.

Does the self-fulfilling prophecy work in the opposite direction? Can more positive beliefs about teens’ roles in society predict more positive outcomes? The short answer: Yes, but only if teenagers genuinely believe it.

Creating Positive Stereotypes

There is some empirical evidence that positive stereotypes can influence teenagers’ behavior. For example, one intervention study examining over 300 seventh-graders from 12 different classrooms tested the effects of exposing students to a brief passage endorsing positive views of teenagers and dispelling negative stereotypes (Qu et al., 2018).

As expected, students in the intervention condition had significantly higher endorsements of positive stereotypes of adolescents, such as increased responsibility at home and at school, and significantly lower endorsements of negative stereotypes, such as risk-taking and rebelliousness, for both themselves and for teenagers as a whole.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

To test whether the students practiced what they preached following the intervention, for the next 3 days experimenters collected daily reports on student behaviors. And the walk did indeed match the talk. For all 3 days of followup, students in the intervention condition had significantly higher academic engagement, and for the first 2 days, they had significantly lower risk-taking behaviors (Qu et al., 2018).

The Bigger Picture

While this study provides evidence that countering negative stereotypes about teenagers can produce positive results, it may seem naive to expect that we can create more responsible teens by simply encouraging them to think positively. We need a big-picture understanding of why teenagers might be motivated to endorse these positive or negative stereotypes in the first place.

The teenage years are a time of rapid change. Beyond the physical changes of puberty, adolescence is a time of identity formation and catalyzation.

While this experimentation may bring about negative consequences, including risk-taking, impulsivity, rebelliousness, and a need for acceptance by peers, it is motivated by a fundamentally positive desire for increased autonomy and social acceptance.

The Need to Contribute

Alongside the desire for increased autonomy and acceptance during adolescence comes a fundamental need to contribute (Fuligni, 2019). This is related to the needs for belongingness and esteem outlined in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s (1943) famous hierarchy of needs.

Adolescence is a time of initiation into adulthood. In many cultures across history, teenagers must prove their worth as a contributing and valuable member of society through increased responsibility. Yet in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies, the teenage years are predominantly spent in school, and teens no longer play as active a role in the workforce or in childrearing as they have historically and cross-culturally.

This is not to say that we don’t still view our teenagers as adults-in-training or potentially valuable members of society, but our focus has largely shifted to what we can do for our youth, rather than what our youth can do for us. While this philosophy is largely motivated by care, it has the unintended consequence of removing agency from teenagers.

Autonomy, or Else

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget recognized the need for autonomy during adolescence, and argued further that the teenage years are characterized by a “Messianic” stage during which the adolescent “not only tries to adapt his ego to the social environment but, just as emphatically, tries to adjust the environment to his ego. In other words, when he begins to think about the society in which he is looking for a place, he has to think about his own future activity and about how he himself might transform this society” (Piaget, 1958; Rogmann, 2021).

In other words, teenagers seek increased responsibility in order to transform the world into a better place for them to live in.

Your gut reaction to this might be: "There's no way I’d trust teenagers with shaping the world, they’re too immature." And there is a great deal of truth in this: Adolescents are inexperienced and, by definition, still developing. However, this drive for autonomy will persist nonetheless, and without an accessible pathway for contribution and recognition, teenagers can rebel.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Hidden behind the self-fulfilling prophecy of teenage stereotypes is a belief that responsibility can change the world, and the teen’s life, for the better.

It is not that the teenager endorsing negative stereotypes about adolescence (lazy, rebellious) takes pride in these beliefs, and then perpetuates them with satisfaction. Hidden behind these negative stereotypes is a message that there is no possibility for teenagers to behave autonomously and catalyze an identity geared toward contributing to make the world a better place.

Nor is it that the teenager endorsing positive stereotypes about adolescence (independent, mature) naively decides to become more responsible. Hidden behind these characterizations is an optimism that teenagers have a role to contribute, and that their contributions will be recognized.

The stereotypes do become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but teenagers are not merely acting out what they believe their role in society to be. They are literally self-fulfilling, whether gaining autonomy by rebelling against a society that does not provide them enough room to contribute, or by rising to meet the demands of one that does.

References

Fuligni A. J. (2019). The Need to Contribute During Adolescence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 331–343. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691618805437

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29-29.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Piaget, J. (1958). The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Basic Books.

Qu, Y., Pomerantz, E. M., & Wu, G. (2020). Countering Youth's Negative Stereotypes of Teens Fosters Constructive Behavior. Child Development, 91(1), 197–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13156

Rogmann, J. J. (2021). Notes on Piaget & Inhelder’s Formal Operational Stage as a ”Messianic Stage“ (Research Report, updated 2021). Hamburg, Germany: University of Hamburg, Faculty of Education, Department of Ed

Fuligni A. J. (2019). The Need to Contribute During Adolescence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 331–343. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691618805437

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29-29.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Piaget, J. (1958). The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Basic Books.

Qu, Y., Pomerantz, E. M., & Wu, G. (2020). Countering Youth's Negative Stereotypes of Teens Fosters Constructive Behavior. Child Development, 91(1), 197–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13156

Rogmann, J. J. (2021). Notes on Piaget & Inhelder’s Formal Operational Stage as a ”Messianic Stage“ (Research Report, updated 2021). Hamburg, Germany: University of Hamburg, Faculty of Education, Department of Educational Psychology.

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