Against a backdrop of negativity, normal teen behavior is too often mischaracterized. Indeed, a seemingly endless trickle of news reports, studies, and anecdotal storytelling paints Generation Y — those born between 1983 and 2004 — as narcissistic, uninvolved, and lacking in empathy. Clearly, the purveyors of these observations have not spent much time on your campuses. Instead they perpetuate the long-standing myth of adolescence as a time principally marked by ricocheting moods, rolling eyes, and slamming doors, or "storm and stress" as G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, bluntly put it.
Fortunately, there's a research-based view that tells another story — at least in regard to today's teenagers.
Perhaps nowhere is this other view more self-evident than among a diverse set of independent school students across the country. While the quantitative data is strong, anecdotal, qualitative data is just as compelling, highlighting the important constructs of character, engagement, leadership, and mentoring.
At Tabor Academy (Massachusetts), where I delivered a commencement address, Head of School John Quirk speaks to the school's waterfront location by offering a metaphor insistent on connecting opportunities such as launchings, courses to be chartered, destinations aimed at, and near-endless possibilities. Similarly, Bill Philip, head of Westminster School (Connecticut) — whom I met during a faculty workshop I conducted there — points to his school's motto of "Grit and Grace" as the embodiment of core values such as community, character, balance, and involvement that encourage young people to take risks and grow.
On a hilltop in Westchester, New York, Hackley School's entry is adorned with the carving "Enter here to be and find a friend." I did, even though my visit to address parents and students lasted less than 24 hours.
At The Webb School (Tennessee), I found a focus on leadership welded to a belief that graduates need to cultivate a host of aptitudes to be successful, including ones related to integrity and "a heart for service." Finally, at Chicago City Day School, I discovered a vision of learning housed in an enriched academic, aesthetic, and morally active environment.
Collectively, these profiles represent the value proposition independent schools have to offer: quality education transcends grade point averages and diplomas. While the Ivy League and other top colleges may be in the offing for many of these students, the opportunity for them to "do well by doing good" is what sets these schools apart.
For me, this is deeply heartening — since it's the message I try to convey to all schools. Even better, my research at SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) backs it up.
It also shatters the myth of storm and stress.
Data I collected from more than 2,700 middle and high school students reveal that most young people feel good about their progress on the key developmental tasks of establishing an identity, achieving independence, and building meaningful relationships with peers. In addition, the majority of teens say they are happy almost every day and perceive themselves as friendly (77 percent), honest (72 percent), and smart (72 percent).
Tufts University Professor Richard M. Lerner also offers rebuttal to definitions of this developmental stage that routinely link it to disruptive and risky behavior — through his research, finding ample evidence among young people of what he calls the five C's: competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. These may coalesce, says Lerner, in a sixth C, contribution — something independent schools intentionally aim to inspire.
It is likely that those who spend the most time with young people, including their teachers, already recognize this truer face of today's teens. In short, adolescents seem to be less self-absorbed and more other-oriented than they are given credit for.
Often inspired by the credos of the schools that many young people attend, civic-mindedness prevails. For example, Youth Service America calls the 2013 Global Youth Service Day the largest such event in the world, with the United States accounting for 1,623 of the 2,692 registered projects. And as far back as 2005, a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service called the state of youth volunteering "robust," stating that more than half of young people (55 percent) participate in volunteer activities each year. Their data also revealed a link between the level of youth volunteerism and the social institutions with which they interact.
Some of the programs in independent schools are formal. Others are informal. But all aim to connect students to the world around them. Lick-Wilmerding High School (California) has even established its Center for Civic Engagement to keep this public outreach front and center in the life of the school.
Lessons on leadership abound in the independent school world. And some of the emerging links to effective leadership qualities can be traced back to the classroom. These include the "non-cognitive skills" identified by John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio in their book, The Athena Doctrine:1
In response to growing interest in service and leadership, programs that promote social change have sprung up nationwide. One such organization is the LeaderShape Institute, founded in 1986 by Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. It was designed as a means of improving campus leadership and now partners with institutions across the country and around the world to promote the development of young people as leaders on and off campus.
- Empathy — Being sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others
- Vulnerability — Owning up to one's limitations and asking for help
- Humility — Seeking to serve others and to share credit
- Inclusiveness — Soliciting and listening to many voices
- Generosity — Being liberal with time, contacts, advice, and support
- Balance — Giving life, as well as work, its due
- Patience — Taking a long-term view
My recent visit with LeaderShape students at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania revealed a life-changing experience that effectively communicates "a commitment to a healthy disregard for the impossible." It focuses youth on a process of committing to a vision and developing the relationships necessary to make that vision a reality, all the while maintaining a high degree of personal integrity.
Does Character Count?
Though the promotion of integrity and character among young people is at the core of many academic institutions, the conduct of a few often tarnishes the reputation of many. For example, a series of high-profile student scandals, including ones at Stuyvesant High School in New York and Harvard University, has created a headwind of doubt about personal integrity through which educators, psychologists, and parents must push to find answers to the most troubling of questions: Does the pursuit of character really count among young people today?
Most people, no doubt, believe it does. But the push for achievement and attainment often obscures the desire for character and contribution.
Cheating and lying — are they old problems appearing in a new light or new problems requiring a closer examination of how we're raising our kids? My guess is probably a little of both.
As for the etiology of such behavior, many are quick to point out that these problems have been around for, well, longer than anyone can remember. So how do we explain such behavior and the propensity of some supposedly bright, high-achieving young people to disregard the very values they otherwise espouse?
One might conclude there is a clash between existing and emerging levels of moral development, as characterized by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, when actions judged by society's views and expectations (the norm for adolescents and adults) run into a growing realization that individuals are separate entities from society and their own perspectives may take precedence. In other words, it's OK to disobey rules inconsistent with one's own ambitions.
Perhaps therein lies the problem.
But as Paul Tough points out in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, it's not so much test scores that determine success, it's character evidenced by traits such as perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control — all fundamental elements of the independent school experience.
It appears that the development of certain character traits, often through the simple communication of "life lessons" at school, may elicit an interest in leadership by creating change for the good of others. When that activity involves starting, or extending, an organization, it is called social entrepreneurship.2 Social entrepreneurs not only inspire change but also provide hope.
The social entrepreneurs we hear about most often are successful adults. For example, among Forbes magazine's top 30 social entrepreneurs are Rafael Alvarez, whose Genesys Works teaches low-income high school juniors basic information technology skills and places them in paid internships, hoping they'll land steady jobs after graduation; Joyce Chen, who helped to develop a device that keeps low-birth-weight babies warm even when the electricity in hospitals fails; and John Wood, whose Room to Read has opened more than 12,000 libraries in nine countries, including India, Nepal, and Vietnam.3 Better-known examples of social entrepreneurship can be found in the work of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson.
But young people have a critical role to play as well.
Compelling examples of youth creating change can be found in the stories of three of my former campers at Cape Cod Sea Camps: Julie Barbera from Scarsdale, New York, who started a local chapter of SADD in order to promote a more dependable and compassionate school community; Justin Deckert, a student at Colby College in Maine, who launched a learning differences task force to address underserved peers struggling with coursework; and Pierce Keegan of Wayland, Massachusetts, who founded Pierce's Pantry, a nonprofit, gluten-free food bank for lower-income celiac disease families. Their work, in its totality, is reminiscent of Phillips Academy's well-known motto "non sibi" or "not for self," which was forged into the school's original seal by Paul Revere.
The character traits Barbera, Deckert, and Keegan identify as instrumental to their entrepreneurship include determination, independence, accountability, respectfulness, initiative, dependability, patience, trustworthiness, cooperation, industriousness, loyalty, responsibility, creativity, and inventiveness.
They also credit the influence of important mentors in their lives.
Mentors as Change Agents
While parents play an influential mentoring role in the lives of their children, it is clear that other "significant" adults can, and do, effect important outcomes when it comes to educational achievement, social and emotional well-being, and health and safety.
"Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Youth Development," a report by the research center Child Trends, concludes that adults other than parents can provide necessary emotional support, advice, and guidance while also helping to build self-esteem and self-control. It also points out that, overall, young people who participate in mentoring relationships experience positive academic benefits.
Significantly, the Search Institute reports that young people need at least three nonparent adult mentors in order to reach their full potential.
While "matched" mentorships have long been shown to enhance school performance, improve relationships with parents and peers, reduce initiation of drug and alcohol use, and decrease incidents of youth violence, a Teens Today study conducted by SADD found similarly encouraging results for young people with informal or "natural" mentors, such as classmates and teachers. According to more than 3,000 middle and high school students who participated in the research, these mentors are some of the most important, influential people in their lives.
That influence shows up in some pretty substantial ways. For example, 46 percent of teens with a mentor reported a high "sense of self" versus 25 percent of teens without a mentor. Mentored teens are also more likely to avoid alcohol and drug use.
So profoundly positive are mentoring relationships, and the dialogue that supports and nurtures them, that CARE has established a vision statement and goal related to prevention:
CARE will substantially reduce youth risk behavior across the United States by fundamentally changing the way that peers, parents, and other caring adults talk with teenagers about decision making. And, by the year 2020, we will have inspired and catalogued one million such meaningful conversations.
This is a provocative, and potentially powerful, initiative that CARE hopes will motivate more youth and adults to consider establishing mentoring relationships.
The Profile of a Mentor
So, what does a mentor look like? The characteristics young people ascribe to them include trustworthy, caring, understanding, respectful, helpful, dependable, fun, compassionate, and responsible. Being a good listener and offering good advice are also considered key skills of successful mentors.
Sounds like a daunting job description!
But according to a 14-year-old ninth-grader, "Being a mentor to someone does not mean you have to always know the right answer, just that you are always there when they need someone to lean on." She may be on to something. As Woody Allen said, "Eighty percent of life is just showing up."
In her essay "The Power of Presence," which appears in This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, psychologist Debbie Hall writes, "Presence is a noun, not a verb; it is a state of being, not doing. States of being are not highly valued in a culture which places a high priority on doing. Yet, true presence or 'being with' another person carries with it a silent power — to bear witness to a passage, to help carry an emotional burden, or to begin a healing process."4
The truth is that teachers possess an incredible capacity to inspire children and, thereby, to shape the future. And along the way, many of them provide the very type of mentoring most beneficial to young people in search of their place in the world. Thus, in our rush to build better teachers, bolster math and science scores, and improve American students' rank in the global community, we are well served to remember that great teachers transcend SAT results — as evidenced by Time magazine contributor Claudia Wallis, who credits teachers with providing the inspiration that led to her writing career.5
As it turns out, I can say the exact same thing about my sixth-grade teacher.
The Mentored as Mentee?
Often lost in the data about these relationships is the boomerang effect: mentored youth who, in turn, become mentors themselves. This may be especially the case in independent schools, where older students serve as mentors for younger ones at the lower, middle, or upper school levels.
Mentors, regardless of their age, build human bridges that span important life transitions both "linear" (planned) and "nonlinear" (unplanned), easing the stress of change — a subject I'm studying at CARE.
The Independent School Edge
Sometimes the best opportunities are born of need. That may be the case with the value proposition offered — and rightly marketed — by independent schools: the intentional mentoring of students that emphasizes not just reading, writing, and arithmetic but also the development of character as a foundation on which students can build lives of achievement, success, and service.
That is what defines today's adolescence. And that is what leaves me, oddly, hopeful.
1. John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013.
2. For more on social entrepreneurship, see my article, "Change Agents: Social Entrepreneurship and the Summer Camp Experience," Camping Magazine, May/June 2013. www.acacamps.org/campmag/1305/change-agents.
3. Helen Coster, "Forbes' List of the Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs," Forbes, 2011. www.forbes.com/impact-30/list.html.
4. Debbie Hall, "The Power of Presence," National Public Radio, December 26, 2005. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5064534.
5. Claudia Wallis, "How to Make Great Teachers," Time, February 13, 2008. www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1713473,00.html.