Letting Kids Be Kids

It may be extreme to call it “Revenge of the Nerds,” but the “fast,” uber-popular, pot-smoking, risk-taking and all-around “cool” kids from middle school may be the duds at your 10-year high school reunion.

Or so claim the authors of a new study, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Cool’ Kids? Long-Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudomature Behavior,” which was published June 11 in the online journal Child Development.

Starting with seventh and eighth graders in middle school cafeterias, the researchers looked at attractiveness, popularity, romantic behavior, “social competence,” substance use and deviant (stealing dollar bills from parents, sneaking into movies) or criminal behavior among nearly 200 study participants over a period of 10 years.

DSCN1510The researchers, defining “pseudomature behavior” as “a desire to achieve social maturity without a concomitant level of emotional and behavioral maturity,” hypothesized that “…minor delinquent activity, precocious romantic involvement and a focus on physical appearance in friendships…linked to early adolescents’ strong desire for peer approval…will predict popularity in the short term…but fade over time.”

Those of us who have attended high school reunions know this to be true.

Even worse, the study’s researchers surmised that precocious behavior – and “overemphasis upon impressing peers” — could lead to lifelong problems in romantic relationships, serious deviant (or criminal) behavior and/or abuse of alcohol and marijuana.

The problem, the study found, is that “adolescents are most likely to engage in [this] behavior when they lack confidence in their capacity to meet the developmental challenge of managing peer relations.” As a result, they don’t hone the tools required for “competence in social relationships in the longer term.”

What’s more, “early reliance on upon minor acts of delinquency to impress peers may…lead to a greater likelihood of associating with deviance prone peers, who in turn would only be impressed by more and more serious acts of deviance over time.”

For more information about these findings, New York Times writer Jan Hoffman interviewed the study’s lead author, Joseph P. Allen, a University of Virginia professor of psychology, for the June 23 article: “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23.”

“These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism,” Hoffman writes.

Ten years later, in comparison to their “slower-moving” middle-school peers, the study participants had a “45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

At age 23, Dr. Allen notes, those who were socially advanced at age 13 “are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent.…They’re still living in their middle-school world.’

“Those early attempts to act older than they were seemed to have left them socially stunted,” Hoffman states.

Asked to summarize the research findings, Dr. Allen told Hoffman that while they were busy focusing on social status through risky or “pseudomature behaviors,” the teenagers missed a “critical development period.”

“At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream,” Hoffman writes, adding that Dr. Allen urges parents to “support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular.”

“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen told Hoffman.

So, for parents, caregivers and teachers, the important lesson is to let kids be kids. We need to help young teens resist the urge to act older, dress sassier, hang out with influential, older kids and experiment with pot and alcohol.

I think this was easier when we were young. Throughout middle school, I read avidly and spent my weekend nights babysitting. I certainly wasn’t the most popular girl in the seventh grade, and I didn’t care. I knew that once I entered high school, I would gain both social status and a social life through the religious-based youth group my siblings had joined.

I’m sure that the skills those pursuits taught me – reading for pleasure, taking care of kids, earning and managing money – have served me better than premature “seven minutes in Heaven” would have.

Today, short of spending a dozen years in the African bush, as did the main character’s family in Mean Girls, how can parents insulate kids from the social pressures required for popularity?

Today’s youth can watch nearly any movie or TV show via Netflix, Hulu or iTunes. They listen to internet radio on their phones and laptops, and can read blogs, Facebook posts and foreign newspapers at any time online. Through the TV show TMZ, they can track the moves and mishaps of celebrities, and via Twitter they learn what those stars eat for lunch, wear to the gym and drink in clubs.

With screens at their fingertips seemingly nonstop, teens experience a spectrum of influence that far exceeds anything those of us born before 1980 could imagine.

So how do we slow it all down? How do we give our kids permission to remain kids longer? What are your ideas or successful strategies? We’d love to read your comments below.

Linda Williams Rorem, Permission Slips, 30 June 2014
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Comments

  1. Hi – spent an hour or so going through Permission Slips today. NIce writing and meaningful topics! I enjoyed them.

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