Parenting, teen development and prejudice

Constance A. Flanagan, a professor of youth civic development at Pennsylvania State University; Marvin Megibow, a clinical psychologist and professor (emeritus) of psychology at California State University, Chico; Lois Christensen, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Alabama, Birmingham; and Cynthia Garcia Coll, professor of education, psychology and pediatrics at Brown University, answer questions about parenting, teen development and prejudice.

What are the most common behaviors and problems related to prejudice, discrimination and tolerance that arise during the teen years?

Flanagan: Teens are keenly aware of social status and group membership and of the ranking of social groups. This allows them to also be more aware of the perspective of "the other." They are able to empathize more and have a better understanding of the poor, the dispossessed, etc., because they are so emotionally sensitive to feeling excluded themselves. Because they get those concepts, this is a good time for parents to continue lessons about valuing difference and to encourage them to get involved with projects that help them become more civically engaged.

Megibow: The issue of identity comes up a lot during this period. (Teens) tend to be trying to find their way and develop their own personal identities, which sometimes can be threatened by any sense of difference. The teen peer culture contributes to finding ways of putting people down because of difference; and by this period, teens have either learned from home or from our society to put people down because of difference, or embrace it.

Coll: First, there is more discrimination felt during these years, often from adults in power positions - police, teachers, storekeepers. Teenagers have bigger bodies, they dress differently, they are closer to adulthood and are now seen as more of a threat than when they were younger. In many ways our society views adolescents as dangerous.

When you add gender, race and ethnicity in the equation, it's even worse, because those teenagers may now experience overt discrimination that they might not have experienced before. The second issue is that teenagers are dealing with intimate, amorous relationships, and while some parents may have been very comfortable allowing their kids to play with kids of different races and backgrounds, they might now be uncomfortable with it.

Experts stress how important it is for parents to teach kids about valuing difference in the early years. Are the teen years too late to teach these lessons?

Christensen: Because of the everyday situations that come up in life, there will always be moments to teach such lessons. Hurricane Katrina is an excellent example. It provided so many examples of the vast differences in our society because it was so easy to see who seemed to matter and who did not seem to matter, who had and who didn't have. Teenagers are able to grasp those kinds of complex issues better than younger children, and parents can use those issues to get across their own values and opinions and get teenagers to open up and talk about theirs.

Flanagan: It's never too late. Lessons come up all the time; they can come up in families. There may be older members of families, for instance, and teenagers hear or witness prejudices among those people. That's the time for parents to call those relatives on it and teach their teenagers to be brave enough not to be bystanders. It's so easy to raise issues of exclusion in this country - they're in the news all the time, so there are always opportunities for parents to bring them up with their kids.

Self-segregation can be a common phenomenon among teens. Should parents be concerned about it? What can parents do to encourage teens to widen their circle of friends?

Megibow: Kids are always going to try to be at a maximum comfort level. When seeking and learning about their own identity, it's normal for teenagers to seek out certain characteristics in others that make them feel more comfortable with their identity. That is often found in the people who are most like them. It's not really something parents need to be concerned about, as long as there are other opportunities for the child to associate with people outside of that comfort zone in church groups or in the neighborhood or other social activities.

Coll: I think parents should recognize that teenagers, like all humans, find a certain sense of comfort in being around people who are like them. That does tend to happen with teens in schools. Parents have to know that it happens and then think about extracurricular activities, summer programs, vacations, as ways to help make kids more comfortable crossing cultural and group lines. And parents have to make those choices in their own lives, too, and find ways to widen their own friendship circles.

Flanagan: There are lots of other good mechanisms for teens to meet others and for parents to encourage inter-group relations. Service learning and volunteering in the community are examples, but that is an area where you have to be careful not to reinforce some of the stereotypes about different groups. For example, when all the kids of privilege go to work in communities that aren't [privileged], that can sometimes reinforce stereotypes. It's important to look for ways for kids to have those opportunities while working alongside different groups of people, not going to volunteer for those people.

It's a common belief that teenagers don't talk to parents very much, choosing instead to talk to peers. How, then, can parents get teenagers to open up and discuss issues of tolerance, prejudice and discrimination?

Christensen: Kids of all ages, but especially teenagers, relate very well to inquiry. Parents can ask kids what they think about certain issues and let them answer, really making an effort to respect their views even if they don't always agree. But another way to get kids talking is to provide opportunities for them to talk. If we know that kids are comfortable talking to peers, let's bring them together in diverse groups, let's encourage them to talk about these kinds of issues and share what they think about solving problems.

Megibow: Broadly speaking, parents should make themselves available for such conversations and make sure the kids know they are available to talk about any subject. And parents should be careful not to always take one-word answers as sufficient. Don't stop at the "nothin'" - try to probe deeper. Also, parents can create situations in the family for people to come together - mealtime, leisure activities. Those are the moments where conversations happen naturally, and teenagers are less likely to feel like they are being put on the spot or questioned.

Coll: I think the notion that teens don't like to talk to parents is a little exaggerated. Yes, there are times when they don't want to talk, but then there are times when they can't wait to talk. What parents can do is keep talking, keep [instilling] the values and even more importantly, make sure that if you do the talk, you also walk the walk. With preschoolers and younger kids, parents might be able to get away with the "do as I say and not as I do," but teenagers won't live with that contradiction. If you are talking to teenagers about how and why they should practice values of tolerance and embrace difference, and you're not doing that in your actions, they will reject those messages from you.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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