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John Coleman University of Oxford [email protected] Adolescents constructing their own adolescence. Interview 1.

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Adolescents constructing their own adolescence

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John coleman university of oxford john coleman@education ox ac uk l.jpg

John Coleman

University of Oxford

[email protected]

Adolescents constructing their own adolescence

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Interview 1

“They went through this list – what are the main reasons for under-age people to have sex, and they went through this list that they had made, and it was all peer pressure, and to fit in, and stuff like that, and they didn’t once mention that people might just want to do it. They seemed to think that no-one does things because they want to, everyone does it to fit in. And most of the time they don’t, you know, that hardly ever happens”. 17 year-old boy.

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Agency: shaping their lives

“Too often adolescents are portrayed as passive recipients of circumstances ......

In reality they play an active role in shaping the context in which they operate”

(Feldman and Elliott, 1990)

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  • This lecture is based on the fourth edition of my book “The nature of adolescence” (2010), and on the ideas contained within it.

  • The major objective of the book is to highlight key areas of research that help us to better understand adolescent development

  • Today I am going to take three areas of research which I believe reflect what might be called a new research agenda

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Why is this important?

  • It is not that the focus of these studies is completely new, but rather that they highlight new ways of thinking about adolescence

  • I believe they all point towards a model that engages with agency

  • I believe they are also important because they show up a serious mis-match between the findings of research and the models being used in every day life.

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What underlies relationships

  • An example of a mis-match between what a parent believes and how a young person acts

  • The central point I want to explore today is this mis-match, and its implications

  • I am arguing that adults are engaged in creating a structure of authority and power, whilst in reality young people are shaping their own environment, constructing their own adolescence!

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Interview 2

“The teachers sometimes, they don’t really listen to students. Things like with the school, they just tend to do it. They put out a survey, and then they just do the opposite of what we say. Throughout the year they’ve done things like that. They ask, but then they do the opposite of what we say. I can’t really be bothered with getting involved!” 15 year-old boy.

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Interview 3

“I think like, with your parents, like, you can’t really put your say in what you want. And they won’t let you have your say in some things, but like now at school you sort of get to have your say in more things, like in lessons, and you can say what you like, and in school council and stuff”. 14 year-old girl.

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Models of interaction

  • I want to suggest, perhaps provocatively, that we can envisage two models of interaction between adults and young people.

  • One that is based on notions of agency, and therefore on a bi-directional model, which could be called a collaborative model

  • One based on a one-way view of relationships, which would be called an imperialist model.

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Young people talking

  • One important feature of the book is that I have tried to listen to young people talking

  • These young people made me think differently

  • The interviews were carried out with a random selection of adolescents

  • I want to show that the voices of young people are important in this exploration of our models of adolescence.

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Interview 4

“I think you have to sort of stop going to people and asking their opinions. You just have to think: “what do I actually want to do, and what would it turn out like if that did happen?” You need to isolate yourself from them, because you can get easily influenced by what your friends are saying or what your parents are saying, and sometimes it can’t really be right for you. You might not even consider either of their views ......” 16 year-old girl.

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Models of childhood

  • I believe that models of childhood from earlier periods of history are still with us.

  • The Victorian notion of the child as a possession, and the power balance that is implied

  • The child or young person as an innocent, needing protection

  • The parent as responsible for their children

  • These models imply a one-way relationship, and are still very influential.

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The life course model

  • The life course model embraces the idea of agency, thus very different from earlier models

  • The model is common to the sociology of youth, and to developmental psychology

  • The life course is embedded in context, history, time and place

  • Each stage affects other stages

  • Transitions and timing are critical

  • Individuals actively construct their “biography”, thus the notion of human agency.

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How is agency described?

  • In sociology a good example of the way agency can be described is work on what is called “navigation”.

  • Models of navigation and life management

  • Here the young person is seen as navigating his or her way through the transitions from education to work, from home to independent living and so on (Furlong, 2009).

  • But, how can agency be defined?

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A definition of agency

“In the social sciences agency refers to the capacity of the individual to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast structure refers to those factors which seem to limit or influence the opportunities that individuals have. Disagreement on the extent of one’s agency often causes conflict between parties: e.g. parents and children”.

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Agency in psychology

  • The idea of agency has been around for a long time in psychology

  • There is overlap with locus of control, and with notions of self-efficacy

  • Early work in the 1960s and 1970s looked at “child effects” in family relationships (Bell, 1968, Lytton, 1990)

  • As I shall show, much of the recent research has been looking at “adolescent effects”

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The focal model

  • The focal model was described in Coleman (1974). It was based on a large-scale study

  • It tackled the issue of how young people cope with major change

  • It suggested that they are active agents, managing the pace of change, and selecting which issues to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

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What happened next?

  • Other research has supported the focal model

  • But there is still a long way to go before agency becomes integral to our model of adolescence

  • The quotes given at the beginning made me start to think about agency again

  • And this has coincided with some important research on parents and teenagers

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The story of monitoring and supervision

  • It was believed for many years that low monitoring and supervision was linked to higher levels of anti-social behaviour (Graham and Bowling, 1995)

  • Many parenting interventions were based on these ideas, ideas that were essentially uni-directional.

  • Along came Stattin and Kerr (2000). They asked why there were low levels of monitoring and supervision.

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Stattin and Kerr’s research

  • Stattin and Kerr’s (2000) research involved a longitudinal study

  • It looked at young people aged 10 and 14

  • It identified key elements of relationships, including disclosure and trust

  • It showed that children’s low level of disclosure and poor communication at 10 was related to low levels of monitoring and supervision at 14.

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Critical implications

  • Critical implications of Stattin and Kerr’s research are that relationships are bi-directional

  • That parents modify their behaviour depending on the behaviour of their sons and daughters

  • That young people are agents and are active in shaping the behaviour of their parents, just as much as it works the other way round.

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Parent behaviour

Young person’s behaviour

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Information management

  • New research on information management has been developing, taking this idea forward.

  • This research has looked at adolescents’ active role in strategically managing their parents’ access to information

  • Marshall etal (2005) have shown that young people are sophisticated in making decisions about what to disclose.

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Marshall’s classification

  • Information management can be classified into: telling all, telling if asked, omitting details, keeping secret, and lying

  • The young person develops a complex set of categorisations which helps him or her to decide what to share with parents

  • This includes views about jurisdiction, embarrassment, protection, privacy etc.

  • Importantly levels of non-disclosure increase with age, whilst levels of secrecy remain constant.

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Judith Smetana’s (2010) work

  • Judith Smetana has worked for ten years on the interface between parents and teenagers, and how agency is managed in the home

  • She shows that gradually adolescents take more control of their lives, even though parents want to hold back or continue to exercise control

  • She calls her work “How teens construct their worlds”.

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The process of claiming agency

“Adolescents’ appeals to personal jurisdiction serve an important function in social development. Parents’ claims to social conventions, adolescents’ rejections of those claims, and their appeals to personal jurisdiction form an ongoing dialectic which leads to transformations in the boundaries of parental authority.” (Smetana, 2010)

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Parents’ and teenagers’ constructs

“They think their room is their own, that they can keep it that way if they want. But they’re wrong. The room is part of the house. As long as they live here, they have to follow my rules”.

“It’s my room, and it’s how I do things. In my room I’m comfortable when it’s messy. It’s my space. I know my parents would like it to be neat and tidy like the rest of the house, which I can appreciate, but my room is my own. It’s my space so I should keep it the way I want.”

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Some concerns and limitations

  • Clearly not everyone has the same degree of agency

  • Social capital, environment, economic factors, and cultural factors will all influence agency

  • But, maybe two senses of agency?

  • Personal agency to do with major life choices

  • Personal agency to do with everyday decisions and relationships

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Freedom of options

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Possible criticisms

  • First, clearly the growth of agency is developmental, as Smetana shows

  • Second, maybe parents and other adults (teachers for example) hold back agency because of fears about what young people will do with too much freedom

  • Also, is this an elitist argument? Agency only for the better off?

  • What about those who have little choice in life, those who are victims of abuse for example?

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The notion of personal agency is important

  • The notion of personal agency is so important because the model we hold of the child or adolescent affects all we do:

  • It affects the way we think

  • It affects the way we interact in our professional practice

  • It affects the way we do research.

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The implications of this

  • I am suggestingtwo possible models of how we conceptualise young people:

  • the imperialist model

  • the collaborative model

  • I am going to look briefly at two more interviews, and then conclude by considering how notions of agency might affect professional practice.

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Interview 5

“Well, I’m all for equal rights. I’m always going on at my parents, sort of saying we’ve got equal rights to them, and they’ve got no right to tell us what to do. OK we are under 16, but .... We get a lot of say in our house, it’s really democratic, and I really hate it when my parents say “Do this”, and you’ve got to do it, and you’ve got no say. You’re like a robot doing things that other people tell you. We’ve often talked about it, and it’s definitely wrong, but then there’s got to be a limit.” 15 year-old girl.

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Interview 6

“I think it’s a time when you go through a lot of pressure, and there’s a constant battle within yourself, and you have so many pressures from outside, pressures from school, and parents and friends, and you have to battle with all these, and from that you have to say: “whatever all these are saying, I have to think: what do I want to do?” You want to do what you think is right, even if it is wrong, you know that it’s what you chose to do, so whatever happens it’s your fault. I’d rather that, in some cases do something and if it’s wrong I know it’s me, I chose to do it.” 16 year old girl.

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Examples from practice

  • There are good examples of models of practice that have been shaped by ideas of agency

  • In education the ideas behind “pupil voice” represents one good example

  • Another, from health, involves the training of vulnerable young people as health advocates

  • In social work, ideas about victimhood and developing new identities also draws on concepts of agency.

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  • It is important to be aware of the models of adolescence that underlie our work and our relationships

  • A model which accepts agency would be a bi-directional model, a collaborative model

  • But, this is not how most adults operate!

  • Research over the last decade very much endorses this model

  • If we engage with it, it will have profound effects on our parenting and on our practice.

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  • Bell, R (1968) A reinterpretation of the direction of effects in studies of socialization. Psychological Review. 75. 81-95.

  • Coleman, J (1974) Relationships in adolescence. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Coleman, J (2010) The nature of adolescence: 4thEdn. Routledge.

  • Feldman, S and Elliott, G (1990)(Eds.) At the threshold: the developing adolescent. Harvard University Press.

  • Furlong, A (2009)(Ed.) Handbook of youth and young adulthood. Routledge International.

  • Graham, J and Bowling, B (1995) Young people and crime. Home Office Research Study No. 145. HMSO

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More references

  • Laird, R and Marrero, M (2010) Information management and behaviour problems. Journal of Adolescence. 33. 297-308.

  • Lytton, H (1990) Child and parent effects in boys’ conduct disorder. Developmental Psychology. 26. 683-697.

  • Marshall, S et al. (2005) Information management: considering adolescents’ regulation of parental knowledge. Journal of Adolescence. 28. 633-648.

  • Smetana, J et al. (2010) Adolescents, families and social development: how teens construct their worlds. Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Stattin, H and Kerr, M (2000) Parental monitoring: a reinterpretation. Child Development. 71. 1070-1083

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