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Overcoming a Bad Reputation

Overcoming a Bad ReputationTufts' Richard Lerner says that adolescents deserve more credit than the popular myths about "troubled teens" afford them.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.07.07] Whether it is James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" or the latest news story about a teenage vandal, the perception of adolescents as troubled and problem-causing individuals has persisted for decades. But Richard Lerner, a leading expert in adolescent development, says that the focus should be shifted away from the negative and toward the positive.

"There really is no young person that can't be improved," Lerner explained in an interview with Smithsonian. "How much can they be improved? In what areas? How greatly they can be facilitated? That depends on a host of individual differences. But there is no young person who, in principle, cannot be enhanced."

Lerner holds the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and is director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. His new book, "The Good Teen: Rescuing Adolescence from the Myths of the Storm and Stress Years," will be published in October by Random House.

In the interview, Lerner noted that at the turn of the 20th century, one school of thought likened adolescence to the period when man transitioned from a savage to a civilized creature. While research has advanced since then, the remnants of such notions have not been completely extinguished. But Lerner contends that any young person's positive potential can be realized, regardless of his or her background.

"The rule in human development, though it took a long time to recognize, is diversity," Lerner told Smithsonian. "We all come to any after-school program, any educational program with a different history. Where you are will depend on how far you can go."

In "The Good Teen," Lerner describes "the 5 Cs" as key indicators of successful development: competence, confidence, character, connection and caring. These traits, he told Smithsonian, can be fostered by cultivating relationships between adults and young people, teaching real-world skills and allowing teens to use those skills in the community and family environment. Still, he told the magazine, kids must balance multiple messages, and conflicting influences are one factor behind problem behavior.

A key concern, says the Tufts professor, is the inclination to describe good teens not by their positive traits, but their lack of negative ones such as drug use or bad grades.
"We all too often define young people as being positive because of what they're not doing," said Lerner. "That's a very dispiriting message." He encourages people to not focus solely on what kids are doing wrong, but rather on what they're doing right.

"The capacity for young people to develop in positive ways, and to make important differences to themselves and others, is phenomenal."

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