What We Can Learn from Tom and Huck
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
I think we can all empathize with poor Aunt Polly. How many times have we called to our adolescent children repeatedly, our voices growing louder and louder, and still received no answer? More than a quarter century before adolescence even became a field of scientific study, Mark Twain captured what for many parents was a universal view of teenagers: they were troublesome and troubled. And if Aunt Polly had a problem dealing with young Tom, well then, when it came to his friend Huck Finn, there was just no hope.
Yet one of the features that makes Mark Twain's novels endure is that their author surprised us each time we turned the page, following these two young adolescents on their adventures. Yes, both boys were more than a handful to deal with. Aunt Polly was always at her wits' end contending with all the mischief her nephew and his friend kicked up. However, by the time we finish The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we discover that Tom's and Huck's problem behaviors were only a partand a very small partof who they were. Sure, the boys were mischievous, but they also showed great courage. At great risk to their own lives and even in the face of social disapproval, they stood up against crime and racial discrimination. They had character; they were loyal to friends and to family. They were also ingenious and able to solve problems, and they had enough "stick-to-it-iveness" to keep their promises and commitments, even against great odds. And they possessed the ability to love.
We can easily appreciate why Twain was such a captivating storyteller. He roped us in by making us believe that he was going to recount the adventures of two problem-filled adolescents. Instead, what he showed us was that although the boys had problems and flaws, they possessed extraordinary strengths. He encouraged us to overcome our own stereotypical expectations of teenagers and see these two boys as complete human beings. Overall, they were young people to admire and to value.
A METAPHOR FOR OUR TIMES
Twain's novels about Tom and Huck may be regarded as a metaphor for all American youth and perhaps all Americans. More than a century ago, his books conveyed the message that we should look beyond what may be an annoying characteristic or a shortcoming of our children and even of ourselves. Twain reminds us to keep our eyes wide open and allow the breadth of the person to be understood and appreciated. There is more to young people than just those irksome aspects of their behavior that may cause you worry. America and its youth had problems in the post-Civil War years during which Twain wrote these novels. Yet the individuals in this nation, and the nation itself, had considerable strengths, and these strengths, he believed, outweighed the problems.
Twain gave us this message of hope more than 125 years ago. Today, there are exciting results coming in from new research about America's youth. Much of this research comes from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, a research project within my own laboratory, the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University. Over the course of this book, I will tell you about the results of my research and, as well, the research of my colleagues across the nation who are learning similar things about the strengths present in all young people and about our hope for enhancing the positive development of all our children.
These innovative findings reinforce Twain's wisdom. Unfortunately, in the years that have passed between the publication of Twain's novels and the emergence of today's new data, many of usparents and scientists includedhave lost sight of the lessons we learned about young people from Tom and Huck.
All too often, parents have acted as if the only important aspects of their children's behaviors were those that caused problems. We think of adolescence as a time of storm and stress. Scientists, too, have regarded young people as lacking, as deficient, as unable to behave correctly and in a healthy manner. We characterize them as dangerous to others and as endangered themselves (because of their self-destructive behaviors).
Given this perspective on teenagers, researchers devoted their energies to finding ways to prevent young people from becoming all the bad things they could become. Therapists, too, used this deficit approach when treating young people. If their problems could not be prevented, then therapists searched for ways to reduce the impact of their shortcomings. Everyone focused on the problems. Experts of all types did not look to see if, in succeeding chapters of life, there were unnoticed strengths and admirable qualities that should be reinforced.
The Good Teen seeks to correct this imbalance. We do not need to see our young people as, essentially, repositories of problems. Instead of dwelling on their weaknesses, we can concentrate on their strengths.
There's no denying that adolescence can be a tumultuous time and that teenagers sometimes act out, at times egregiously. It's not all smooth sailing. Just ask Aunt PollyTom gave her fits. All children do, at times. No adolescent is free of problems. So what's the best way to handle this reality?
It would have been incorrect for Aunt Polly to resort to strict punishment (once the preferred method for managing children's unruliness) or to think of it as her only option for treating Tom's behavioralthough of course she certainly considered this alternative throughout the novel. It would be just as wrongheaded today to accept child-rearing options such as "tough love," "boot camp," and other flashy practices that advocate punishment to quell what we regard as children's inevitable rambunctious, disobedient, and troubling behavior. Such approaches are misguided and downright dangerous now that we have so much research to support the idea that all youthno matter what their backgrounds or characteristicshave the potential to develop in more positive and healthy directions.
The Good Teen will explain how you can help your teenagers write an optimistic script for this phase of their maturation. Even if your children remind you of Tom and Huck, they will mostly likely grow up to lead successful, fulfilling lives, contributing positively to their own development and to that of their families, communities, and ultimately our nation and society. By taking to heart the messages emerging from this new research, which we will discuss, you can collaborate with your teenager at home, in school, and in your neighborhood to make certain that the story ends in a positive way. How? Keep your eyes open. Look for the bigger picturethe full storyabout your child. Don't draw a conclusion about how the story will end by just reading the first chapter. Keeping this rule in mind may be very difficult at times, but it will pay off.
Consider Nancy. It was a Sunday evening, and Nancy found herself in the kitchen preparing a batch of pancakes for dinner. Ever since they were little, her kidsseventeen-year-old Eric and fifteen-year-old Donnaloved the idea of having breakfast at night. It had been a family tradition for more years than Nancy could remember. When the kids were younger, they used to help her, adding the ingredients, mixing the batter, and setting the table.
Now her husband, Rob, put out the plates because both kids were busy with more exciting activities. Eric had spent the day with his friends shooting a video for their English class. They'd been holed up for hours in Eric's bedroomalthough Nancy couldn't imagine why anyone would want to spend time in his disaster of a room, decorated with dirty socks, laundry, and fast-food containers strewn on every available surface. Eric wasn't a straight-A student, but he loved taking challenging classes, such as AP English and history. In fact, he was talking about becoming a high school teacher after finishing college.
Donna had had a busy day alsosoccer practice in the morning, and then her weekly stint at the soup kitchen where she volunteered. She'd just called to say that she'd be a few minutes late. "She left her backpack at soccer practiceagainand has to go back to the coach's house to get it," Nancy told Rob. "She's so forgetful! She knows she's supposed to be home on time for dinner. And I asked Eric to clean his room before his friends came over, and he said that he would. . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"I know, I know," Rob said. "They're frustrating, each in a different way. But you know what? They're really great kids. Think about it: at least Donna called. And no matter what Eric's room looks like, he's incredibly creative. He's basically directing and producing the video himself."
It was true, Nancy had to admit. Her kids may not have been perfect, but they were terrific. Years ago, Nancy remembered, people warned her about the maelstrom that would overtake family life when her kids became teenagers. "Just wait!" her friends had told her with dark foreboding. "You'll see. It's a roller coaster, a time characterized by endless fights, erratic behavior, endless limit testing, risky experimentation, disrespect, abrasive back talk, loss of academic focus, hair-raising moodiness, and wanton acts of outrageous behavior, not to mention life-threatening experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems."
But on the whole, adolescence hadn't been as bad as she'd been led to fear. Quite the opposite. In many ways, Nancy was enjoying her children more than she ever had. To watch them grow into people with their own opinions, to take their places in the community and at school, to become aware of and active in the larger world, to forge relationships with new peopleit was gratifying in ways Nancy couldn't have imagined and never would have anticipated.
Does this family sound familiar? It could be yours. According to my research, it probably is, even though you may not realize it. Sometimes I think we all resemble Aunt Polly, standing on the porch screaming at Tom to come do his choresand seeing our teenagers not as they are but as we expect them to be.
IT IS A MISTAKE TO EMBRACE THE STEREOTYPE
Think about it: when was the last time you heard a parent praise his or her teenager? When was the last time you did?
Most likely you're like Nancy. Whenever she met a friend in the library who asked how Donna was doing, Nancy would immediately say, "Forgetful and inconsiderate, as always." If she was asked to describe Eric, the first things she thought of were what a slob he could be and how he often lost track of timeas if these constituted his entire personality rather than just two aspects of it. Only during rare moments, such as during her conversation with Rob, was she able to stop dwelling on her children's faults and see their strengths.
Sometimes I am convinced that many parents do not even have a useful vocabulary to describe teens who aren't "troubled." Although we're comfortable acknowledging academic achievement (usually in the form of school grades), when it comes to other aspects of their lives, we mostly describe "good" kids as either those who have learned to manage or cope with their shortcomings or ones who don't have problems. That is, we resort to negatives: good kids don't do drugs, don't hang out with the wrong crowd, and don't engage in risky behavior. To many parents, the absence of bad things is the definition of a good kid. They think, "My child is doing well because she's not in trouble." Do we even have enough words to depict all the important, valuable, admirable, and positive things that a young person can do? Have we forgotten how to affirm their positive characteristics?
This collective amnesia is more serious than you may at first realize. Our lack of vocabulary isn't innocuousit's a symptom of a much larger public and scientific problem that has serious implications, both for individual teenagers and for our society at large. By focusing our conversations with friends on risks and dangers, and by our fascination with reading the incessant media accounts that emphasize the negatives of the teen years, we've implicitly accepted a theory of adolescence that's based on deficits. When we view teenagers as deficientas if something's wrong with or misssing from themit affects them. Acknowledging our low expectations, hearing nothing but their shortcomings, they feel vulnerable. Ultimately, they may come to believe that it is inevitable that they will become involved in problematic or dangerous behavior. They may incorporate the sense of actually being "at risk" as living only a step away from getting in trouble or creating problems for others, whether it involves taking drugs, dropping out of school, becoming pregnant, or getting caught up in violent behavior.
Imagine if everywhere you turned people thought poorly of youif every time you read an article or saw a TV news report about people your age, you realized that no one expected very much of you. Surrounded by these impressions, it wouldn't take long for you to feel burdened by the incessant accusations and suspicions. Some teens become convinced that their parents are just waiting to discover incriminating evidence or are always on the verge of asking invasive and accusatory questions: "Are you smoking cigarettes? Are you smoking dope? Are you having sex?"
What a dispiriting, disheartening outlook! Teens who grow up in this atmosphere can have their self-esteem deflated, their motivation and spirit dampened. After all, when people don't expect the best of us, we often respond in kind.
Sheila, for example, wanted her fourteen-year-old son, Andy, to help out with household chores. Since he loved their cat, Star, Sheila asked her son to be responsible for cleaning out the kitty litter box twice a week. At first, he was fairly responsible. But after a couple of weeks, Sheila found herself having to remind him. Within a month, she was nagging him all the time.
One day Andy was in the kitchen and overheard his mother on the phone talking to a friend, complaining about what a pain it was to constantly remind Andy to do his chores. "I'm sorry that I ever asked him to do this," he heard his mother say. "We always end up yelling at each other. But what I'm really worried about is that he doesn't know how to be responsible. He has to learn that life's not all play, that sometimes we have to do chores that we don't enjoy."
Andy waited until later that evening to say to his mom, "I heard you on the phone, and you have it all wrong. It's not that I don't want to help out around the houseit's just that I hate doing the kitty litter. I can't stand the smell."