Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescenceby Laura Sessions Stepp
Our Last Best Shot presents the personal stories of twelve girls and boys from across America. Their stories, and Laura Sessions Stepp's extensive research, provide real insight for parents trying to raise well-adjusted children in this difficult age. Filled with wisdom and common sense, based on cutting-edge research, and featuring an invaluable resource list, this is a book that parents and educators cannot afford to be without.
Author Biography: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, currently at The Washington Post. She is a former visiting scholar at the National Academy of Sciences and chairs the board of directors of the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families, based at the University of Maryland. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband and adolescent son.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
This book began in a boat on a lake.
It was a school holiday for my son, then eleven, and I had taken the day off from work to relax with him at our favorite park in northern Virginia. I watched in amazement as he lugged a thirty-pound motor down to the shore of Lake Occoquan, attached it to a small skiff, and started us off. For three hours he steered us in and out of narrow inlets as we marveled at the fall foliage and the great blue herons who stood at the water's edge. We ate turkey sandwiches and sour cream-flavored potato chips; we talked about kickboxing and television commercials and the ups and downs of friendship.
After docking, we played eighteen holes of miniature golf. On the drive home, we bought a pumpkin for Halloween and a dozen apples. As we wove our way through I-95 traffic, we listened to Green Day on the radio. It had been a perfect afternoon, real quality and quantity time. "Thanks, Mom, I had fun," Jeff said as we pulled into our driveway.
He headed for the computer and a game of Red Alert. "Homework first!" I reminded him.
Kaboom. You would have thought I had asked him to hug me in public. "Why don't I ever get to decide things for myself? You're always telling me what to do!" As the argument escalated, he swept past, leaving me with this: "I hope you know how much I hate you right now."
Only a few hours earlier he had been piloting our boat with the assurance of someone twice his age. Now he had morphed into an angry toddler. One minute I was a hero, the next, a villain. I was confused. Was he becoming an adolescent? Please God, not yet. I wasn't ready for that.
Everything I had heard about adolescents up to that point made me want to skip town for the next eight years. Raging hormones. Mood swings. Weird hair, weird clothes, and friends who wore safety pins in their noses. Girlfriends and sex. Cars and beer. And worst of all: There was nothing I could do about it.
Fortunately, I was writing about kids and families for The Washington Post at the time and had been assigned to cover the release of a report called Great Transitions. Written by a panel of experts for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Great Transitions reviewed and analyzed decades of research on early adolescence, defined as the years from age ten to age fifteen. I was fascinated, reassured, and challenged by the three big ideas of that report.
I was fascinated to be told that adolescence is a time of growth and change rivaling infancy in its speed and accomplishment. Bodies get taller and heavier, reproductive organs mature, and although kids flare up from time to time, most do not experience prolonged emotional turmoil. Over time and with help, they blossom rather than decay. The buds can first be seen in the early adolescent years: intellectual growth, expanding creativity, moral awareness-and other wonderfully human traits that are easily overlooked when we are barraged by television images of young teens gunning down their classmates at school.
I was reassured by the report's second big idea, that there are things that parents and other adults can do to nurture these seedlings. Biology is not destiny; for most kids, hormones are not navigating this boat. The intellectual and emotional changes we see in our growing children are largely the result of new experiences they encounter, their reactions to those experiences, and to the increased demands of friends and parents, teachers, and other adults.
The third big idea of Great Transitions, and its biggest challenge, was straightforward: In order to help our children navigate adolescence successfully we must board early. Early adolescence is our last best shot at preparing them for a successful life.
It is not our last opportunity, of course; our children's intellectual and emotional growth continues for years afterward at a slower pace. But it is our last best opportunity because they are beginning to adopt patterns of thought and behavior that will accompany them for years to come.
During early adolescence our kids first begin to ask, in a serious way, who they are, what they believe, and what they have to offer the world. Many encounter worldly temptations for the first time. If we don't show them how to find some answers and to make wise choices, they may drift in circles for years or even eventually beach the boat. But if we do provide the right kind of guidance, they stand a much better chance at sailing by the markers most of us would use to define success. They will become adults who are reasonably well educated, meaning they have had training beyond high school, preferably college. They will possess enough knowledge or skill to earn a living with pride. They will enjoy and be committed to a family and to friends. They will be ready to assume the responsibilities of citizenship and community involvement. They will be adaptable to change. And, as hard as it may be to believe, they will be able to live a good and meaningful life independently of us. In a nutshell: They will become the kind of guests we would like to invite over for dinner.
What kind of guidance, I wondered, do kids this age need from us in order to eventually achieve these goals? Are the problems they encounter today really that different from the problems of past generations, and, if they are, what can we do about that? Most important-since adolescence is often considered a time of rebellion and turmoil-how do we distinguish between signs of normal growth and trouble? What are the signals that let us know when to intervene and when to let them solo? Are those signals different depending on their skin color, income, family structure, or community?
In order to find children and families who could lead me to some answers, I had to decide first where to look. After talking to social scientists and other sources I knew from my years at the Post, and doing extensive reading, I settled on three communities: urban Los Angeles on the West Coast; the medium-sized city of Durham, North Carolina, in the East; and Ulysses, Kansas, a farm town slightly southwest of this country's center.
Each community provides a different context for raising kids. Los Angeles is home to more teenagers within its metropolitan boundaries than any other city in the country, and its combination of nationalities, incomes, and lifestyles is virtually unique. It is also the hub of a media industry that profoundly affects how our youths spend their time and how they feel about themselves.
In Durham, young people and their families are caught up in a major shift from a farm-based economy to an economy dependent on health-care services and technology. The area has grown rapidly, as has the cost of living, forcing a high proportion of parents to work and to work more hours per week than they once did. The city also has an interesting racial mix. Almost one-half of its two hundred thousand citizens are black, and an unusually high proportion of those black residents have a college degree. As I found out, racial issues are front and center in the daily lives of many Durham students, just as they are to young people in many cities today.
Ulysses, a town of six thousand tucked in the southwest corner of Kansas, also has experienced upheaval as hundreds of Mexican-American families have settled there. At one time removed from serious social ills, its families are living with early signs of gang activity, a teenage pregnancy rate that is among the highest in the state, and a general sense of uneasiness that often accompanies the ethnic assimilation that many communities are experiencing.
Once I had decided on these sites, I sought out their teachers, youth workers, and community organizers to identify potential kids. I interviewed dozens of young people and eventually chose eighteen to consider seriously, six in each of the three communities. Later, I picked twelve to report and write about in detail.
I was looking for typical kids living in typical families and quickly learned that there is no such thing. The Ozzie and Harriet family really is a myth and has been for years: Parents move in and out of jobs and in and out of kids' lives; so do sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, and family friends. Chronic illness claims more adolescents than we realize, and the number of those affected is increasing; crime, violence, and/or drugs touch many families in ways we on the outside often don't see. As all biographers know, scratch beneath the surface of any family and you will find unusual stones.
I chose the original eighteen adolescents using measurable tools: family income, race, ethnicity, family composition, and school performance. I aimed for variety but avoided extremes.
I looked for kids in families who earned moderate- to upper-middle incomes. I selected white kids, African-American kids, and Hispanic kids in equal number because the proportion of minority youth in this country, already one-third of the population, is projected to reach one-half by the middle of this century. A slight majority of the kids I chose lived at home with their biological parents but there were assorted other arrangements including divorced parents, stepparents, grandparents, and a single mother who had never married. Most of the young people were B or C students, although a couple of girls made all A's.
I narrowed the original group down to twelve by asking one simple question: Could that child and his or her family teach me and, by extension my readers, something important about raising young adolescents? I had no doubt they all would have interesting stories to tell; most kids and families do. But would their stories help us understand our children and our children's friends? Most of the kids with whom I talked, beginning in September 1996, were eager to participate once they understood that I wanted to observe them for hours at a time, to view the world from their eyes as much as a middle-aged white woman can. Few people had ever expressed that much interest in what they thought about things.
I won their trust by spending the equivalent of weeks of time with them. I visited their homes, sometimes staying overnight. I bowled with them, took them to dances, shopped with them, and ate more greasy pizza and burgers than I care to remember. I attended school with them, took them for rides in rented cars, sat next to them in church. I giggled and laughed with them. I observed them as they argued with parents, teachers, and siblings, and on more than one occasion I hugged a kid whose feelings spilled over into tears. When apart from them, I kept in touch by telephone and e-mail. I am profoundly grateful for the confidences these young people shared and the courage they showed in being willing to let me paint as whole a picture as possible, no matter how painful some of the details might be.
I also talked to the adults these kids identified as important: parents and other relatives, teachers, neighbors, youth workers, church leaders, store clerks. Parents, initially, were understandably protective. But when I assured them I would not use their names or the names of their children, in order to give their sons and daughters a measure of privacy, they opened up like a dam released. They couldn't stop talking about the changes they had seen in their pubescent children. While they knew adolescence has always been risky, they believed today's adolescents face different risks and they weren't sure how to prepare them for the future. They were fearful, as I had been, that they had a difficult few years ahead of them.
Most of them said they were spending less time with their kids now than they had in the past; all of them felt they were losing touch and losing control. Some of them had sought support from schools or churches, with mixed results. Like their children, they were hungry for information and conversation. This was especially true of the mothers, who wrestled openly with child-rearing questions that their husbands didn't want to philosophize about. These moms lamented the fact that the support systems many of them had had in place when their kids were younger had disappeared.
I learned an important lesson from these early discussions. One family's circumstances may differ from another family's, or one family's challenges may seem greater than another's. But the intellectual and emotional needs of the young adolescents in those families are the same and often show up in the same way initially. Also, the interventions that parents succeed with, as well as the mistakes they make, are strikingly similar to each other. Good parenting looks the same in all neighborhoods and all families. So does bad parenting.
During the year that I observed these children and into the next year, I scoured hundreds of books, scientific journals, magazines, and newspapers for findings that would help me understand my observations. I attended conferences of social scientists, physicians, and guidance counselors, and interviewed dozens of experts. You will find references to this research at the end of the book as well as a bibliography to point you to additional readings. You also will find a brief epilogue that will relate what has happened to the kids since my direct observation ended in August 1997.
I noticed that these kids spent most of their time and energy figuring out four things: what kind of person they were; how (and whether) they fit in with their friends; what they were learning; and how they could both create distance from and remain connected to adults. Each of these four pursuits forms its own section of the book, and each section is illustrated by the stories of three young people.
I also observed that while some adults deftly guide kids through these four areas of growth, others impede the process, either consciously or unconsciously. At the end of each chapter I summarize the ways in which we can act as guides.
I have written this book mainly for parents who are raising young adolescents or preparing to. (I use the word "parents" throughout the book to refer to a child's primary caretakers, whatever their actual relation to the child.) These are difficult times in which to do our job. We must contend not only with negative teenage stereotypes but also with a barrage of contradictory news and statistics. One day we read that crimes by kids are up, the next day, they're down. We ask ourselves, in an age of guns and AIDS and drugs and so many other dangers, can we make a difference? These families show us that we can, much of the time.
Of course, there are exceptions. We probably all know a couple of scoundrels whose parents did everything they could to raise them right. We can also probably name several sensitive, accomplished adults who were either ignored or abused growing up. It's impossible to know how any child will turn out. But it's also unthinkable to leave it to chance.
For teachers and others who work with kids, I hope my book will either confirm the approaches they already are taking or suggest new ways to reach kids this age. I have not made specific policy suggestions. That is not my expertise. But I have pointed out instances of certain programs and policies, in education and juvenile justice particularly, that I believe either damaged or helped specific kids.
This book differs from others about teenagers in several significant ways:
It focuses on children ages ten to fifteen because young adolescents behave differently and have different needs than older kids. Grouping all adolescents together, as many popular books do, makes as much sense as combining babies and kindergartners.
It also looks ahead to the kinds of skills, reasoning, and values kids will need as they get older. And it looks behind, to offer parents of younger children ideas on preparing for adolescence.
It chronicles the lives of real young people, not composites, using real names for everyone except the kids and the kids' friends and relatives. Events and dialogues are taken either from direct observation or from firsthand accounts, interviews, school records, and newspaper articles.
Most of the kids I followed are not in therapy. Books about young people suffering from eating disorders, clinical depression, and other severe disturbances perform a valuable service. But they also can frighten us unnecessarily. This book describes girls and boys struggling with universal concerns that, if not resolved, can lead to more severe problems but do not have to.
The book's academic research is not limited to one particular expert but relies on studies and observations from an extensive list of sources. The main research, however, was simple, exhaustive observation. That is what I, as a journalist, have been trained to do, and have done for twenty-five years. I watched, I listened, and I considered all the data I knew to try to make sense out of what I had observed.
Boys as well as girls are included. Adolescent girls received a great deal of attention at the end of the last century. With a couple of notable exceptions, writers ignored boys. Adolescent boys face a number of the same hurdles as girls as well as some that are unique. Others have said this but it bears repeating: One of the best things we can do for girls is change the way we raise boys.
Great Transitions challenged U.S. institutions to do better by our young people. My challenge differs slightly. Institutions are made up of individuals, and it is people, not programs, who are calling out directions to our kids. My wish is that readers, whatever their family circumstance, will come away from this book realizing how significant and fulfilling that job can be. And that they will feel equipped to begin, or to begin again.
Meet the Author
Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who specializes in covering teenagers and young adults for the Style section of The Washington Post. Her work has appeared in such publications as Parent, Child, Working Mother, Reader's Digest, and Harvard’s Nieman Reports. She has twice been a resident scholar at the National Academy of Sciences, has served as a member of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Healthy People 2000 panel on adolescence and chairs the board of advisors of the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland. Stepp, who has three grown children, lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband.
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