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Warming the Cool Teenager

It’s truly amazing when you think about it. Every single one of us who is older than nineteen experienced being a teenager, yet most of us can’t seem to recall what it was actually like, and even fewer of us know how to relate to those who are currently working their way through this intense time of life.

The fact is that people grow in stages and, as they do, most find it difficult to remember the previous stage’s realities and truths. Adolescents find remembering the reality of childhood almost impossible; adults find the behavior of adolescents positively baffling, even when they themselves may be only a few years removed from their own adolescence.

Perhaps we are blessed, rather than plagued, with forgetfulness. Forgetting protects us from recalling pain, and each stage of human development can be tough (and the teenage years can be particularly painful). Nonetheless, those of us who work with adolescents and young adults must understand what being a teenager is like in order to connect with them when teaching.

In his text, The Creative Imperative: A Four-Dimensional Theory of Human Growth, physician and psychiatrist Charles Johnston, M.D. offers this description of teens:

“The innocence of childhood is left behind in the need to challenge external limits and to establish inner ones. Emotions are strong. The adolescents’ reality is morally ordered: composed of extremes of black and white. As with any such isometric polarity, the extremes are at once in mortal combat and in total collusion. Adolescent reality is one logical contradiction after another. Independence is a major issue; yet, while assumptions of independence can provoke fierce self-assertion, acts that on the surface express independence always at once function to guarantee parental response and involvement. While nonconformity is highly prized, it takes its most common expression in the rigid conformity of cliques and fads. The prize for taking on the struggle with these paradoxes is the experience of identity, of self as created form.”

Dr. Johnston’s description provides us with several useful insights into most teenagers’ state-of-mind, as well as information relevant to engaging the interest and involvement of teens when touring them through our institutions. Let’s reflect on what he tells us as it relates to teaching in museums, historic sites, zoo, parks, and gardens.

  • Emotions are strong. The teen years are a highly emotional time of life. Since emotions are a dominant feature during this stage of human development, capitalize on them. Emotional responses to issues, objects, and artifacts may be more involving than intellectual ones.

Try asking questions that evoke feelings. Questions that accomplish this best are those that require teens to interpret or hypothesize. “What do you feel this artist is saying about city life in this composition?” “Why is it that most people have an adverse reaction to even the most beneficial insects?” “Why might today’s fashions be so different from the way they were during the nineteenth century?”

  • extremes of black and white. Teens are in the process of coming to their own decisions about right and wrong, good and bad. They are practiced at making these types of determinations and are, therefore, used to making comparisons.

Ask questions that require teenagers to discover differences or similarities. “How many differences can you find between these two landscape paintings?” “What characteristics do these plants share in common?” “In what ways are the customs of this culture similar to our own?”

Or, ask questions that require decision-making and then explore the reasoning process behind the decisions made. ” If you could bring one of these art works to a sick friend, which would you choose and why would you choose it?” “How do you feel about people owning and keeping exotic pets?” “If you were to select one object as most representative of the Revolutionary War period, which would you choose and why?”

  • Independence is a major issue … Teens will want to feel self-sufficient in your institution. If they are treated like children, they will behave like children. Likewise, if they are made to feel reliant upon you as their mentor or guardian, they will turn off. Should they believe your reason for asking them questions is to test them, or in any way to reveal their lack of knowledge, they may become hesitant to respond or even antagonistic.

Provide teens with activities that make them feel competent and qualified. Use open-ended questions that accommodate a variety of responses so that their answers can be validated. Or, create self-tests that allow teens to call upon their own perceptual awareness. Have them observe animal behaviors, make note of details in works of art or historical artifacts, or ask them to re-group objects using categories of their own making.

Let teens know from the very beginning of your encounter with them that you value their insights. Tell them that you ask questions and conduct activities to involve them because each person brings a unique perspective to the issues and objects at your institution.

Let them know that you are genuinely interested in their responses. Then, be certain to demonstrate your interest by being attentive and accepting. Listen to what they have to say without making value judgments about them from their answers.

  • . . . acts that on the surface express independence always at once function to guarantee parental response and involvement. The desire for parental (or a parental figure’s) response and involvement differs among teenagers. The least secure among them often are those who do things to garner the most adult reaction. Why bite on their hook? Why allow them to control the agenda?

I once toured a group of teens where one young man continued to wear his sunglasses inside the museum building. Though I felt his wearing sunglasses was rude and annoying, I did not tell him to take them off. Half-way through the tour however, I did ask if I could borrow them. Using the pretext of wanting to see how the colors within paintings shifted when you looked at them through green-tinted glass, I got him to remove his glasses and was able to engage the group in a productive conversation about reproductions, and why they may not accurately represent the colors found in original works of art.

Try responding to outrageous or obstreperous behaviors in a manner other than classically authoritarian. Think of a clever way to use a behavior to your advantage. Find a way to laugh and be a “good sport” without seeming to encourage the misbehavior. Sometimes, just being a “good sport” creates peer pressure on the problem teen to stop being disruptive. However, should the disruptive or rude behavior escalate, or should it seriously impair your ability to provide a tour to the other participants, stop your tour and get assistance from a teacher, chaperone, museum staff member, or guard.

  • non-conformity is highly prized …. Since being a non-conformist is valued by teenagers, why not use it as a theme or recurring motif for your tour? Are there artists, scientists, or historical figures that could be thought of as rebellious, or who pushed their own visions or theories against those of convention? Figure out a way to connect this issue to your lesson, and then create some drama. Find and share a good story. Let teens know that the people reflected in your exhibitions were as human as they are, that they struggled against societal pressures, and that they had courage and/or conviction.

As you sort through ways to better engage teenagers in the learning process remember that the burden of tone and attitude is on you. Approach teens as adults, convey respect for their thoughts in your words and deeds, and then allow them to be adolescents. Though they may look like adults, and demand to be treated as such, they are actually “adults-in-training.” It is not realistic, nor is it fair, to always expect adult behaviors.

Most importantly, try to enjoy the terrible, tumultuous, and terrific things that teens will do. Don’t take everything personally. The issues teens are grappling with, and the attitudes they display, exist in a far larger context than a visit to your institution. If you can relax and appreciate teens for who they are, you will find that many of their insights and perspectives will delight you, and you will have traveled a long way down the path of effectiveness with this challenging and rewarding audience.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Warming the Cool Teenager,” The Docent Educator 5.4 (Summer 1996): 2-3.

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