On Teenage Defiance

    A recent article in the New York Times offers this catchy headline:



    The author is accurate in that teens slide quickly to polarization and respond well, therefore, to hero-villain scripts. They are hard-wired for action and require little to incite.There is a reason that armies are populated by the young and manipulated by the old. There is a reason that athletic teams—or gangs—can be pushed easily to extremes, of good or bad. Each adolescent seeks seemingly contradictory qualities: to stand out and be respected for what is unique; and, of course, to be included, cherished, and protected by the whole. Both qualities are essential to survival, partnering, and self-actualization.

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    The author’s title is catchy but it is as manipulative as his theme—as if the only way you can motivate teens to do the right thing is somehow to make them feel like victims of larger conspiracies. It is true that this will work for a while, but it is also likely to come back and bite you when they see that you yourself lack integrity and are just another one of their manipulators, aiming at some end that may serve your own purpose for order, control, or direction. In my experience, simply being straight up with kids about what (as Plato suggests) the “good” looks like and why it makes sense in their life is actually quite effective. They respond to logic backed by story; they want to be inspired; their cynicism is a protective device against a world that has routinely disappointed them.


    Teens respond to integrity, authenticity, and personal example. They do not need to be manipulated to find the good; they need to see it in us as adults, for starters.

    Michael Mulligan

    Michael Mulligan has served as Thacher's head of school since 1993.

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