It was a Friday, and I was sitting on a desk in a school classroom, all excited. Friday had become my favourite day of the week, not because weekend, but because that was the day to deliver my personal development and sex education class to a bunch of sparkly bright teenagers. Fun guaranteed!
This particular day I was starting with a new group. So, there I was, chatting away, introducing myself, trying to learn their names, negotiating what we’d do for the next ten weeks together. And agreeing on what the rules of engagement were:
No breaking of confidentiality, no shaming, no homophobia. Yes, language was allowed, no, bullying wasn’t. Yes, call me on it if I get something wrong.
I take out the mandarins that I hadn’t eaten before I left home. I’d always feel nervous meeting a brand new group, and with that potent mix of excitement and terror my stomach wouldn’t allow me to eat until break time (yep – even after 17 years!!) But this week, I couldn’t wait til 11.
So I’m peeling the juicy fruits as the students fill in their little forms that ask about drug habits, drinking, hobbies, attitudes etc. I share a few pieces with the ones brave enough to ask (always bring spares!) and then I start on the peel.
“The PEEL” you say??
Yes, I love mandarin peel. I love the way it bursts on the tongue and that bitter sweet zest spray – NOM…
They’re looking at me in abject horror. WTAF was I doing they ask? (Love the drama!) I explain to them all the valid reasons why this is literally the best thing ever. Especially if followed by chocolate – better still if that chocolate is broken up into a bag of cheese and onion Taytos and shaken around a bit… They’re not impressed.
This is too much. They’re wondering what they got themselves into – the looks pass between them – yer wan’s crazy… Uh oh… I thought maybe this particular group isn’t able for my particular brand of weirdness…
I finish my peel and have another go at getting someone’s name right. We get through the 2 hours and I’m super fond of them by 11am. No surprises there – I always get attached.
The next week I bounce into the class excited to see their lovely faces. The first thing I spot is a guy in the front row with a mandarin on his desk. I remember him as being one of the most grossed out by my peel fetish just one week previously. Hmmm… As I put my travel mug up on the desk in front of me two other students take out their mandarins. So now we have three of them. Three students out of 22 have mandarins. And it’s only week 2.
They ask permission to eat – I’m hardly going to say ‘no’, I’ve already broken that rule myself, so that would be ridiculous altogether. They agree – teens are experts on fairness.
We snack together as I introduce all the (really interesting) topics they’ve indicated they’d like to talk about during the next couple of months. Then I notice front row guy nibbling at the zest… Second row girl is positively chewing on it, nodding approvingly.
Well now, isn’t this interesting…
I see here a fabulous opportunity to introduce a new here-and-now practical lesson and live experiment in unconscious influence. The idea that observed behaviour is something we mimic – and often, if not usually, unintentionally.The idea of social contagion, modelling, mimicry. Click To Tweet
The idea of manipulation.
I used a few more strategies like this in classes as we went through my course. I’d plant songs in their heads by repeating titles randomly in sentences and then pouncing with “have you a song in your head right now? What is it?!”
Or I’d put something with a slogan on the desk next to me. My most effective one ever was a bright yellow bag that has “happy” written on it with a big smiley acid head. (You got that song in your head now??) I teach them how easily influenced they are. I take the mystery out of it, I explain the ‘trick’. I don’t want to be showy and go all mentalist on them. But I DO want them to think critically about how they are taught to think:
By me, by each other, by the world.
By Reddit, Tumblr, TikTok, Instagram, porn…
It was fun, and it was effective.
I had an argument with a teacher friend last year about whether or not teenagers can be taught to think critically. My belief is that yes, they can. We just need to be creative about it. Teenagers, in my experience, LOVE to think critically. By nature they are questioning, exploring, fresh thinking young spongey brains who are trying thoughts and ideas on like new clothes. We must show them that there are other clothes… lots more shops…and we must do it in a way that encourages exploration, safely. That’s our job. We’re the grown-ups.
(We’re still friends by the way, teacher dude and I, but we do still think differently about the critical thinking part… we haven’t ‘cancelled’ each other or anything. I suppose we’re old fashioned like that … #rollseyes)
Turns out that not all of them like mandarin peel. Those ones dropped the habit. I didn’t express an opinion one way or another about that. Their choice after all!
Remembering this class today as I munched on my zest in the sun at lunch time I thought again about how easily we influence teens. And they each other. To those who say that social contagion does not exist I say – pfft, rubbish. This is not the most scientific thing I’ve ever said. But c’mon. Think about it.
How do fashion trends work? Why did anyone ever wear batwing jumpers? What is going on with our new aversion to pubic hair ? Where/when /how did we learn that? How come no one bats an eyelid anymore when people get botox? How did religion spread? How do people question vaccines? How do presidents get elected? How does synchronicity and critical mass work when it comes to public opinion?
It’s basic human nature (and also physics). It’s influence. It can be our making, it might be our undoing.
As I type I cannot think of a single teen client that I’ve had that hasn’t expressed a strong desire to be a psychologist. I affirmed that desire of course. I also explored it. As well as other avenues. I answered their questions. I didn’t do much else. They haven’t all become psychologists or therapists (kinda wish they would… the waiting lists are the stuff of nightmares…but it would be so utterly unethical of me to push that on them or imply that that is the only career for them, the only path – right??)
Because they changed their minds, most of them. That’s what teenagers do. It’s their job.
Anyway, that class, the dotes, gave me a gift of Tayto chocolate as a goodbye gift when we finished working together. So thoughtful, these trainee adults. So deserving of our care.
It was a good exchange really – I got chocolate and ten weeks of fun and connection. They learned some of how to keep themselves safe, that difficult feelings are normal and of course, where the clitoris is.
BIG PS: I invite you to think about this piece and how it might apply to transgender teens, gender questioning teens, gender dysphoria AND the sometimes consequent gender reassignment, chemically and/or surgically. There really does appear to be social contagion element to the recent increase (up to 4000%) in teens identifying as transgender. There really does seem to be such a thing as ROGD. It really does seems to be influenced by online forums. And we really do need to have calm rational conversations with each other that are informed by evidence (not guesses) from developmental psychology, so that we can support all teens – trans or not. And give them access to developmentally appropriate non-judgemental care.
We need to be free to do that without being called transphobes. And we need to be courageous about it.
If we affirmed everything unquestioningly, without consideration and care, then what would become of our kids?? Please, fellow therapists, fellow grow-ups, let’s think about it. It’ll be on us.
And PPS: as if there weren’t any more proof needed of a world gone mad – today, the LANCET, on their cover, chose these words:
WAIT FOR IT….
‘Bodies with Vaginas’. Was it click bait? A mistake? A poor edit? Simply a bad choice that hurt women and resulted in them (us) feeling objectified?Lancet, September 2021
What a great time to be a teen, scared, and unsure of your identity.
Yes, I’m being sarcastic. And I’m sad. And more than a little scared.
2 thoughts on “What are we teaching our teens?”
What an absolutely wonderful, thought-provoking, insightful, entertaining essay. I learned something and there are few things better than that!
Really enjoyed your story. You clearly show we are, in fact, social creatures who influence each other. How have we forgotten this very basic fact?!
We all have stories like this. Here’s one of mine: I did my hair in a new hairstyle one day in middle school (12 yrs old). A classmate ridiculed me and told me it didn’t look good on me. The next day, she showed up in the same hairstyle! I guess she thought she’d look better in it. ☺️