WE'RE TALKIN' TEENS
HARVARD RESEARCHERS SAY WE MUST REDEFINE THE PROCESS OF GROWING UP. WHILE IT'S TRUE THAT BOYS STRUGGLE TO FIND INDEPENDENCE, THEY SAY, THE TASK FOR GIRLS IS INTERDEPENDENCE. THE TIME HAS COME TO LISTEN TO GIRLS, TO DISCOVER HOW THEY SEE THE WORLD.It is a sunny fall morning. Teenage girls fill the Salt Lake County Commission chambers, taking up every seat at the long speaker's table and filling most of the chairs in the audience as well. There are older women in the audience, too, and a handful of men.
But the girls are the ones you notice. They are thin and lithe. They have pink skin, long hair - some in braids or pony tails - and upswept bangs. They wear stone-washed jeans. Their voices are young, loud and eager.The topic of today's panel discussion, part of the larger forum on Utah Issues, is adolescent pregnancy. But it could be any topic and the way the girls talk would be the same.
Many of these teens are mothers. They have come this morning, skipping school or work, to tell legislators, educators and journalists how to keep teenagers from getting pregnant. The adults came to the conference with a pretty good idea of what they wanted the girls to say.
As for the girls, they know how it feels to be 14 years old. Some of them are only 16 right now. They can remember, so clearly, what it was like to stand on the edge of childhood and make those first decisions as young women.
"I see young girls look at me when I'm out with my little boy, and I know what they are thinking," Brenda Alley says.
Alley wanted to tell the adults in the audience, especially the legislators, how young girls think. But Alley was frustrated in her attempt.
Alley wasn't the only one who felt frustrated by the dialogue. Teen mothers in the audience interrupted each other, shouting about who should be responsible for birth control. Adults tried in vain to steer the conversation to abstinence.
As the discussion progressed, one man in the audience shifted in his chair, muttered and rolled his eyes in exasperation. The more he heard about how these particular teenage girls made moral decisions, the less he wanted to hear. "How can we get through to them?" he asked himself. "How can we teach them to reason as we do?" he seemed to say.
What she tried to tell the legislators, Alley says, is this: "You have your own morals, your ideas of what you want us to be. But we have our own ways. Maybe when we grow up we'll be like you. But right now, we aren't."
Alley says she doesn't think anyone heard that message.
As a society, Harvard professor Carol Gilligan says, we haven't cared to hear what young women think. Yet understanding how teenage girls think could help us help them develop a framework of morality.
Understanding might even give us a way to talk to them about sexual decisions, a way to help them care about themselves too much to get pregnant, a way to help more young women reach their potential.
When Freud charted the development of an adolescent, he described a search for self through increasing independence.
In the past decade, Gilligan and others have questioned Freud's conclusion. He may have accurately described the steps males must climb, but how do we know that females take the same staircase to maturity?
Gilligan points out that even the 1980 Handbook of Adolescent Psychology says, "Adolescent girls have simply not been much studied."
In 1982, Gilligan wrote "In a Different Voice." The book says that developmental theories are written by men and based on observations of men's lives and are inherently biased against women.
Gilligan gives an example of a question on a test that measures adolescent maturity: If a poor man needs medicine for his sick wife and the pharmacist won't give it to him, is it all right for him to steal the drug? A typical answer from an 11-year-old boy was, "Yes, in order to save a life, stealing can be the moral thing to do."
A typical 11-year-old girl answered that the man should offer to pay the pharmacist a little at a time, because "who would take care of his wife if he went to jail?"
The boy gave the "correct" answer according to the designer of the test, but Gilligan believes the girl's answer shows an equal level of maturity, an equal ability to make moral decisions. The girl made a what's-best-for-everybody kind of decision. That's because girls, Gilligan believes, define themselves through interdependence.
Boys ask, "Who am I?" Girls ask, "Who am I in society?"
This year Gilligan produced another book, with chapters by a dozen Harvard researchers - all of them female, all of them educators or psychologists.
In "Making Connections," a study of girls at the Emma Willard School, in Troy, N.Y., Gilligan builds on her earlier theories. She concludes:
- While there are variations between individuals, boys generally develop a moral code based on justice while girls base their code on caring.
- To grow up female is to learn to doubt yourself. One girl they interviewed said, "I don't know" about six times more often when she was 14 than when she was 12.
Where does the doubt come from? While girls are in the middle of trying to define themselves in relationships, they learn that Western civilization is based on the justice concept of morality.
What that does, the Harvard researchers believe, is add a great deal of confusion and difficulty to the girls' task. Many girls lose sight of themselves, of their own needs, while they concentrate on the double task of learning to reason like a man at the same time they are caring for others.
As Brenda Alley remembers the year before she got pregnant, her sense of self had disappeared. The relationship with a boy was the most important relationship in her life. "To sit by yourself in class or at lunch was too weird. You had to have a close friend or a boyfriend around all the time."
Perhaps the most important message she could give to the 14-year-old girls who watch her with her baby wouldn't have anything to do with either birth control or abstinence but would be a message about knowing yourself and being kind to that self. About treating yourself to a carefree youth - without a child to care for.
It's cool to like yourself, Alley now realizes. "In college you can sit by yourself in class. I eat alone if I want to." She's not in love with a man right now, but she feels close to her mother, she says. Her women friends are closer to her than they've ever been before.
A counselor at the Emma Willard School, Nancy Cushman, says the Harvard researchers have changed the way she thinks of herself and of the girls she talks to. Cushman says, "As I listen I am awed rather than frustrated by the lengths girls go to to make and mend the social fabric, often at their own expense.
"I comfort myself with the knowledge that each of these girls must make her own way toward a realization that she can include herself in the network of care."
She no longer tries to help girls separate from their parents, like all the textbooks tell her to do, Cushman says, to learn to grow up like a man. With her new understanding of the way girls grow, Cushman tries to help them extend their network of relationships "to fill that vital sense of connectedness."