Monday, September 7, 2020

Interview with an Adolescent


An Introduction to Adolescence 


Psychologist G. Stanley Hall calls adolescence a “period of ‘storm and stress’” (Hutchinson, 2019, p. 192).  This era, which ranges roughly from puberty through the end of high school, is a period of immense growth for children as they make their way into adulthood.  According to Hutchinson (2019), adolescence is a “time of increased emotional complexity and a growing capacity to understand and express a wider range of emotions to gain insight into one’s own emotions” (p. 199). It is a time for cognitive development as well as growing independence that leads to more cohesive understanding of a young person’s social identity (Hutchinson, 2019).  As the human brain is able to retain more and more information, it also develops more specialized skills to apply what’s being learned across a broader spectrum.  It is during adolescence, then, that children are better able to empathize with others as their social complexities gain in speed (Hutchinson, 2019).  Beyond social and cognitive functions, adolescence is also a period of great changes in the physical body as children go through puberty (Hutchinson, 2019).  This foundational exploration of adolescence demonstrates the vast array of challenges for this age group as they navigate these emotional and physical waters.  


Being mindful of how best to manage these changes, a strong emphasis is put on an adolescent’s physical education.  Researchers Ning, Gao, and Lodewyk (2012) surveyed over three hundred middle school-aged children in regards to their enjoyment of physical activities in relation to the efforts they put into a gym class and what they found was that there was a strong social element linked with their results.  Using social cognitive theory as a basis, they examined social, motivational, and other behavioral factors related to physical activity and determined that self-efficacy, or the adolescent’s own perception he or she might be successful at a given task, had a psychological correlation with the outcome.  In other words, self-efficacy “had a significant influence on choice of physical activities, the efforts one exerts, and the degree of persistence when facing an obstacle” (Ning et al., 2012, p. 3).  Often times, the adolescent’s confidence to push on -- or, in the negative, to give up -- was linked to perceived or actual support from family as well as peers (Ning et al., 2012). The study concluded that “the frequency of an adolescent’s participation in physical activity with friends… has a positive association with their overall frequency of physical activity” (Ning et al., 2012, p. 7), which was useful information in regards to my interview subject.  


Another important aspect to consider is sibling relationships. According to Campione-Barr, Greer, and Kruse (2013), such a familial dynamic involves “a balance of both conflict and nurturance” which provides “unique social learning opportunities” (p. 938). Campion-Barr, et al. (2013) cite two main battlefields: issues of fairness or equality and those involving interference in personal space.  Both issues link back to the siblings’ relationships with their parents.  Issues around “fairness” may impact emotional well-being but those around privacy generate greater anxiety (Campione-Barr et al., 2013). For oldest siblings, like my interview subject, there is a strong desire to gain more autonomy while they display an eagerness to “leave behind less mature aspects of their childhood,” not to mention “be less bothered by younger siblings trying to invade their personal domain” (Campione-Barr et al., 2013, p. 940).  In the case of my interview subject, he has two younger brothers who are in fairly close age, so this research aligned with my observations of his family unit. 


Another key element to consider is my interview subject’s place in culture.  He is from one of the least diverse backgrounds as he checks all of the major boxes for dominant culture: he is white; he is male; he is Christian; he is middle class; he is heterosexual; he is growing up in the suburbs with an intact family.  Research shows some key social and emotional implications of being at the top of the power dynamic pyramid (Way, 2011).  Way (2011) reports that “white, middle and upper class boys… have social, economic, and political power that likely protects them from having to prove their manhood to the same extent as their less-powerful peers” (p. 130).  Going on, Way (2011) adds, “Being at the top of the power hierarchy -- constructing the ideas of manhood because they are the man -- allows for flexibility of their assertion of masculinity” (p. 137).  What this implies is that adolescents like my interview subject do not need to “prove” their manhood in the same way as less privileged groups.  In fact, boys like him can be emotionally expressive and still have the most social power within their peer groups (Way, 2011).  When considering this sort of patterning in regards to my interview subject, this research highlighted many observable factors about my subject. 


Narrative of an Adolescent


My interview subject is my twelve-year-old nephew, Johnny.  He is my older brother’s son, and the oldest of three boys.  Johnny’s dad (my brother) is forty-one and works as the athletic director for the school system where Johnny and his brothers go to school.  His mom (my sister-in-law) is thirty-eight and has her own small business doing interior painting with a specialization in cabinets.  I sat down with Johnny on the front porch of his family’s suburban home on a beautiful Sunday afternoon while his ten-year-old brother Caleb stood with his face pressed against the glass of the front door, jealous not to be my interview subject.  Johnny sat slumped in a metal chair across the table from me.  He was wearing athletic pants and an oversized hooded sweatshirt whose hood was pulled half over his face.  He’d played an 8am baseball game that morning which means he’d been up since 6am.  Truthfully, he didn’t look especially ripe for our conversation, but he did ask if that moment was a good time for us to chat, so I took my lead from him that he was ready to talk.


Johnny is a textbook oldest sibling: he is articulate, he is organized, he is an achiever, he is, in so many ways, a mini-adult.  He listens keenly and asks very poignant questions.  He is also a sponge, eager to learn. I know Johnny extremely well and very much enjoy his company.  It was, in so many ways, a treat for me to have this opportunity to sit down with him and ask him for his thoughts on the questions posed for this assignment.


When we discussed his family, he didn’t hesitate to tell me not only his parents’ exact careers but their ages, as well -- something I found striking because I don't even know how old my own mother is.  With a smirk, he also told me about the “two things,” meaning his brothers, Caleb (age 10) and Ryan (age 8) and how he considered his friends Leo, Alex, and Tim to be the equivalent of family as well.  “We all just grew up together and now we play baseball together,” Johnny said.


Sports and athletics, in general, have always been key elements of Johnny’s life.  His dad worked in college football previous to becoming an athletic director, so Johnny and his brothers grew up calling some relatively famous people “uncle.”  Namely, Josh Cribbs, former Cleveland Browns player and coach, and Julian Edelman, current New England Patriots player who won MVP of last year’s Super Bowl, are both not only role models but actually people in my nephews’ lives.  I asked Johnny if he thought that counted as something especially unique about his childhood and he shrugged.  Of Edelman, Johnny said, “He’s just another guy.”  Because it was normalized in his childhood, things like having a professional athlete as a close family friend does not stand out as special.  Johnny doesn’t fully understand that it’s not every kid who gets to go to Browns Training Camp every year on a VIP pass or sit courtside at the MAC college basketball championship, another perk that comes along with his dad’s many connections.  


Where some of these circumstances truly become formative for Johnny are when they move beyond passive and into active.  Since he was in first grade, he has had the opportunity to be the bat boy for the high school baseball team and also the waterboy for the football team.  As a result, his enthusiasm and love for baseball, especially, has blossomed into his desire to focus on the sport himself.  For the last three years, he has played on a travel team.  “I’ll play catcher if I have to,” he grumbled, though he admitted the main reason he doesn’t like to catch is all of the equipment he has to wear.  Otherwise, he will play  third base, left field, or he pitches.  He easily attributed his love of baseball to his time being a batboy.  “I learned so much and got so much out of being around those older kids,” he said.  And because of his dedication and his passion for the sport, the high school kids adopted him as a younger brother of sorts and took the time to coach him and become a cheering section for him as he advanced in the sport.  


Despite his athleticism and heavy involvement playing team sports -- he also begrudgingly plays basketball during his off months from baseball -- “I hate all the running!!!!” he said -- Johnny admitted that he struggles with his weight.  “I keep getting taller and heavier,” he said, though he told me he is comfortable with that.  “I just like to eat,” he added with a grin.  As much as he said his weight gain isn’t an issue for him, he does have serious ambitions to be a professional athlete, so he is dedicated to shedding some pounds as well as conditioning his body for the long baseball season.  I asked him if the real reason he didn’t like to play catcher is less about the equipment and more about the squatting.  “Yeah, probably,” he said, tugging the hood just that much farther across his face.  Just in the past few weeks, he and his friend Leo have started doing a regular circuit training workout at a local fitness facility in order to improve his flexibility and strength, in addition to helping control his weight.  “We do a lot of yoga sometimes,” he told me.  “I bet that will help you with the squatting,” I teased him, reflecting on our catcher conversation.  “Yeah, that’s the goal,” Johnny said.


When I asked him how he thought others might view him, his answer came quick: “I’m into sports and I am a leader on my team.”  So I asked him how that made him feel and he said, “Good, it makes me feel good.  I like being a leader and I like playing baseball and having fun with the kids on my team.”  I have observed him being what I would call “silly” in the dugout, starting chants and sometimes fashioning costumes out of paper cups and other random objects.  He has a great deal of confidence that he will be accepted, no matter his behavior, which is an element of his place of privilege in the social hierarchy.

I asked him if there was anything he’d like to change about his life.  He said no -- which only surprised me in that I thought he might wish his brothers -- especially Caleb, who works hard at getting under his skin -- might disappear.  But perhaps since his brothers were out of sight, they were out of mind.  Or perhaps it is because Johnny’s popularity and busy schedule meant he didn’t end up spending that much time with his brothers, anyway -- certainly not enough to warrant wishing they weren’t in his life.


Instead, Johnny told me he spends his time with his friends, either at baseball or school or playing video games together via headset.  “We also play a lot of football,” he told me.  I asked him what he thought made a good friend and he barely had to think before saying, “Loyalty.  Being able to trust one another.”  Then after a beat, he added, “Helps if we like the same things.”


Johnny identified his buddy Alex as his “best” friend.  “What makes him stand out?” I asked.  Johnny took his time with this one.  He sat up a little straighter in his chair.  I was ready for a brilliant Johnny-ism, I’m not going to lie.  What he said was this: “He likes baseball, like me, and we get in trouble for talking to each other too much in study hall.”  That, of course, constitutes the makings of a best friend when you’re twelve.


I asked Johnny if he had a girlfriend and he scrunched his whole face up and said, “Noooo.”  At this point, he rarely talks about girls and doesn’t even seem to have many female friends.  Any female classmate he mentions is “annoying” or “a brat.”  While both his brothers have quite a few girls-who-are-friends, Johnny’s crowd is much more male-heavy, a trend I have noticed across his social group. 

 

Next, we talked about his parents.  I asked him, on a scale of 1-10 -- one being not at all and ten being extremely -- how important it was for adults to be strict with kids his age.  Again, he thought about it and said, “Seven… eight… nine… ten.  Ten.”  I asked him why and he replied that being strict was for kids’ own good, especially if they were athletes.  “If they know how to follow rules they won’t get in trouble at school or when they play sports,” he explained.  I asked if he thought his parents were strict and he said “Yes” before I even fully finished asking the question.  “But that’s OK,” he added quickly.  I asked if he felt like he had any opportunity to help make the rules at home and he said, “Can we use that 1-10 scale again?  Because if so, it’s probably like a four.  Maybe a five.  But I’m OK with that.”  I asked if he felt pressured by his parents to do well in school and he very promptly said, “Not really. I wanna do it. I push myself. My parents don’t really make a big deal about my grades, but I also get good grades. I’m pretty lucky.  My friends get grounded when they get a B.”  Johnny told me that he felt very supported by both his parents in his pursuit to be a professional athlete.  “They let me play on these teams and take me to my workouts and practices and games,” he said, adding, “Some people don’t support their kids and make them do things they don’t want to do, but my parents aren’t like that.”


Switching gears to school, I asked him about what it was like being a sixth grader in his first year at the junior high.  He said, “It’s good.  We get so much more freedom.  And better lunches.”  We chatted a bit about his teachers and he said his favorite was his math teacher because she only gave them “seven or eight problems for homework.”  Johnny paused before adding, “Her family also owns an ice cream shop and she gave us all these coins for two dollars off there.”  He told me that he liked his school, in general, and was “happy enough” going there every day.  “Actually, one teacher got in trouble for giving out too much homework, so my school is pretty awesome,” he said.


Looking towards the future, I asked him where he saw his life heading in the coming years. “Well, in five years, I’ll be a junior. I hope to be on the varsity baseball team and play golf. I will help my dad at work, so it’ll be an unpaid job. In ten years, I hope to be out of college and playing in the farm leagues for MLB,” he said matter-of-factly.  Finally, I asked him, “Is there anything else I should know about you?”  This is where my nephew grinned his biggest grin of the day.  “You know everything about me,” he said.  All I could do in that moment was laugh and give him a hug.


Johnny vs. The Research


In most ways, Johnny measured up to the expectations and conclusions I discovered in the research, though not in all.  For instance, he is easily getting the recommended amount of physical activity for children his age, yet struggles with his weight make up the entirety of his list of major concerns or issues.  Ning et al.’s (2012) research suggests that inactivity and opting not to participate in athletics is the main reason we are seeing so many overweight and obese youths.  Johnny’s weight gain, though, is related to diet and an increased appetite as his body continues to grow. Hutchinson (2019) writes, “Weight concerns are so prevalent in adolescence that they are typically thought of as a normative part of this developmental period” (p. 226).  What I found most interesting about this in relation to my nephew, though, is the link between peer support and increased draw to engage in athletics (Ning et al., 2012).  Johnny’s friends being kids from his baseball teams clearly demonstrates this connection.


Behavior that fit squarely with the research included his somewhat adversarial relationship with his brothers.  Since they are all so close in age, tensions about personal domain and receiving “fair” treatment come up quite frequently.  Johnny, more so than his two younger brothers, often remains above the fray, a clear sign of his progressive move towards total autonomy (Campione-Barr et al., 2013).  


Much of Johnny’s drive and comfort level enacting his independence comes from the safety and security he gets from his home life stability.  While he doesn’t come from a wealthy family, his parents provide him a comfortable life where he has no immediate fear of not having a place to sleep, food to eat, or clothes to wear.  He is even able to participate in what many might consider a luxury with his travel baseball and workout regime.  Way (2011) argues from the Theory of Attachment perspective that when a child has this level of support from involved parents that such “attention and love provides the child with an ‘internal working model’ that promotes the child’s sense of self-worth… and ability to seek and provide emotional support” (p. 120).  Seeing the confidence with which Johnny talks about his goal of becoming a professional baseball player, for instance, is derived from the encouragement he is getting from his parents as well as his coaches and other influential adults, not to mention his teammates.  Johnny actively reflects on all of the hard work he expects to do to achieve this very lofty goal -- he does not behave as if it was a guarantee -- but the very notion that he boldly dreams this dream leaves no doubt in my mind that his assured sense of self is being reinforced by his family and his community.  Johnny is coming from a noticeable place of privilege, but he is doing so with grace, thoughtfulness, and gratitude for everything this life has provided for him so far.


Final Thoughts and Reflections


There is no doubt that I go into this analysis with a clear bias.  Johnny is my nephew and we are very close.  For all intents and purposes, he was the first child I spent much time with and is, in many ways, the bar to which I compare all other children.  That said, I am certain that if anyone else sat down to interview Johnny, the overall experience have been the same. 


Johnny and I have quite a few differences in our childhoods.  Where his is very stable and supportive, mine was not.  My father died when I was six and so my brothers and I were raised by a single mom who often told us that the burdens of parenthood were too much for her.  Watching my brother be the reverse of that and encourage his sons to pursue their own interests and dreams is healing and wonderful for me.  


I am lucky to be considered a role model and a confidant for my nephew and what I hope to instill in him is awareness of his privilege as a white male and encourage him to be an ally to non-dominant groups of people.  Johnny has a great mind and an incredible vision for his future. After growing up in a toxic environment myself, it is wonderful to see Johnny reach so steadily for the stars.  Understanding that his privilege gives him an extra boost is an important part of the narrative but does not dismiss all of the hard work he is putting into his passions and his goals.  


Johnny is making his way through his adolescent years with a great deal of poise and determination. There may be some of the “storms and stresses” that G. Stanley Hall equates to this period of life in years to come, but for now, Johnny is weathering it all quite admirably and I am grateful for the opportunity to record his thoughts about who he is today.  Certainly, this piece will serve as a time capsule to look back upon as he makes his way through life.  

 

 

References


Campione‐Barr, N., Greer, K. B., & Kruse, A. (2013). Differential associations between domains of sibling conflict and adolescent emotional adjustment. Child Development, 84(3), 938-954.


Hutchison, E. (2019). Adolescence (Chapter 6). In Dimensions of Human Behavior (p. 189-230). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.


Ning, W., Gao, Z., & Lodewyk, K. (2012). Associations between Socio-Motivational Factors, Physical Education Activity Levels and Physical Activity Behavior among Youth. ICHPER-SD Journal of Research, 7(2), 3-10.


Way, N. (2011). Boys with feelings. In Deep secrets (p. 117-142). Harvard University Press.


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Research paper written in pursuit of my MSSA (2019)


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