Social Development in Middle School (page 2)
It has been suggested that the paramount reason young adolescents come to school is not for the education we offer but because school is where the other kids are. In my years of being a teacher and researcher with ten to fourteen-year-olds, I have come to recognize that both goals—companionship and learning—are powerful, complementary motivators.
Stevenson, 1992, p. 105
The emotion-laden search for personal identity integrates experiences with developing bodies, biological drive, new thinking capacities, and expanding social roles (Knowles & Brown, 2000). As young adolescents become aware of the unique aspects of themselves, they also become acutely aware of those around them—most specifically, their peers. They develop an exaggerated view of themselves as victims of what Elkind (1984) refers to as the imaginary spotlight that focuses everyone’s attention on them, making them uneasy in social settings. As uncomfortable as it may be, socialization plays a major role in the psychological growth process, as it is influenced by, and interrelated with, physical, intellectual, and emotional development. The need for socialization is especially strong during young adolescence. Milgram (1992) refers to the absence of a healthy dose of socialization as “undersocialization,” a state in which learning opportunities are missed and some important developmental tasks of this life stage are neglected. Middle level philosophy originated partially from the belief that the school can and should play a major role in both the cognitive and the affective dimensions of the development of the whole child.
Young adolescents often find themselves caught between their desire to be safe and secure (as in childhood) and their desire for freedom and independence. Because adults generally represent security, the struggle for change often revolves around relationships with them. In the middle school years, one’s own parents are likely to be viewed as out of step with society (Caissy, 1994). While affirmation of parental love is secretly sought, young adolescents may act out in argumentative and rebellious ways against those closest to them, in many cases parents and guardians. This rebellion, in its many forms, is normal and even necessary, as attempts are made toward demonstrating that they have minds of their own. Considering the options, perhaps rebellion during middle school years is preferable to rebellion at other times in life, when even more dangerous options become available. Our hope is that rebellion will occur in “safe” ways that fall within reasonable parameters (Caissy, 1994).
Even as young adolescents tend to disassociate themselves from family, they may seek to emulate other adults (Knowles & Brown, 2000). They easily buy into fantasies about adults, often created in the media. This leads to hero formation, most likely of movie stars and sports figures. In fact, Mee (1997) found in a large-scale study that boys almost exclusively named sports figures as their role models. Both genders may fantasize that adult life can be (or is) glamorous; that money is easily made; that outward beauty equates to happiness; that TV sitcom life is realistic; that those successful, carefree people in the advertisements drinking beer and smoking do so with no consequences; that casual sex is desirable. . . . The list goes on.
Peer and Group Relationships
As young adolescents begin to discover that it is unlikely that they can always please the adults with authority over them as well as the kids they hang around with, a loyalty shift usually takes place. Friends take on greater significance and the “flock mentality” begins (Caissy, 1994). Their fear of being different, and therefore not accepted by peers, is a drive that for most is unavoidable. They adopt personalities and appearances that will win them placement in a group. I remember distinctly the groups that existed during my middle school (junior high) years, and I’m certain you remember yours too. “Natural selection” played a role in group formation. There were certain groups I knew I could not align with. The “cheerleader,” for instance, was not a possibility for me because I didn’t look the part, regardless of how I tried. I recognized the choices that were realistic and found my way into a group that was comfortable. Being part of a group provides security and is a source of feedback when experimentation and dilemmas occur. It seems that simply being part of a group is more important than which group. Since most of us don’t choose our families or teachers, choosing friends and a peer group takes on importance as a factor in establishing identity and independence. It’s a decision-making opportunity.
Group alignment creates peer pressure, the driving force created by the need/desire to conform. Although the roots of the power of peer pressure tend to lie in self-consciousness and insecurity (Caissy, 1994), giving in to peer pressure is absolutely normal at any age. Peer pressure can have a positive or negative influence. If peer pressure dictates that good grades, church attendance, and politeness are the norm, then most adults cheer the influence. However, if peer pressure leads to smoking, drinking, drugs, vandalism, or early sex, then it is viewed as negative. Most peer pressure is somewhere in between and varies according to circumstances and timing. Like it or not, the influence of peers on young adolescence is a phenomenon that is inevitable. Adults can and should attempt to influence the choices of friends and peer groups, but the truth is that young adolescents will assert their need for independence and make choices that only locking them in their rooms until age 21 could prevent.
In the beginning of young adolescence, around ages 10 to 12, same-sex friendships are the most vital. The need for a “best friend” to whom there is uncompromising loyalty and from whom the same is expected, is a driving force. Once the best friend status is achieved, the relegation to “second best friend” is a devastating prospect. This appears to be much more pronounced in girls than boys. Girls will bare their souls to best friends, while boys are often content to be in a group where they laugh at the same things and are physically active in the same interest areas. When and with whom opposite sex attractions occur occupies a place in early adolescent variability that exceeds most other aspects of the age. Some “puppy love” experiences influence 11-year-olds heavily, while in others opposite sex attractions do not wield a great deal of influence until age 16 or so.
The social development of young adolescence includes some notable paradoxes. In their quest for independence, adolescents will freely conform to fit in. They rebel against adult authority while doing what they can to become adult-like. Social development implies relationships with other people and yet this is an age of egocentricity and selfishness. These paradoxes exist as “young adolescents become aware of themselves not only as individuals, but also collectively as members of society” (Schurr, et al., 1996, p. 21).
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