by Kathleen Bisaccia
On the evening of November 18 parents were treated to a talk by Po Bronson, co-author (with Ashley Merryman) of “Top Dog: the Science of Winning and Losing.” Bronson and Merryman’s approach to the subject is as journalists instead of scientists, and therefore their findings are able to take into consideration an element of reasoning and personal feelings. The conclusions drawn by Bronson and Merryman were interesting and a bit controversial.
Bronson initially posed the questions, Why does one child rise to an occasion while another crumbles? And how can creativity be nurtured in today’s competitive environment? Bronson related some statistics about today’s teens – although 60% have jobs, 70% volunteer weekly, and 40% are politically active – seemingly indicia of success – today’s teens are also stressed and burned out from the pressure. Conversely, there remain a sector of teens who are apathetic and unprepared for the competitiveness of today’s teen life.
To the teen, being a teenager feels like they are waiting for their real life to start. Many of the risks/decisions they make are based on this feeling.
Bronson’s work for his book followed a group of students from the ages 12 to 27. There were a few common themes that Bronson and Merriman wanted to test: (1) the results of Peer pressure, and (2) communication with/fighting with parents. First, with regard to peer pressure, the conclusion was that it isn’t such a bad thing, as the teens who showed they were susceptible to peer pressure were shown to have great relationships when they were in their twenties, because they were highly attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others. Notably, those who were not susceptible to peer pressure actually had a much lower GPA, perhaps due to the fact that they did not care what anyone else thought, even with regard to doing well in school. The key to being successful while still caring about peers was the ability to succumb to peer pressures while still standing up for your own values and beliefs.
With regard to relationships with parents, although our kids really love us, they do not hesitate to lie to us. 70% of parents interviewed by Bronson said that their teens could tell them anything; only 4% actually do. The teens don’t necessarily want to lie, but they want to “keep upsetting facts away from” us. In fact, in the words of one the interviewed teens “it is important for some things to be none of your business.” Bronson says that in order for a kid to have a successful relationship with their parent while still lying (as they do) will take some work. Parents should try not to have an overabundance of rules, and have only certain areas that they insist on not being lied to (e.g. where there teen is going to be). If this approach results in some arguing, then that’s actually good, says Bronson. In fact, arguing is a sign of respect; a sign of disrespect is lying. So if a teen is arguing about a particular rule, that means that they are respecting and regarding your authority to make that rule. Sometimes, suggests Bronson, giving in a little to your teens and letting them be “a little right” is critical to your relationship.
Bronson’s next point bolstered the idea of letting teens be right or “win” and argument sometimes, because physically the teen brain is stimulated by excitement and uncertainty. They crave risky behavior. It is a parent’s responsibility to put ‘good risk’ opportunities into their lives – like jobs, auditions, sports and summer programs.
In fact, teaching teens that stress is OK is important for them. Stress before tests has been proven to improve test scores, and having that little extra energy before an event is a positive outcome of stress. Bronson suggests you don’t constantly tell kids that stress is bad. Finally, Bronson found that teens have to be able to risk losing. If teens have been told during their lives that losing isn’t so bad, they will be encouraged to take risks and as adults may benefit from this risk-taking – and end up On Top.