How Much Should Adults Try To Shape Teenagers’ Behavior?

Share Button

Yesterday on the Brilliant Blog, I wrote about researcher’s efforts to use teenagers’ keen social sensitivity to produce positive behavior change (e.g., working harder at school, avoiding risky behavior like speeding).

To my surprise, a heated debate broke out on my Facebook page over the appropriateness of “manipulating” young people’s behavior. Reader Courtney Ostaff feels such social engineering is unethical, while others—Lauren Lowenthal, Matthew Tabor, and Doug Lemov—argue that such prodding and shaping is not only appropriate, but the responsible thing for parents and teachers to do.

A slightly edited and condensed version of the debate is below; what do you think?

Courtney Ostaff: Does no one else feel uncomfortable about blatantly manipulating children to achieve adult-directed behavior? Isn’t it unethical to purposely manipulate someone else to force them to abide by your standard of behavior? Don’t you think the average 15-year-old is sensitive to that sort of manipulation? Where is there room for the most successful type learning, self-directed learning?

Lauren Lowenthal: Blatantly manipulating children to be functional adults is, in my view, one of the most important goals of education. This is the real world.

Matthew Tabor: Courtney, if replicating the conditions of the world in which a child will live—a world that includes interaction with others—and preparing them to function in that world, is considered “blatantly manipulating children,” then yes, I suppose I’m all for it.

Doug Lemov: You could argue that this is one of the fundamental premises of a great school—i.e., build a culture that valorizes achievement and character and effort among the stidemts so they pull each other up rather than pull each other down. At the best schools (Uncommon’s and others like them) this is what you would see… there’s a healthy obsession with engineering that kind of dynamic.

Matthew Tabor: I’m with Doug Lemov on this one—but I don’t understand why this is much of a revelation, as it goes along with what we know about basic human/behavioral psychology. When we put it all together, we’re saying that kids who have a tendency to group feel more comfortable when functioning in/around those groups, and that comfort encourages more latitude with behavior. It’s interesting, but it’s also not hard to think, “We needed new research to know this?”

Courtney Ostaff: Schools are not replicators of real world conditions, however. It’s disingenuous to suggest that they are. What real world environment groups everyone within 12 month age groups? Further, no one would expect a five-year-old to be functional as an ER nurse, for example. What I understand is that you’d rather have children be press-ganged into a corporate cogs than to gain self-motivation for individualized learning.

Matthew Tabor: I usually check out of a discussion when I read a phrase like “corporate cogs,” but I’ll bite. No, Courtney, it’s not an exact replication of the complex real world—but it’s not Lord of the Flies, either. Applying what we know from research like this does not, as you’ve presented, force an either-or. It can inform excellent complements to individualized learning.

Lauren Lowenthal: A solution does not have to apply to everyone to be valuable. The perfect is enemy of the good, and I am a realist about the world, and what it does to people who do not know how to function within the system—which is actually pretty flexible and accommodating.

Doug Lemov: I’m with Matt and Lauren. And I think you might reflect on the word “manipulation”… even without the word “blatant” it’s pretty loaded. it’s naive and irresponsible to assume that if we don’t make an effort to shape decisions young people make that they somehow go “un-manipulated” … I think that peers and popular culture do most of the manipulation. teaching values and character seems like more of a gift than brainwashing. Do you really let your own kids decide whether drugs and pornography and self-indulgence are for them, unfettered by adult mediation? Really? Cuz I don’t.

Lauren Lowenthal: I think the blatancy of the manipulation is key. We admit, we are educating you and we are training you because you need this, and in our experienced, adult wisdom we think it is so important for you, and for society, for you to learn, that we have set up elaborate institutions and rewards to encourage your cooperation, which is in your own best interest. No hidden agenda there.

Doug Lemov: I’d just use the word “transparent” for that, Lauren. But I agree.

Courtney Ostaff: 1) Anytime you “build a culture that valorizes” anything, you’re discouraging questioning of the status quo. I think we have quite enough of this valorizing in our country at large. I’d rather have my students question my rationale for learning anything, and work to persuade them that what they’re learning is valuable, if only in the long run, than to have them be passive receptacles of knowledge. Open Child A, Insert Knowledge B, doesn’t qualify as education in my book. It’s analogous to Pavlov’s dogs.
2) I don’t think it’s naive and irresponsible to value children’s opinions as to the validity of their own education. In my opinion, the true value I want to teach my children, both my students and my own child, is the ability to rationally examine the premise behind manipulation. If they choose to buy into the artificial incentive, that’s fine—as long as they’ve thought about it, first.
3) Isn’t part of character education teaching children to make good decisions? Isn’t part of teaching students how to make good decisions, teaching them to examine the premises underlying manipulation, regardless of whether that manipulation proffered by their peers, popular “culture”, or their authority figures? Otherwise, aren’t we saying, “Do as I say, not as I do?” And how far does that hypocrisy get with teenagers, anyway?
4) If they think about the lures of ” drugs and pornography and self-indulgence” and come to their own conclusions about why that is bad, isn’t that preferable to them merely giving lip-service to what they think adults want to hear? If, in the process, they find good things about “drugs and pornography and self-indulgence,” isn’t it better to have that conversation about why they think it’s good? Then you can lead them to an understanding of the appeal, and give them useful tips to combat the appeal. Isn’t that better than ignoring the fact that there is a probable valid attraction to “drugs and pornography and self-indulgence”?

Lauren Lowenthal: Who said anything about discouraging questioning and not explaining? Of course dialogue should be encouraged. However, I think you are doing a kid a serious disservice to pretend they have a choice about accommodating society’s structure. Unless they are very rich or prepared to live off the grid, that sort of false, idealist notion of “choice” results in unemployment and loss of other quality of life opportunities. This is all too high-minded to be useful. The discussion would be more valid if approached from kids’ point of view, priorities and brain function.

Share Button

5 Responses to “How Much Should Adults Try To Shape Teenagers’ Behavior?”

  1. The key word here is “consensus.” Behavior modification has to be consensual. Self-directed is even better.

  2. Russ says:


    I don’t believe this argument is good for any child. Children need boundaries and guidance, but at the same time, most children suffer from a lack of autonomy and independence. I feel that this has contributed to people being excellent at school and work tasks, but very poor at managing their lives or undertaking creative risks and pursuits.

    Also within that behavior modification typically the child’s circumstances are not addressed. It becomes a straw man argument of “If you can do x well, you will have a terrible life” and vice versa. While excellent points are made in Lemov’s books Practice Perfect and Teach Like a Champion, it is never recognized how pervasive discrimination can have a negative impact toward any student trying to be successful. Ignoring that is in my view detrimental. While that wasn’t explicitly stated, in this conversation social engineering does contain many drawbacks.

    As an Eagle Scout I feel that ALL people should work on improving their skills independently and in group work by undertaking difficult tasks to create a better life for themselves or their communities Typically because of the collective goal, we are more likely to inspire then modify.

  3. Ian says:

    I think everyone here needs to watch the “Pier Pressure” episode of Arrested Development. Season 1.

  4. Matt says:

    These debates pretty much only exist in America. For some reason in the US there are romantic notions of children and childhood. Children are natural learners. They are pure and uncorrupted. They have not been tainted by the structure and rules of the majority culture. This romantic and dare I saw nostalgic view tends to see children as better than adults. Why doesn’t this debate exist in other countries?

    On a related note I am skeptical of anyone that would rather be 15 than 35.

  5. Carol Lloyd says:

    This is such an American debate. I just finished Amanda Ripley’s forthcoming and exceptionally well-done book “The Smartest Kids in the World” which tracks three American teenagers as they go to school in Finland, Poland and Korea. She observes that teens in other country’s with high performing schools have a lot more freedom than American teens BUT they’ve already been raised to be more responsible in the first place.

    I don’t know that other cultures pathologize teendom in the same way that we do so while we may be overly worried about curbing teen misbehavior and eager to subject it to experimentation. We seem to have normalized misbehavior in teens that isn’t good for society or the kid who must some day grow up to be an adult.

Leave a Reply