NUMBER 372• 7 OCTOBER 2003 • POSITIVE PEER CULTURE
INDEX OF QUOTESReferences
As adults encounter the challenge of difficult youth, the typical response is to demand conformity and obedience. Elaborate sets of rules are concocted and then the search for ways to enforce them begins. Rewards are offered to students for behaving, and punishments are applied to keep them from misbehaving; adults send for reinforcements; students are shunted to special programs — but still the problems persist.
Rather than demand obedience, Positive Peer Culture demands that young people become the mature and productive human beings they can be. Unfortunately, many adults do not really believe that young people possess the quality of “greatness,” which is perhaps not surprising since youth seldom are provided with opportunities to display their true human potentials. Positive Peer Culture is concerned with setting expectations high enough to challenge the young person to do all he is capable of doing. To expect less is to deprive him of the opportunity of feeling as positively about himself as possible.
Many teachers and youth workers have long been aware that demanding conformity and obedience was not an effective way of dealing with adolescents, but they usually knew only one alternative: the granting of total freedom. Many attempts to give responsibility to young people are instead really “freedom” approaches. In these programs, adults sometimes totally abdicate authority and return all decision making to the young. Not surprisingly, a common outcome is that the students run loose in a manner reminiscent of the classic novel Lord of the Flies (William Golding 1959)
Sometimes attempts are made to institute self-government among young people. In most cases, this self-government is in reality a sham. Most public school student governments, in which youth are allowed to decide little more than the color of crepe paper for the school prom, fall into this category. Usually adults do not really want to give up their power; so they make sure that youth do not have much territory to govern.
Positive Peer Culture makes no pretense of turning over all decision making to the students. Adults never abdicate their authority or responsibility. Instead Positive Peer Culture is so designed that adults are in control without controlling. A flight instructor does not give full control to the student pilot but is always available to take charge if hazards are encountered while the student learns to fly. So in Positive Peer Culture, adults assign responsibility to youth and then teach them to follow through on that responsibility.
The notion of heavy demands on students is not altogether fashionable, and traditional mental health concepts have sometimes been interpreted to say that setting high expectations actually is harmful for young people; hence, those with problems sometimes have not been sufficiently challenged to use the strength they possess. These ideas were criticized by Victor Frankl.
If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load that is laid upon it for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So if the therapists wish to foster the patients’ mental health they should not be afraid to increase that load through a reorientation towards the meaning of one’s life (Victor Frankl 1963)
This is the demand of greatness in Positive Peer Culture. Positive Peer Culture defines greatness as showing positive, caring values. Positive Peer Culture groups help members to learn helpful and nondelinquent ways of handling themselves and meeting their needs. Youth must come to reject all behavior that in any way hurts self or others and to replace it with behavior that shows care and concern for others.
Values or rules?
In Positive Peer Culture, youth are not given a complicated road map of explicit rules they must follow. While rules obviously are necessary in any society, still young people must be able to make decisions when no clear rules for behavior exist. Too often rules are geared to keeping unruly youth in submission and meeting the adult’s need for control. Adult rules do not prepare a young person to live responsibly amid the complexities and uncertainties of the real world. While our students may learn to obey all the rules we concoct, they may still fail miserably at the business of living. All too often rules give youth an easy way out of having to make wise and independent judgments.
Youth must learn how to make sound decisions even in the absence of specific guidelines.
A prominent federal judge has a large law library in his office. On an adjacent wall he has placed a sign with the familiar ethic, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Beneath the sign an arrow points in the direction of the thousands of law hooks, and another inscription notes, “All else is explanation.”
Young people must learn the basic values for living and not merely memorize a set of rules. Positive Peer Culture does not tell youth that they should stop their behavior to avoid punishment, for perhaps they are intelligent enough to avoid being caught. Youth are not told to alter their behavior because it is logical; honesty may not always be logical, and a case sometimes can be made for a crime. Is it always more logical to work at low wages as a domestic servant than to accept employment as a well-paid prostitute? Why should a person work at a tedious job if he has the skills to be a successful thief? Positive Peer Culture does not develop logical arguments against every misbehavior but turns instead to the ultimate issue of values: Is this helping or is this hurting?*
While Positive Peer Culture is oriented toward the teaching of values, we should emphasize that this reference is not to middle-class values or any specific ideology. Rather, there is one basic value — the value of the human being. Such a value is tied neither to social status nor to culture and does not become obsolete with the passage of generations. Anything that hurts any person is considered wrong, and people are assumed to be responsible for caring for one another. Caring means “I want what is best for you.” This value is reflected in the thinking of the Judaic — Christian tradition and in most other ethical systems.
*The authors are aware that, theoretically, this judgment is not always simple to make. A question is sometimes raised about the conflict between the interests of the individual and the best interests of the group. The ethical dilemma is, of course, the classical, and we will not attempt to reopen the debate here. Fortunately, most problems of young people do not pose such complexities.
HARRY VORRATH and LARRY BRENDTRO
Vorrath, H. H. & Brendtro, L. K. (2000). Positive Peer Culture. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp 19-21
Frankl, V. (1963). Man's search for meaning. New York: Beacon Press. p. 107
Golding, W. (1959) Lord of the flies. New York: Putnam