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Teen identities are shaped by narrative environment

Wherever a story comes from, whether it is a familiar myth or a private memory, the retelling exemplifies the making of a connection from one pattern to another…. Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.
—Mary Catherine Bateson (Peripheral Visions)

Our identity is inseparable from our life story. According to Dan McAdams, adolescents are adopting an autobiographical perspective on life, understanding in ways that younger children do not that their beliefs and character traits are formed by the experiences they have. They are learning that we “author” the moral stances that define us by the way respond to the narrative flow of our experience.

As young people proceed through adolescence, the stories they hear around them become increasingly internalized, forming the basis of their own sense of who they are. The work of being an adolescent is often the work of digesting and interpreting experiences and putting together out of diverse influences a life story that’s more or less coherent. Teenagers are in the process of becoming a story they tell themselves about who they are.

It’s not a story they learn to tell by themselves, though. As noted by Theodore Sarbin and David Hermans, it’s a story they learn in dialogue with others. Adolecents are surrounded by perspectives--or voices--that influence them. Often, the voices of friends and parents are important, but as Robert Coles showed, voices found in literature can also be profoundly helpful. One needn’t be overly perceptive watching young movie-goers adopt the swagger, catch phrases, and fashion sense of a Hollywood star to see that their sense of possible identities is also shaped by movies and other modern media. Vygotsky argued that we develop into mature thinkers by incorporating voices from the society around us into our own psychology. He suggested that this is why adults experience thought as a conversation between “inner voices.”

And this is why the narrative environment that surrounds teenagers is of supreme importance. Adults, and not just teachers, have a responsibility to ensure that young people grow up in communities where civilizing values are given clear, certain, and powerful voice. They also have a responsibility to ensure that the narrative environment of teenagers includes expectations and opportunties for them to tell stories that are well-crafted, integrating facts, values, and differing perspectives into coherent wholes.

Developing the capacity to tell such stories is much of the way young people grow from a the diffuse and unsettled identity of late childhood into the integrated and coherent identity of successful adulthood.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/23 at 06:14 AM






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