INSIDE THE TEEN BRAIN
photo of galinskyinterview: ellen galinsky

Tell me about your survey of the kids.

About 15 years ago, I did a study where I talked to employees at three companies. I talked to their husbands or wives or partners, and then talked to their kids. I found that at that time what we think that children think and what children actually think can be quite different. That was very intriguing.

The area that I was looking at is work and family life. ... [I] designed a survey that was given to 1,023 children in their English classes. They were 8 years old through 18 years old. It was nationally representative. But it was on the basis of almost three years of listening to young people, what was on their minds, and listening to their parents and understanding what was on their minds. So it was a very long process to try to make sure that we got at the right questions.

In the end, what surprised you about their responses?

There were a lot of surprises in the Ask the Children study. What we adults think that young people think and what young people think can be quite different. The best example of that is the question that I've used in research for a long time. It's the one I call it the "one wish question," which is, "If you were granted one wish and you only have one wish that could change the way your mothers or your fathers work affects your life, what would that wish be?" And I asked adults to guess.

The majority of adults -- 56 percent -- guess that their children would wish for more time together. Now, time is very important to children. But if they only had one wish -- and that's what I gave them -- they would wish that their parents would be less stressed and less tired. Only 2 percent of parents guessed that their children would say that. So that's one example of a surprise.



Galinsky is the president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, a Manhattan-based nonprofit organization conducting research on the changing family, workplace, and community. She is also the author of Ask the Children, a book based on her extensive survey of more than 1,000 children that measured how they felt about their family relationships and their parents' work lives.

Another example of a surprise is that I asked adults whether they liked their work, and I asked young people whether they thought their parents liked their work. And I found a big difference. Adults say that they like their jobs a lot more than young people think that their parents like their jobs. Two out of five kids said that their parents like their work. Three out of five adults said that they liked their work a lot.

To parents ...  the message from teens is Hang in there. Even if they push us away, they want to be with us.

That's because we come home and we talk about the boss who's a jerk or the co-worker who's new who we're suppose to train and that person isn't so smart, so how could we possibly train someone so stupid? And we come home with some of the negative stories. Or if our kids say, "Don't go to work," we say, "Oh, I wish I didn't have to go." We mean that, "I wish I didn't have to leave you, but I also like where I'm going," which kids can get that subtly, particularly teenagers. They don't want us to love our work more than we love them, but they can get it.

And so, what this study did I think is much more important than the individual answers. It tells us that we're stuck in a series of debates that don't fit the data -- not only from my study, but from other people's studies. For example, the quality time/quantity time debate. I found in this study, by listening to young people, that not only is the amount of time the parents spend with their kids important, but what happens in that time is also important. Our dichotomy [of] is it one or the other is just wrong. And particularly important to young people is that there's time to hang around together. It's not always planned; it's not always schedules. It's not always rushing to this activity to another activity. But there's just time to be together. ...

And in your study, did the teenagers still want this time with their parents?

I found a big surprise, which is that it was teens more than younger children who felt that they didn't have enough time with their parents. And in one sense, it makes sense, because parents of teens spent a lot less time with their teenagers than parents of younger children do. So you can see that there's a difference in the amount of time spent so, yes, OK, they want more time.

But then, the parents of teens will say, "Now, wait a minute. ... I've hung around all weekend waiting for them to do something and they're busy, busy, busy." So I brought together some young people and I asked them what's going on, particularly with teens. In a video that I made of them, they said, "Well, you know when we're teens, we're so busy pushing our parents away that when we want them, it's hard to ask." One girl said, "I'm more comfortable if my parent just notices that there's something wrong and says it, because I find it hard to break that barrier. But I really do want them." And another child said, "Your friends can be there for you, but it's really your parents -- particularly when you're older, you have a little bit bigger problems -- it's your parents who are really important to be there for you." So that really helped.

To parents of teens who maybe think, "OK, now I've launched this kid somewhat and they're pushing me away," the message from young people, from teens is "Hang in there." Even if they push us away, they want to be with us. ...

Tell me what the teens scored their parents worst on.

Teens scored their parents worst on "knowing what's really going on in my life." Only 35 percent of kids gave their mothers high marks for that, and 31 percent gave their fathers high marks for that. They also scored their parents not well on controlling their tempers when they did something that made their parent angry. Both fathers and mothers didn't do so well on that one.

"Raising me with good values," things like that, parents did rather well on that one. Young people felt that parents are trying to communicate values, which is a little different than the public thinks. The public thinks that there is a real gap in values. I found between 9 percent and 43 percent of young people did not see their parents as doing very well, so there are clearly problems. But you know, some parents are doing well on things that we don't think that they're doing such a good job on.

How did the parents rate themselves on knowing what's going on in their child's life?

I'd have to look it up, but parents rated themselves more highly on knowing what was going on in their children's lives than children did.

When you say that teens said they actually wanted more focused time with their parents, under what circumstances? What were the issues they wanted to raise with their parents?

There's a feeling sometimes among parents that when your kids turn into teens, that you've done your job in a sense, that it's the peers who have the greatest influence, and that your influence is a lot less. That's not what I heard from teens, particularly if they have a halfway decent relationship with their parent; which doesn't mean that you don't fight or disagree or they don't make your life miserable. It doesn't mean that. But if they feel like they're respected, if they feel like they're listened to, if they feel like they're valued, they really want adults to help shape their views about world. They want adults to tell them about the world and how it works.

One of the criticisms that I heard from kids was that [parents] didn't share about the world of work, that they came home with the negative stories, that they didn't say what they had learned. [Teens] don't want a long lecture. They don't want, "OK, this is what I learned today from work." But just dropping it in every once in a while or if you've got a friend over who's got an interesting job, have them talk about it, because the teens whose parents talked about their jobs in a way that had lessons learned in it, those young people could tell you that, and it mattered a lot.

... If they pushed their parents away and their parents hung in there, they really appreciated it, because they knew that they were being difficult. That's the developmental task of the teen, to begin to separate from the parents in a new and different way. But it's also the developmental task of the teen to reconnect in a new way, in a more adult way. And so it's not just separation. We often thought of development as kind of a straight line toward independence. But all through development, there's separation and connection, and they go hand in hand.

The teens also, or the kids generally, seemed to worry about their parents.

It was a real surprise to me, and I think it's a surprise to parents whom I talked to -- how often kids worry about their parents. We think about our worrying about our kids. But the kids actually worry about us, and they primarily worry because we're tired and stressed. One out of three worries about his or her parents often or very often, and two-thirds worry some of the time. ...

When you ask the kids whom do they admire, whom do they say?

When you ask children whom they admire, they often talk about their parents. If they have a good relationship, they talk about their parents.

Another surprise was I asked kids what they were going to remember most from this period in their life, and I asked parents to guess what the kids would say. And parents almost always guess the big event, the vacation, the wonderful family reunion, you know, the five-star kind of family thing. And kids talked about the very small, everyday rituals and traditions that say to them "We're a family." So those everyday things that we do really matter a lot.

One child talked about that when she came down the stairs to go to school, her dad said, "You go, tiger, you go get them," and that was what she was going to remember most from being a young person. Another child talked about being in bed and the wake-up song -- this was not a little kid. But his mother always sang a wake-up song, and that's what he was going to remember most. ... That says to parents, "Have those rituals, have those traditions. Those are important, even with teens."

What came out about fathers in the survey?

... They were more likely to feel that they didn't have enough [time] to be with their fathers, to yearn to be with their fathers more than their mothers. Fathers spent less time with them than their mothers, although that time is increasing, [as] we've seen in our own research and we've seen in other people's research. Dads in the teenage years are particularly important.

And did the teens say that to you?

Yes.

Did they explain why it was important to them?

They are beginning to get the sense that this is a time when they're going to be leaving home. There is one teen in the video who says, "I've been pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, and now suddenly I realize that I'm going to leave them. I wish I hadn't been quite so pushy. I do need my parents. I want to be with my parents. I may not live with them, you know, forever. I may not be home forever, and I want to know them as people. And I want them to join my world."

One of the things that I've done a lot of focus groups with young people and they're really interested in having an adult who's curious about you. They want you to care what happens. One young person said, "I want my parents to ask me about my day and care about what I answer."

And really that's one of the lessons, is the idea that they seem to want someone to listen. Just tell me a little about that.

Well, communication is central. If you look at how people learn, all of us -- from babies to teens to adults -- learn through relationships. I was recently with a group of teens who talked about what made the difference in their caring about school or not caring about school, and having one teacher or even the janitor who cares about how you're doing made that difference.

Central to relationships is communication. One of the questions that I ask in focus groups is, "If you were making a movie about what it's like to be a person your age for an adult who didn't get it, what would that movie be like?" Some of these kids in my video look tough. But what they say is that people are really prejudiced against them, that if they walk into a store, people look at them as if they're going to shoplift. If they're walking down the street, they see people jump to the other side. They don't think that adults like them very much.

There have been surveys that have shown that adults like their own children, but they're not so positive about other people's children. And yet research that's been done by Tony Earls at Harvard found that, when the adults in children's lives, in a community, feel that other people's children are important and make that well known and communicated, there's much less violence, even in communities where there's a lot of poverty and the things that are associated with violence. ...

Another thing that I hear from young people is that they feel stressed. They feel like no adult really knows about the whole part of their life. The teachers in school know about the subject that they teach, but they don't see them in their other classes or know what else is put on them in those other classes. The coach or the gym teacher knows about you know doing well in a sport or the drama teacher wants you to do well in the play, and that's everything to that teacher, but that's not your whole life.

And then your parents only see you at home, with your homework, often at the end of the day when it's arsenic hour for everyone. You don't know what we've gone through in school. And sometimes we have a daybook and a calendar and pressures on us that rival the pressures that you have on you.

And do they ever tell you what those pressures are? I mean, what would the top three pressures be on a teen?

In the next survey that I do, I'm going to ask exactly that question, so I can't answer it from a research base yet. But it varies in the groups that I've asked. With some kids, it's just having enough money. For some kids, it's schoolwork and getting the right grades, so that you can go on to the right high school or college and get a good job. They feel like that's a bit of a treadmill, too. Sometimes it's your friends and being popular. Those are some of the things that I hear. ...

It's also a very interesting point you raise about support from the community playing a big part in the lives of teens.

... I think that we're at a turning point. It's been clear to me, in talking about this book since it's been published, with so many parents and young people around the country and internationally, that we're at a turning point, where we're going to pay much more attention to teens. And we're at a turning point where we're wanting to hear their voices. It's not as scary as it has been.

I went to the Millennium Summit that the United Nations held last year, and there was a session by first ladies. One of the major messages from that session was that we need to hear from young people and communities every day, all the time; that we need their voices, because if they're part of the solution, then the problems can begin to diminish.

It doesn't mean that adults should abdicate. That's really important; adults need to remain adults. But I think that we can use, we can develop the leadership of young people more than we have been doing, and I think that this is a turning point. I think that communities are going to begin to mobilize for teens in the way that they have been mobilizing for young children.

We have been working at the Families and Work Institute with a number of communities that are getting together the people from schools, from churches, from the town government, from the United Way, from other organizations that affect some of the agencies. They've been saying, "What do we need to do in our community to promote positive youth development?" And I believe that we're just at the beginning of a movement where we're going to look at having more constructive things for young people to do, where they have more of a chance to be leaders and develop their leadership capacity in their communities and in their schools.

And how important do you think that is?

I think it's critical, just critical. We're so focused on what's wrong with teens. If you go talk to teens, they will bring out magazine covers and they will show you the menacing pictures of themselves on magazine covers, or the way that they're portrayed in such negative ways.

My son, when he was a teen, kept a tally by the television. And every time a teen was mentioned and it was positive, he put a check in one box, and if it was negative, he'd put a check in another box. He particularly looked at how teen boys were portrayed, and there were a lot of negative checks and very few positive checks in the media about young people.

And yet I happen to know -- because my daughter works in the area of youth leadership, and she's been giving awards to teens and young people who've been doing things to improve their schools or their communities -- that there are amazing examples around the country of what young people are doing in their schools and their communities, with their families, to really bring about change. We need to hear about more of those stories and I think that we're at a point where we could begin to turn around some of the negative things that we've been seeing happen.

Our film is called "Inside the Teenage Brain." In light of your experience and your work, what do you think is inside the teenage brain?

There are a number of ways to look at what's inside the teenage mind, and one way is neuroscience. The advances in neuroscience are very exciting. But another way is to ask the children, and I have so many questions. I want to look at things like how they feel about learning. I want to look at how they feel about violence or conflict. I want to look at how they feel about the diverse world that they live in, the consumer culture, peer pressure. We are going to go on and do a series of studies that continue to ask the children.

I hear what you're saying about listening to children. But of course one of the big stresses that we come across is issues of discipline or curfews, phoning in and not being able to go out with certain people, dating and all that. What is the advice from your work on how parents handle these thorny thorns in the way of teenage life?

The word "discipline" really means to teach, and I think we've ended up thinking about discipline as punishment or punitive -- stopping behavior, rather than what we're really doing is teaching children, teaching teens. We're really teaching them how to deal with conflict. So they want us to be involved. If the parent says, "Phone [home] all the time," they hate it. But they also like it, because it means to them that, "You care about what happens to me."

There is going to be conflict between parents and children; there just is. Let's just take that as a given. But within that, there are ways of handling that conflict more constructively. Perhaps the best way is to use a problem-solving approach, which is that you say the rule, that is, "I need you to be home and safe at a certain time." And then you say, "Let's come up with six different ways that we can make this work for you and work for me." Ask them to generate solutions, and lots of them. Don't have them just come up with one idea.

And then ask them to evaluate what would work and what wouldn't work about each of those solutions. Ask them to look at it from your perspective as well as their perspective, so that they're learning the skill of problem solving, which study after study shows is critical to adult success. Then pick one solution to try and say, "We're going to have a meeting to talk about this in two weeks to see if it's working better than what's happening now."

In that way, you can get over the kind of we/they conflict. You're in it together. You've set the rule because you're the adult. But you can begin to teach them how to deal with things that they're going to have to deal with when they're out there on their own later on.

When you look at families, you sometimes see a relationship that isn't working, and not because anyone is being particularly malevolent or evil, just not working?

Yes, you just get into a bad way. Right.

Tell me about your feelings when you see these sorts of relationships go awry.

It's very sad, because no parent ever wakes up and says, "I want to do a bad job as a parent," you know. We want the best for our children. We want to do a good job as parents, we want them to remember us kindly when they're grown up. Yet we can get into a box where we feel hurt or wounded or not appreciated. And we just get trapped in a debate, in a war, in a battle that's going to lead nowhere.

So the best thing to do in those cases, maybe is even getting help. I don't mean necessarily getting professional help, but just talking to a friend who seems to have good relationship with his or her teenager at that minute. ... And you can say to your kid, "Look, we're stuck, we're just in such a bad situation. I want to get out of it, you want to get out of it. Let's think of ways that we can get out of it." They won't trust you at first, because they're used to being at war with you.

But if you really mean it and you engage them, it's just like having a boss. If your boss tells you what to do in a negative way all the time, you feel rebellious. All of us, even as adults feel rebellious, and if we can, like a good boss, engage them -- not in making the rules, because I think that you know we have to remain the adults -- but in coming up with solutions that can get out of this trap, then all the better. ...

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