A fresh look at the face of youth

15th October 2004 at 01:00
The End of Adolescence. By Philip Graham. Oxford University Press. Pounds 19.99

It is rare that a book about young people comes up with a genuinely fresh approach to familiar issues, or throws down the gauntlet to widely accepted attitudes - but this one does. It challenges the negative and pessimistic view of young people as anti-social, difficult, "problems" that teachers and parents have to tackle or endure.

Philip Graham is determined to shift the focus away from the familiar narrow concentration on the problematic and apparently irrational behaviour of young people, and focus instead on the wider society adults have constructed, which contextualises and explains their behaviour. He outlines ways in which young people have been infantilised and disempowered by the modern world, and notes the disastrous consequences: for example, in terms of mental health problems, or risk-taking behaviour involving alcohol or sex.

So far it may sound a gloomy read, but the book is, in fact, refreshingly upbeat. It emphasises the strengths and competences of young people - so often, it suggests, unrecognised and unused - and suggests positive and practical ways in which they can be mobilised in a range of contexts, including schools. It explores the diversity of young people's experience, and suggests that using stereotypes is unfair and unhelpful. The teenage years are, it says, part of a continuous process of development, not a seismic shift, and it presents convincing statistics to show that young people behave, on the whole, better than adults; they are, for example, less violent, and have fewer sexual partners and unwanted pregnancies.

One excellent chapter focuses on school, reassuring and challenging teachers and school leaders. It claims most young people make remarkable progress and are taught by excellent staff, but it also presents convincing evidence that, for many, school is unrewarding and unliked. Detailed suggestions on how schools could be improved include ideas for providing a more "life-relevant" curriculum, with schools and employers, for example, working more closely to provide realistic and extended workplace experience. It shows how schools could increase opportunities for teacher-student interaction and student participation, by giving school councils real decision-making powers, and involving young people in anti-bullying strategies.

The book is an overview, covering more than just schools, although the messages that weave through all the chapters will be as relevant to schools as elsewhere. It explores young people's experiences in a wide range of contexts, including the home and the workplace.

A chapter on mental health concludes that young people are, on the whole, "more cheerful than moody"; one on alcohol and drug-related behaviour finds that most try to behave responsibly but are often hampered by a lack of information. They are also confused by contradictory contexts adults have created: for example, commercial interests pushing alcohol towards the ready market of teenagers and creating designer drinks that taste like pop but pack a potent punch; then society expressing surprise and horror at the rise in binge drinking among girls.

The solution is to change the contexts and give young people more autonomy.

The strong message throughout is on the need to treat them with respect, to understand their point of view, and to treat them as rational people with strengths and capacities which they have a strong drive to use if encouraged.

The book is practical, positive and accessible to a wide range of professional and lay readers, including parents; it is beautifully written and easy to read. But it should not be mistaken for sloppy, opinionated "pop psychology". Philip Graham is one of Britain's most respected child psychiatrists and his views are based on the carefully sifted evidence of a lifetime spent in clinical practice and rigorous academic study. This accumulated evidence gives his assertions weight and conviction.

The End of Adolescence is challenging, rewarding and essential reading for everyone involved with young people. It provides a timely antidote to the moral hysteria and punitive solutions that seem to pervade current government thinking, and reminds us to look calmly and positively at what young people have to offer.

Katherine Weare

Katherine Weare is professor of education at the University of Southampton

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