What can I say? At 12 years old I wanted to be bad. My family had moved from the country to the city, and for some reason I still don’t understand, I was no longer placed in the top class at my new school but the next to the lowest class in the 6th grade. I met an entirely different group of kids and thought they were really cool. The girls wore make-up and the latest clothes. They knew dirty jokes and all about the “birds and the bees” (sex). The boys looked and acted tough—in fact, one day when the teacher had us clean out our desks, a handgun was found in one boy’s desk!
When I transferred to junior high school, I went back to the top class but continued my admiration for the “bad” kids. Over the next couple of years the cool girls I knew started smoking, drinking, and shoplifting. Most of them were pregnant by the age of 16 (and this was before abortion was legal). The boys were engaged in gang fights, doing drugs (a few died from overdoses), drinking, and smoking. Of course, most of them dropped out of high school.
My parents were strict with me, so things generally ended up with my hanging out with these young hoodlums in the afternoons but not much at night. I have to confess I was a follower and not a leader. Strangely enough, by the time I got to high school at age 15, I had realized all these cool kids were going nowhere, and it was time to find a new set of friends.
What I learned by trial and error a long time ago has now been validated by a new study that has determined “fast-track kids” don’t turn out okay. The study followed “risk-taking, socially precocious cool kids” for 10 years. By the time the kids got to high school, they were no longer perceived as cool, and they began to have lots of problems.
The head of the study, Dr. Allen, characterizes their behavior as “pseudomature” and says that in their early 20s, they are having trouble with relationships, alcohol, drugs and even criminal activity. Their peers think “they’re still living in their middle-school world.”
Why did those kids act that way? It seems it was really important for them to impress their friends. But by high school, their peers had started maturing, while their cool was fading. The researchers, who followed 184 kids from age 13 to 23, periodically interviewed their subjects as well as their close friends. About 20% of the 184 kids were “cool” at the time the study started. Dr. Allen found three behaviors were marks of pseudomaturity: The cool kids looked for friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, intense, and involved more sexual experimentation; and they committed acts of minor delinquency—cutting classes, sneaking into movie theatres, and vandalism.
When the group turned 23, the study found the cool kids had a 45% greater amount of problems from alcohol and drug use as well as a 40% higher rate of their use. They also had a 22% greater amount of adult criminal behavior. What is also fascinating is that when their friends were asked how well these people got along with others, their ratings were 24% lower than average.
The researchers also tried to figure out what went wrong with the “cool” kids. Dr. Allen’s theory is that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing out on “drama-free activities” such as forming good friendships with their own sex and just watching movies at home on a Friday night. Dr. Allen thinks parents should support this type of behavior and not worry if their teens aren’t popular. He says that to be “truly mature as an early adolescent,” you should be a “good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible.” He further hypothesizes that the cool kids have the burden of leading the social parade but aren’t emotionally equipped to do that. So they hang out with older kids, who are probably former “cool” kids and obviously not the best role models, because why would an older teen want to hang out with kids from middle school?
Dr. Allen tells the story of one boy who at 14, had lots of relationships, hung out with good-looking friends, and was already in minor trouble with the law. By age 22, he had dropped out of high school, had problems with drinking, work absenteeism, arrests for drunken driving, unemployment, thefts and vandalism. Yet, Dr. Allen says pseudomaturity suggests that such behavior is likely to happen but is not a firm predictor. He cites the example of a teenage girl in the study who had many of these problems, but my age 23, had earned her bachelor’s degree, had no problems with criminal behavior, drank responsibly and had a good job.
What does this study tell us? Yes, being a strong individual and having lots of confidence is good, but it also involves sticking to your own values and not doing what everyone else is doing. It’s also the job of parents to reinforce qualities that will help teens withstand the pressure to be “too cool, too fast.”
- Do you know kids at school or in your community that are “too cool”? Do you admire them or find you don’t respect them all that much?
- Do you or did you ever hang out with kids like that? If you do hang out with them, what is their attraction? If you don’t socialize with them or stopped socializing with them, why do you think you don’t enjoy their company?
- Do you know any “gangs” or crowds in which older teens hang out with much younger teens? What do you think about the older as well as the younger teens in such crowds? Are you acquainted with older teens in your family or community who are still trying to prove how cool they are? Has this article changed the way you regard them?