So high school wasn’t a complete disaster for me. I wasn’t popular or unpopular, athletic or un-athletic, smart or stupid. I had plenty of good friends, a couple of really cute boyfriends, and—all in all—nothing should have been all that memorable or traumatizing.
An invitation for my class reunion arrived one day.
I was a mess.
I should add: I’m not normally a mess.
I wanted to drop five pounds, buy a new dress, and finish my master’s degree in time for the night. I didn’t. I wanted to grow two inches, lighten my hair two shades, and publish my book. That didn’t happen either (except the hair, that was easy).
I’m guessing this does not shock you. It’s almost intuitive that high school and its memories remain inordinately significant to adults. This phenomenon has even been named. It’s called the “reminiscence bump,” which is a scientifically quantified relationship between the amount of memory older adults recall from the period of time roughly between adolescence and young adulthood. There are several theories why we disproportionally remember those otherwise unmemorable teenage parties—for me—the most interesting of which is the relationship between that period of time and identity formation.
Erik Erickson, developmental psychologist, suggests that adolescence includes the “process of identity formation” that is ultimately achieved through the interaction of an individual personality with society (Sprinthall-Collins 36).
And, according to Sprinthall and Collins, authors of Adolescent Psychology: A Developmental Approach, peers may influence identity formation in teens in two ways.
First, “in informational influence peers serve as sources of knowledge about behavioral patterns, attitudes, and values in their consequences in different situations” (Sprinthall –Collins 269). Informational influence is the way in which teens mine from the people around them, extracting ideas that they may or may not put to use.
Let’s use soccer as an example. A girl who makes the varsity team may decide, after observing her teammates, to stop wearing those small, tight shorts normally associated with cheerleaders. When playing soccer, she reasons, it’s probably better to have looser, longer shorts. She gathered some information and went with it.
Peers also exert social pressure through “normative influence,” which is the pressure on adolescents to behave as others around them behave (Sprinthall – Collins 269). Normative influence is a form of social comparison: using others’ behavior and skills as a standard against which to evaluate yourself. This is more like peer pressure.
So, in our example, our girls soccer player goes to practice and her teammates rip her apart for wearing Soffe shorts, and—even though she likes the Soffe shorts better—she buries them in the garbage when she gets home.
Informational influence and normative influence work together to help create newly emerging identities in teens, and these newly emerging identities may make this period of our lives super-memorable.
Here’s the cool thing: books can influence teens in these ways as well.
Characters and stories that allow a point of contact between the reader and the text act like informational influences otherwise found in real-life peers: no judgments are made, and passive observation is used, and therefore there is no attempt to control decisions. This lack of control and ridicule allows teens to try out new roles without fear. These stories invite teens to watch, and then consider. These books are thus like peers without the pressure—as long as they don’t try to teach.
Books that provide a normative influence, or a pressure to behave in a certain way, may also influence teen identity. In these books, a certain type of behavior is used as a conduit for teaching. These stories are preachy and smug, favoring conformity over information gathering.
I wonder…. Which stories are best for young adult readers and their emerging sense of self in this period of time that they will likely remember with disproportionate clarity?
Which type are you hoping to write?
Sprinthall, Norman A., and W. Andrew Collins. Adolescent Psychology: a Developmental View. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1984. Print.