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Giving Kids Faith in a Future

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 12, 2014

Teenagers who think they will die young are more likely to do dangerous things such as using drugs, fighting, and having unsafe sex and self-destructive things such as dropping out of school.

Teachers, counselors and other youth workers have often heard teens-especially boys from impoverished neighborhoods-say they don't expect to live beyond 25 or 30, but the impact of that perception has only recently been studied. And the research is cause for both alarm, because the feeling is so prevalent, and hope, because envisioning a future life can inspire more beneficial choices.

University of Minnesota researcher Iris Borowsky, MD, PhD, and colleagues found that one in seven adolescents interviewed believed they would die before age 35, and that this belief strongly predicted future risky behavior. Kids who envisioned a long life were more likely to graduate from high school and stay out of trouble. Boroswky and colleagues analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a sample of more than 20,000 kids in grades seven through 12. A fatalistic belief in early death was most common among minority kids from poor families: 29 percent of adolescent American Indians, 26 percent of teen African Americans, and 21 percent of teen Hispanics reported they expected to die young, compared with 10 percent of their Caucasian peers.

Alex R. Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studied 1,354 youth offenders charged with serious crimes from Maricopa County, Arizona, and Philadelphia over a seven year period. In the beginning, Piquero asked all the subjects how many years they thought they would live. His team found those who expected to die young were more likely to commit more crimes, and more serious crimes, and go to prison. Those who anticipated long lives were less likely to re-offend. Piquero's study "Take my License and All that Jive, I can't see ...35" appeared in the journal Justice Quarterly. The Minnesota study of general population youngsters found no relationship between actual early death and expectation of dying young. But by the end of Piquero's study, 45 youngsters had died of non-natural causes-violence, suicide or other tragedies.

Eduardo Porter, writing in the New York Times, describes a school program designed to give kids a vision of living many future years. Tim Jackson works at Harper High School, in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago's South Side. As a counselor for the Becoming a Man program, he tries to train boys to have a "visionary goal" worth saving themselves for. It's a daunting task, given the neighborhood's gangs, joblessness and violence. In 2013 alone 29 current and recent students were shot. In one recent weekend in Chicago three young men were fatally shot, and at least 25 people-many of them teens-suffered gunshot wounds.

But danger is just one reason youth are fatalistic. Porter writes that today's rich-poor income gap is bigger than it was at its peak in the Roaring Twenties, raising suspicion that economic opportunity is available only to the lucky or unusually talented. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper shows young men of low socioeconomic status are most likely to drop out of school when the incomes of families at the bottom tenth of the income distribution are furthest from the incomes of families in the middle. Studies have also shown that teenaged girls are most likely to become pregnant when the gap between the bottom and the middle is biggest. Porter says that creates a condition researchers call economic despair, which means opportunity isn't just out of reach, it's unimaginable. Porter tells how Jackson opened a recent a session with his students with a story. He was stopped at a traffic light when a car occupied by three angry drunk men rear ended his car. Should he confront them? He didn't. He walked across the street and called police. His students figured out how he made that decision: he thought about his stake in the future.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  resilience 

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