Study: “Cool” Kids Seem To Struggle With Adulthood

The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang
The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every generation has their “cool” kids…

It’s true. If you think back to your own grammar and high-school days there might be certain classmates that you thought of as “cool.” Maybe you even wanted to be one of the “cool” kids. Perhaps secretly you liked or envied the “cool” kids. It is probably OK to admit that a lot of what gets posted on FACEBOOK is all about being “cool.” Just having a FACEBOOK page is considered “cool.”

We often reference FACEBOOK in our posts, because it is a social media that impacts most of our society. Just the other day our associate came across a nearly 30 year old group photo taken at her 20th high school reunion. She took the opportunity to post the photo on her FACEBOOK page. As expected, it garnered a lot of “likes” and about a dozen comments. But one comment stuck out: “Come on admit it – you were in the cool crowd.”  The truth is our associate had never thought of herself as being cool – she never smoked or drank in high school, never really misbehaved…just followed the rules and tried not to stand out and often felt like a wallflower.

Scientists want to know what happens to the “cool” kids

Earlier this month an article was published in the online version of Child Development. “What Ever Happened to the “Cool” Kids? Long-Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudomature Behavior” was authored by a team at the University of Virginia led by Joseph P. Allen, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology and Director of the Virginia Adolescent Research Group. You can read the full article here. The researchers determined to study this hypothesis:

Pseudomature behavior—ranging from minor delinquency to precocious romantic involvement—is widely viewed as a nearly normative feature of adolescence. When such behavior occurs early in adolescence, however, it was hypothesized to reflect a misguided overemphasis upon impressing peers and was considered likely to predict long-term adjustment problems.

Study parameters

  • This was a multimethod and multireporter study
  •  Researchers followed 184 children, all lived in Charlottesville, Virginia
  • The children were studied for a decade, starting at age 13 through age 23
  • The children were from varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Both in-person and telephone interviews were conducted with the children and the parents
  • Researchers observed the children interacting with their parents and peers
  • Researchers also questioned the children’s friends and classmates

Measuring “coolness”…

To determine how “cool” these children were researchers asked probative questions about romantic behavior, whether or not they had ever sneaked into a movie, stole from their parents, damaged property owned by their parents, as well as whether they had used marijuana and/or other drugs.  The children were also asked about the importance of feeling popular. As CNN reports quoting Dr. Allen:

“So when we talk about kids being popular as adolescents, that’s based on surveys of hundreds of people in their high school or middle school class. When we talk about social competence in adulthood, we’re not asking the teens, ‘Are you socially competent?’ We’re asking their close friends, ‘How competent is this person, really?'”

Study findings

Researchers determined three behaviors that characterized pseudomaturity: Tendency to seek out friends who were physically attractive; experiencing multiple romantic relationships which were intense and involved more sexual activity, and a willingness to become involved in minor delinquency behavior such as ditching school and vandalism. According to The New York Times report:

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

Many attributed failed adult romantic relationships to social status: they believed that their lack of cachet was the reason their partners had broken up with them. Those early attempts to act older than they were seemed to have left them socially stunted. When their peers were asked how well these young adults got along with others, the former cool kids’ ratings were 24 percent lower than the average young adult.

Some closing thoughts…

The road we travel as parents is filled with surprises. Many parents welcome the observation that their toddler is precocious. Before you know it, your precocious toddler looks forward to the attention they receive and they appear to take on the “role” of the family entertainer. They seem to be willing to take risks that their siblings or friends would never consider.

This is an interesting study. It offers some validity to what many parents intuitively considered as obvious. We see the character comparisons in movies and television series. Almost 60 years ago television offered the likes of Eddie Haskell and Wally Cleaver (Leave It To Beaver). 40 years ago we were introduced to Fonzie and Richie Cunningham (Happy Days). 25 years ago Saved By The Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210 became the shows for adolescents to watch.

Each of these shows and today’s current crop of sitcoms and dramas frequently use the “pseudomature” character to provide the “teaching moment.” Again, The New York Times reports Dr. Allen is quick to emphasize pseudomaturity suggests a predilection; however, it is not a firm predictor.

Life, like parenting, is full of surprises!

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