Student populations of high schools divide into small groups: “in” groups and “out” groups. In-group adolescents are those most accepted by and closest to teachers and administrators. In general, they get better grades, participate in more school and extracurricular activities, are chosen more frequently for responsible school duties, such as the newspaper or school plays, and unfortunately more or less exclusively come from a higher socioeconomic class. Out-group adolescents are less involved in school activities and extracurricular activities, do less well academically, are less favored by teachers and administrators, and are less frequently chosen for special responsibilities. There is even a small number of teenagers who are the most “in” of the in groups and a few who are most “out” of the out groups. This high school social structure works against equal education, equal opportunity, and equal experience for all. There are exceptions to this pattern, but nonetheless, it is quite prevalent.
How do you help your child become a member of in groups in her high school, and thus receive the benefits of increased social acceptance, increased school and extracurricular participation, and increased acceptance by teachers and administrators? The harsh reality is there is very little you can do once your child is in high school. your adolescent is pretty much on her own in terms of social involvement, acceptance, and participation.
There is, however, a good deal you can do in terms of understanding and influencing her activities. You can insist she do her homework and participate and achieve consistently with her abilities. You can support her participation in school functions and activities. You can, for example, be sure she has time and transportation to participate in play practice, the high school band, FFA, or the like. You can help remove any barriers to participation. Yes, you may think you have started operating a taxi service. This is, though, one of the things you can do. In addition, you can develop a real understanding of the major adolescent pastime, “hanging around.”
What is hanging around? It is when teenagers are not really doing anything specific, not working on any projects, not getting into any real mischief or difficulty, and not doing anything important. They are just hanging around. The payoff in hanging around is just being together. Music is an important background for hanging around; so is relative privacy from adults. To a limited extent, younger children are irrelevant and adults are the enemy. Adults are the people who make them study, criticize them, set limits, hold expectations, like to nose into their business, and do not really appreciate the art of hanging around. Does it help if you understand and appreciate hanging around? Yes, it helps your adolescent quite a lot.
At times, your adolescent wants to spend time just hanging around with her friends. Be less rigid in expecting her to come right home from school, or explain everything she does when out with friends. Be a little more understanding when told she went nowhere and did nothing with no one. Be a little more understanding when she talks on the telephone for an hour “about nothing.” She was just hanging around by phone.
You can set some limits on where and when your adolescent is allowed to hang around and with whom. You can say, “Hanging around is fine, but you cannot hang around there.” You can say, “I definitely prefer you do not hang around with this particular individual.” If you are willing to give reasons, calmly and straightforwardly, she will usually respect your wishes (unless you have waited until she is identified with the individual).
This only works occasionally. If you find yourself frequently telling your adolescent whom she can and cannot associate with, where she can and cannot hang out, you gradually find yourself and your suggestions being less accepted. Remember your adolescent is nearly fully independent.
You can influence where, when, and with whom your adolescent forms associations more directly. Encourage him to have his friends come over so you can get to know them before passing judgments. Encourage him to be involved in church groups and other organized activities. Help him organize a party or group activity. To the extent you reasonably can, make certain he has the necessary money and resources. Be sure he has time to participate in activities. It is not reasonable, for example, to expect him to baby-sit his younger brother every weekend night. Many activities take place on weekend nights. If your adolescent always has to stay home, the opportunity for healthy social involvement is limited. Yes, it is unreasonable for him to stay out all night or even for him to stay out late without your permission. It is also unreasonable to expect him to always come straight home from ball games or other school activities, with no opportunity to hang out with his friends.
In short, assure your adolescent has the resources, opportunities, and parental encouragement necessary for participation in acceptable school and community activities. Be tolerant of hanging around, whether at your house, someone else’s house, a teenage hangout, or over the phone. Set some limits about where and when he is allowed to hang out and which activities he can participate in. Occasionally, you can influence who he chooses to associate with. Yes, your adolescent really is beyond parental control; but parental influence within a healthy and open relationship is still both possible and very much wanted by your adolescent. Most children want to please you, want you to like their friends, want you to be interested in their activities, and will behave not only acceptably but in ways making you proud.