Caring for Others and Being Cared For: Students Talk Caring in School

By Bosworth, Kris | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1995 | Go to article overview

Caring for Others and Being Cared For: Students Talk Caring in School


Bosworth, Kris, Phi Delta Kappan


What can adolescents themselves tell us about their perceptions of caring? Ms. Bosworth - who was co-director of a study team that spent a year in two middle schools, exploring the indicators of caring in young adolescents - draws some answers from that experience.

Recently, in one mid-sized city in the Midwest, two teenagers, ages 18 and 15, fired a single shot from a stolen gun into the head of a cab driver. Following the incident, a juvenile probation officer lamented, "We're seeing an increase in kids who just don't care."

Often adults see negative, disrespectful, or violent behavior as evidence that teens simply do not care. They tend to react to adolescents as if their noncaring behavior were the norm, as if caring attitudes and behaviors were as foreign to young people as neural surgery. Thus the first approach many adults take to dealing with teens is to focus on changing the behaviors seen as "uncaring." In fact, strategies dealing with negative behavior dominate most schools. Programs or strategies that enhance caring values, attitudes, and behaviors by providing students with opportunities to discuss caring, to demonstrate caring to others, and to participate thoughtfully in caring relationships with peers and adults are scarce.

If adults tend to think that many young people don't care, what can adolescents themselves tell us about their perceptions of caring? In discussions of how caring manifests itself in schools and other institutions that serve young people, their opinions are often missing. What do adolescents say about caring, about how they demonstrate caring, and about how they identify caring in others, particularly in their teachers? Understanding how young people view caring provides a place to begin in developing formal programs that promote and encourage caring, as well as in showing how the behaviors of adults who work with teens might support and encourage caring.

Does what adolescents say about caring have any relationship to how they behave? Although values and attitudes are important contributors to behavior, they are certainly not the only influences that determine whether a teen demonstrates caring behavior. However, valuing caring and having a positive attitude toward it are certainly steps toward exhibiting caring behavior. What values, attitudes, and understandings do teens have about caring? How can these be used to enhance the qualities of caring in school relationships?

Teachers are the brokers of caring in schools. They provide the bridge between the school and the individual. Understanding what adolescents see as caring behavior can facilitate communication between teachers and students and can help teachers model caring behavior. Hearing student voices can provide educators with a clearer understanding of approaches to enhance caring.

Before talking to teens, though, we should explore several assumptions that may influence our expectations. The first concerns gender issues. Are female adolescents better able to articulate what caring is? Are girls able to provide more sophisticated definitions of what it means to care? Such an expectation comes both from the common perception of females in this society as nurturing and caring and from some studies of adolescent girls. A finding of gender differences or lack thereof would be important in designing any programs or interventions to enhance caring in schools.

One might also expect that adolescents would be so self-absorbed (often described as "egocentric") that altruism and caring would be totally out of character for any of them, regardless of gender. Adults often describe adolescents' behavior in ways that suggest that young people scarcely recognize that anyone else exists, let alone has feelings, wants, and needs. Caring implies relationship. Indeed, some have described the relationship between the giver and the recipient of caring as reciprocal or mutual. To what extent do teens find caring to be mutual with other students or with adults?

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