Lessons About Adolescent Development From the Study of African-American Youth: Commentary
Susan M. McHale The Pennsylvania State University
The chapters by Winfield (chap. 6) and Burton, Allison, and Obeidallah (chap. 7) provide a vivid picture of the lives of youth who are growing up in circumstances seen by most researchers only in media snapshots. These are youth who skip school at a very young age to carry out important family responsibilities; who at an early age have witnessed so much violence and death that they acquire "truncated" views of their own life spans; and who at far too young an age recognize that many opportunities for success in the mainstream culture are closed to them.
This portrait of disadvantaged African-American youth calls into question some of our ideas about what is fundamental to human nature and human development: Concepts and theories with seemingly universal application may be specific to the relatively privileged individuals of the majority (Western) culture. As such, knowledge gleaned from the study of minority youth in demanding life circumstances may push us to new levels in our understanding of human development. In the following discussion, I focus on several of the ideas presented in the two preceding chapters. I highlight the ways in which these may inform existing research and theory in two areas: the study of adolescent development, and the literature on intervention for at-risk youth.
In describing the experiences of economically disadvantaged African-American youth, Burton et al. point out that their observations challenge contemporary ideas about adolescent development on a least two fronts. First, for