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Adolescent Attitudes To Authority

Coleman, J. & Coleman, E.Z. (1984). Adolescent attitudes to authority. Journal of Adolescence, 7, 131-141.

Summary

Traditional concepts of authority are challenged by young people. Adult authorities, threatened by youth violence and confrontations, claim that a “generation gap” exists. But this is questionable. Evidence indicates close, positive relationships between the generations. The problem lies not in adult authority, but in how adults exercise authority.

Purpose

This study seeks to compare adolescent attitudes to authority at home and in school, their attitudes toward clashes that occur, and their views on the means by which clashes should be resolved.

Design

The study involved semi-structured interviews with forty-three adolescents (twenty-two girls, twenty-one boys) ages fourteen and fifteen. The study investigated the attitudes of teenagers toward events and people. It focused on the notions of the ideal authority figure, attitudes toward conflicts at home and in school, and types of resolutions to conflicts preferred by adolescents.

Results

Fourteen and fifteen year-olds have little need for autonomy, but great need for support from parents and teachers. When asked to give five words describing the ideal mother, father, and teacher, the top six ideals listed include

 

Ideal Mother (%)

Ideal Father (%)

Ideal Teacher (%)

Support

69

67

79

Warmth

60

35

28

Personality

30

16

65

Usefulness

25

39

32

Autonomous

23

37

30

Control

14

39

62

The greatest issues of conflict for both genders include:

  • Time to be home.
  • Leisure activities.
  • Money.

Girls fourteen years of age have more problems with relationship difficulties and friends than with the three listed above, but by age fifteen, the same top three above are their top three issues of greatest conflict.

In the home, democratic resolution of conflicts is preferred over permissive or authoritarian resolution. Boys fifteen years of age want more permissive authority than they do at age fourteen. The girls remain the same. However, in school, the type of resolution preferred is authoritarian, especially for delinquent behavior (9%) and teacher behavior (80%).

Implications

  1. Children want support. They need adults-particularly parents-to talk with them, become aware of their problems, and give them opportunity for genuine democratic participation. Although in society it seems adolescents are struggling for independence, they do not want freedom from adult control, but they do not want adults to be autonomous, either.
  2. School authority is perceived differently than at home. There needs to be a balance of strict rules and supportive education. Teens know when teachers are afraid of them, and many teens say teachers need to bring back sterner measures. But, in the long run, they want to be treated as individuals with opinions that count.
  3. Youth workers are many times caught in the cross fire between adult and youth conflicts. Realize that there need to be different types of authority in school and home. There is not one type for all situations. Adolescence is the normal time to push for independence. Therefore, it is important to know what is being emphasized through the authority exercised.

Richard White
© 2017 CYS

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