#AdoptMent youth take personal stock

I’ve been reticent to blog about my work with the AdoptMent group because they’re a younger set and I’m more protective of their privacy. This is a transitional year, not just within the program, but also in the lives of each of these young people. In my first session with them this school year, we returned to the tasks of adolescent development, but instead of focusing broadly on the topic of identity, this time we talked about personal values and relationships, especially how to strike a healthy balance between independence and connectedness.

Last spring I used Zits comics to get the conversation started. We returned to two strips that dealt specifically with identity exploration, and was really pleased that they all retained the biggest lesson from last spring’s identity self-portrait activity, namely that at this early stage in life staying true to yourself is overrated, and identity crises are actually a healthy part of psychological development.

From that group review, everyone paired off with their mentors to discuss comic strips treating the developmental tasks related to autonomy, relationships, and values. The mentors had handouts that indicated the tasks displayed in each strip, but the mentees first had to work on inferring the topic from the material. The second step in the exercise was to reflect on how they were progressing in each of those tasks. I got to eavesdrop on a lot of wonderful stories about how these young people set up challenges for themselves (e.g., earning the money and planning transportation for a solo trip to New Jersey), and noted how their relationships to their parents were in transition

The final part of the workshop had everyone select one particular developmental task that posed a significant challenge to him or her. Continue reading


Preserving the idealism of youth—and a new project

Been thinking again about that point in life when youthful idealism clashes with the harsh realities of the world. I’ve already written about Egan’s Invisible Circus and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, but the most famous literary example of the disappointment of youth in the apathy and hypocrisy of adults is no doubt Holden Caulfield. As someone on the front lines of youth work, this period strikes me as particularly critical for a couple of reasons: On the one hand, my first impulse is to preserve as much of that idealism as possible so that it doesn’t lapse into cynicism or defeat. But on the other hand, it’s also important to ensure that our young people are conscious of the trade-offs involved in deciding if and to what extent they wish to play the game. What are the consequences of ignoring the rules? And, conversely, when does participating in the rat race come at the expense of the self?

I recently put this question to my friend Steph, who is so gifted with youth, and regularly faces these issues in a role where she has the dual responsibility of cultivating the individuality of her young people and getting them job-ready. I asked her how she handles the matter of professional appearance. She responded that she makes an effort to couch the conversation in non-judgmental terms, along the lines of: You go rock those tattoos, but understand that stereotyping could affect your success on the job market. It’s sad that we as humans (and not a one of us is exempt) make these kinds of snap judgments of people, and even sadder that we have to have frank conversations about this with our youth. But them’s the breaks. Steph describes this work as living in the gray when it comes to withholding judgment, but having to explain that sometimes situations must be regarded in black and white terms: If you show up to an interview wearing inappropriate clothing, you will not get the job.

I think it’s also important to give young people very concrete strategies for how to negotiate conventions without capitulating to them entirely. You might share stories of people who remove their piercings before going into an interview or make the decision to get tattoos in unexposed areas of their body. I remember reading a story in the paper about a high school teacher who doesn’t hide the fact that he has heavily tattooed shoulders and upper arms, but informs his students that this was deliberate on his part in order to maintain a professional appearance even in short-sleeved, buttoned-down shirts.

The aspect of this question that is less pragmatic, however, unsettles me significantly more because I haven’t found an easy formula for preventing frustration and disappointment—which children in foster care are intimately familiar with—from turning into a crippling sense of distrust and disillusionment. It really is nothing short of miraculous when young people age out of care with the generosity of spirit to better the society that has repeatedly betrayed them and improve the life outcomes of their younger peers. It speaks to their resiliency and heart and I believe we have a moral duty to do whatever we can to set them up for success. Their success—if we see ourselves as having a vested interest in true social change—is just as much ours.

I am fortunate to know a group of such youth. They call themselves Emerging Leaders and we’ve started meeting regularly at AlleyNYC. (I’ve been tweeting about them recently.) What I am trying to do is embrace these young people—most of whom have recently aged out of care—for a bit longer by giving them the space to share ideas for social impact, exchange business and professional resources, and build the skills and knowledge necessary to realize their dreams of running their own nonprofits and social enterprises. I know some of you have been waiting for a full report on this project, and I promise it’s forthcoming.

A three-strand theory of love and attraction

“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”

Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:

Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.

Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?

Continue reading

Every woman should travel/live abroad alone

[For Autumn, on her current adventure] I’m in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which is about an 18 year-old girl who takes off for Europe to search for the place her sister died. The account of her coming of age has gotten me reminiscing about my travels alone. I’ve already written about how finishing my dissertation and changing careers were two of the most significant rites of passage I’ve ever undergone. Prior to graduate school, however, traveling by myself and living abroad (not in the Philippines or the US) ranked highly on my list of transformative experiences. This is a story in four parts.

The US

To my mother’s great credit, she started instilling in me very early on the notion that I should go forth into the world intrepidly. Having seen how a sheltered childhood caused my sister to fear unfamiliar places and abhor being on her own, Mom took care to show me that traveling alone was nothing to be afraid of. Continue reading

The brief wondrous life…

[For Dale] OK, so perhaps I took my aversion to reading or watching anything that debuts to great fanfare too far by avoiding Oscar Wao for this long. I just wasn’t expecting it to be that great. I mean, Drown was a solid read, but I didn’t end up thinking about it all that much after finishing it. And to tell you the truth, I was half expecting Wao to be a mildly annoying throwback to nineties-style identity lit. But boy that first chapter is so darn charming. Diaz’s prose just swept me along, page after page. I’m pretty sure I read the beginning with a smile plastered on my face the entire time.

What struck me most about the novel is how its allusions draw from so many different fields of knowledge and experience, that I found myself constantly and alternately pulled in and pushed away by the text. Copious footnotes notwithstanding, so many of his references remained opaque to me (also: totally not motivated to look up all the nerdy sci-fi stuff). I suppose I can bump This is How You Lose Her farther up my reading list.

The Hidden Power of Character

I first heard about Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed” on this podcast. I distinctly remember listening to the interview about this book while on a long bus ride and scribbling Paul Tough on a piece of paper to remember for later. It was another book that made me feel energized and excited about the potential in this work.

One point that struck me was when he described how character traits, such as grit, social intelligence, and self-control, can function as a type of safety net for students who don’t have much support from their family or their community. For students who are growing up in chaotic homes and the challenges associated with living in poverty, they have had to develop character traits that help them succeed and that they can fall back on when times are difficult.

Young people in foster care who make it to college are part of a small group. When you look at how many continue on to earn their degree, the number gets even smaller. There is obviously something that these students develop that has allowed them to go through the traumatic experience that is foster care and continue to strive to reach their goals.

Continue reading

Yes, I watch Girls

Judging by the reviews and blog comments, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, and I am definitely in the loving-it camp when it comes to Lena Dunham’s Girlswhich recently wrapped up its second season on HBO. I really admire the strength of Dunham’s vision of who she is as a writer/director/actor. Although her characters get into rather outlandish situations, she manages to represent some of the most truthful, human moments on the small screen of what it’s like for a certain demographic of twenty-something struggling to become adults in New York City. It’s fascinating watching her characters struggle with their careers and their dating lives, but Dunham especially shines in her depiction of the ups and downs of close female friendships.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, here is the opening scene to the entire series, which sets the protagonist Hannah up for her misadventures by having her parents finally cut the purse strings years after she’s left the nest:

Rites of passage in Goats

Goats (2012) is the film adaptation of Mark Jude Poirier’s debut novel. It’s a quirky coming of age tale that involves a 15-year old boy leaving home—although “home” for Ellis isn’t a safe and idyllic Shire, but a chaotic, dysfunctional family comprising his irresponsible and histrionic mother and his pot-loving mentor, Goat Man, who becomes a surrogate father figure to baby Ellis shortly after his biological father abandoned the family.

Within the first three minutes, the film quickly establishes its major themes: coming of age, rites of passage, leaving home, and renegotiating parent-child relationships.

See what you can make of it. (It’s currently streaming on Netflix.)

[Scene: Goat Man and Ellis go for a trek in the mountains of Arizona with two goats.]

Narration: Goat Man took me on my first trek when I was eleven. Not too long after that, he taught me how to do bong hits. It doesn’t matter where we go on these treks. We just wander. Goat Man says it’s the journey that counts…which I know is cliché. In a few days I leave for the prep school my father went to. Goat Man’s calling this my farewell trek. He says I should soak up as much of the Sonoran sun as I can, but he’s the one doing most of the soaking.

Goat Man: Whooo! [Jumps into water.] Whooooo! [Approaches Ellis.] You won’t have all this this at Gates Academy. [Lights up a joint.]

Ellis: Naked men shouldn’t squat. Do you ever worry about your parents? Did you ever?

G: No. Not really. Wendy will be fine. I’ll watch her.

[Goats bleet.]

Goat Man once said that in certain Native American tribes, an elder leads a young man out into the wilderness to fend for himself until he has a vision.

[Ellis milks goat milk into a cup.]

G: She never lets me milk her.

In one tribe if no vision comes they’ll chop off a fingertip and sacrifice it to the Great Spirit. Goat Man said I’m not quite ready for this rite of passage.

[Ellis finishes drinking milk and climbs piggyback onto Goat Man.]

E: Thanks. Sorry about the rest of the trek, Goat Man.

G: It’s not your fault. Should have never let you come out here with brand new boots. Should have oiled them and let you walk around in them for a couple of days before coming out here.

[End scene.]


  1. Why is the film called Goats?
  2. Who are the goats and who is the goat herder?
  3. Describe the relationship Ellis has to the most important adults in his life: his mother, Goat Man, and his father.
  4. In what ways is Ellis already an adult?
  5. List the challenges that Ellis faces and how he overcomes them.
  6. Describe the transformation that Ellis undergoes in the film. What do you think motivated him to clean up his act?

Here is a hint for numbers 1 and 2: the film’s opening graphic.

Goats opening graphic

How’d you know?

Just a little over halfway through Lars and the Real Girl (2007), the titular character approaches his older brother, Gus, and engages him in a discussion about rites of passages. In the absence of any coming of age ceremonies, how did Gus know that he’d become a man? Gus stumbles over his answer, “Well, it’s kinda sex, but, but it’s not…” before he’s saved by the bell.

In the next scene, Lars presses Gus until he relents and offers

Gus: Well, it’s not like you’re all one thing or the other. There’s still a kid inside, but you you you…you grow up when you decide to do right. And not what’s right for you—what’s right for everybody. Even when it hurts.

Lars: Ok, like what?

G: [Sighs.] Like…you know, like…you don’t jerk people around. You don’t cheat on your woman. And you take care of your family, you know. You admit when you’re wrong. Or you try to anyways. That’s all I can think of, you know? It sounds like it’s easy, and for some reason, it’s not.

Be a mensch, in other words: do the right thing. Gus offers their father as an example of a man who “tried to do right by us, even though he didn’t know how,” by struggling to raise them, as a single dad, through a fog of depression. Then he himself “mans up” to Lars by apologizing for abandoning him the first chance he got to leave home.

I do think that there is at least one other definition of manhood (and more broadly, adulthood), one that underpins the entire film. As Lars works through his delusion, from start to end, there is a definite sense that he must face his monsters—the twin threats of emotional and physical connection (and we’re not even talking about sex here)—before he can call himself a man. (Would that we all could enjoy the unflagging support of an entire small town while we do battle with ours!)

For those who have access to the full film, the scenes above run roughly between 1:13:38 and 1:16:00.

Transitions to Adulthood: 2-day program for Youth Communication

I’m excited to share with you the overview of the program I’m running for Youth Communication. I’ve put together a workbook for the participants, with activity sheets and space for notes and freewriting.




This sequence of discussions is designed for a group of young people (ages 15 to 20) attending Youth Communication’s 2012 Summer Writing Workshop. In line with this year’s theme of identity, this two-day program gives participants a rich and structured context in which to explore their own passages to adulthood.

The underlying premise is that becoming an adult is not something that happens overnight (on your 18th or 21st birthday), but rather something that takes place gradually and not without some amount of heartache and hardship.

Together we will discuss the concept of adulthood, beginning first with major institutional definitions coming from the legal and scientific fields, and moving through developmental psychology toward cultural definitions in the realms of sociology and anthropology.

The goal is for participants to use this knowledge as a framework for formulating personal definitions of adulthood that resonate in their own lives, and also for generating stories for YCTeen or Represent.

Syllabus Continue reading