Dancing with the Natives

Adapted from Jeffrey Beedy and Matt Cheney’s Dancing with the Natives 2016

Dancing with the Natives explores how adolescents experience their lives and how adults come to learn how to respectfully dance with adolescents — at least metaphorically.

Remote island

The period of adolescence is not unlike a remote island, a place of isolation, with adults — no matter how well intentioned are perceived as invaders, like doctors arriving by airplane to a place that has never seen either medicine or flying machines. Such doctors would need to find ways to gain the islanders’ trust, learn the steps of the natives dance before their good will is accepted. The message: No power positioning or “I am the boss” postures will take the place of unconditional love, time, experience, listening and authentically respecting the rituals, feelings and thoughts of adolescents.

A cowboy

One might say this idea began with my own adolescence where, as an East coast, long-haired cowboy, living in Maine, playing in a band while captaining the baseball team, I never quite fit in with any one group of my peers, and never seemed to understand the conventional — I seemed to, for good and bad, to always do it my way.

Theoretical roots

These high school feelings about adolescence gained a theoretical life when I arrived at the Harvard School of Education in 1984, studying with adolescent philosophers Carol Gilligan, Lawrence Kohlberg and later teaching with Dr. Robert Coles. I was intrigued with Gilligan’s notion of the adolescent as philosopher — a person-with-their-own voice. During this time I worked as a researcher at Mclean’s Hospital on a four-year longitudinal study, listening for hundreds of hours to adolescents sharing their feelings about relationships with adults. The overall theme for these adolescents was the importance of relationships, and that adults simply didn’t listen and understand. I could relate to their voices.

Living with adolescents

My theoretical framework began at Harvard, but it has been my practical experience living with adolescents over the years that motivated me to write a book from the perspective of the adolescent. Over the four decades I have listened to adolescents as I have driven school vans, lived in dormitories, coached baseball, skiing and golf and hosted hundreds of dinners at my house. I have paid close attention to which adults successfully relate to adolescents and which do not, which gain access into the adolescent’s world and see it from the inside looking out and which remain forever pounding on the glass, left only to communicate with adolescents through muted murmurs and gesticulations.

Why most adults fail to relate

I want to share my humble view on how adolescents experience adults and why most adults have such difficulty establishing authentic relationships with adolescents. I present the adolescent as a philosopher, that is to say, as people with their own authentic view of life. My intent is to represent the period of adolescence as sui generis, a culture of its own, with its own rituals and its own ways of seeing the world that are not necessarily as inchoate as we traditionally view them.

A medium to promote discussion

I view this writing as a medium to promote discussion among parents, students, teachers, and communities. Adults cannot lead simply because they are the adults or because they own the power bestowed upon them as adults. There are dance lessons that adults must learn — such as time, experience, and listening — before they can lead.

I want also to be clear that I in no means feel I have mastered the dance with adolescents. What is actually closer to the truth is that I have learned more from my weaknesses and stepping on my partner’s toes than I have from being a great dancer myself.

The desire to be understood

We are all unique beings and want others to understand who we are as individuals. This process of seeking uniqueness, being understood and being connected occurs throughout life but has a particular significance during the second decade. As we enter the second decade of our lives, we develop a desire to discover our uniqueness at a time when the significant adults in our lives — parents, teachers, family, and coaches play important roles in shaping our lives.

Traditionally the adult-adolescent relationship is viewed as a struggle of power with the adult owning the power. This view has some legitimacy — however, if it is the only way of relating, it is limited and ultimately undermines the long-term health of the relationship.

The Dance

An interesting way to view this relationship is through the metaphor of a dance, with each partner possessing a unique and mutual role in the experience. As in a dance, power can be viewed less from a controlling standpoint and more from a wisdom standpoint.

Wisdom as power

Wisdom-as-power provides the leader with the ability to know what is needed at any given moment. Viewed from this perspective, the powerful dancing partner understands when to lead, when to follow and when to enjoy the mutual flow. When power is viewed as possessing more wisdom, more understanding, a deeper ability to listen, then the leader is in a more powerful position to shape and direct the outcome.

Abdication of control?

This is not an abdication of control or power — actually quite the opposite. This way of relating definitely takes more time, is more frustrating and at times messy, but the long-term results are deeper and more satisfying.

Obviously, this view of human development does not mean that an adult should ever let a child endanger themselves or others. But again, this is where wisdom and experience would overrule. And if the relationship is built on mutual trust and understanding, the adolescent will ultimately be more motivated to listen to reason. More important, authoritarian power relies heavily on guilt and authoritarian presence.

Ultimately what we are trying to cultivate is intrinsic motivation — the desire to do the right thing even in the absence of an authoritarian figure. Like a dance, however, both partners possess the wisdom at different times. If the adult has built a relationship founded on time, listening, understanding and trust the adolescent will be intrinsically more willing to align herself with the right course. The beauty of a mutual dance is that it is each partner’s responsibility to guide the relationship.

Partners

The basic idea of a mutual dance is that each partner enters the relationships on equal footing. They both share the same music. This is where many adults have a difficult time. The most common response is “why should we enter on equal footing? We are not equal — the adult is the one who has the power and responsibility.”

In one sense this is true. Ultimately it is the adults’ responsibility to raise, teach and coach the adolescent. The amount of experience alone would suggest that the adult is the keeper of the power.

How we relate

However, it is the way in which we relate to our younger partners that makes the subtle difference. If we enter the relationship simply by stating we are the boss with all the power, then the relationships is built on that power structure.

If, on the other hand, the relationship is built on mutual trust, commitment and responsibility the adult is in a position to teach from the right platform — wisdom and experience. Equally important, the adolescents know this, respect this, and will ultimately “buy in” to our important lessons.

A matter of respect

There are many unnecessary ways adults show their children, students and players that they are not equal.

Most adults do not talk to or treat the teenagers the same way they do their friends and colleagues. I can tell, for example, when an adult answers the phone precisely who they are talking to — their children or a mutual friend. The tone of respect is different. Is this necessary? Does it matter? Ask your adolescent. Adolescents pick up on the difference. In this sense, the adult has established an unnecessary relationship of power through a seemingly unnoticeable venue.

I am here you know?

Another way adults create an unnecessary we/they relationship is when they talk publicly about their children and students in the third person. I have sat in thousands of teacher- faculty-student meetings where I can tell immediately which parents and teachers have the healthier relationships. Instead of providing the adolescent the opportunity to represent their own feelings and thoughts, many well-meaning adults provide a synopsis of the adolescent’s views. This has a powerfully negative impact on the relationship. All one has to do is glance over at the adolescent while the adult is “giving an overview of them” to see the disappointment and disgust.

The power of relationships

The power that the adult has resides in their wisdom, maturity, experience, and ability to understand their role in the relationship.

First, adults need to understand their adolescent partners as legitimate philosophers. This does mean the adolescent is right; it simply means they have a legitimate point of view that deserves understanding and respect. This does not mean that adults need have to comply or agree. But they do need to convince the adolescent that they have listened and they understand and respect their point of view. The power that adult possesses is the power to give adolescents the safety and freedom to empty their emotional well. The reward can be enormous.

The adult’s role is to create a safe environment void of criticism and guilt where adolescents can share their true feelings. Sometimes that means that adult simply needs to listen and understand — truly understand. Once the adolescent is fully understood than the mutual dance of learning begins. The adult now possesses the authentic power to lead.

As adolescent experiment they begin to learn for themselves and they can come to the adult and share their feeling. If the adult is simply the authoritarian who owns all the power, the adolescent will be less likely to share their feelings. They may comply out of fear. The better motivation for taking the right road is that they do not want hurt the relationship.

The concept of “Dancing with the Natives” is founded on the power of relationships and the belief that people are innately good and want to do good. The adult’s power is located in the ability to spend time, to listen, and to display an authentic desire to understand. In turn, we develop a new power that allows us access to the adolescent world and the keys to shape their lives in a powerful and enduring way.

How adolescents think, feel and live their lives; how their rituals, music, and peer relations create a sort of sui-generis world — a culture of their own deserves respect. A culture that completely confuses most adults. When given unconditional love, a little time, understanding and the freedom to express them selves, adolescent’s inner beauty will flourish.

Too often children entering the second decade of their life are viewed as aimless and unable to make healthy decisions. When shown unconditional love and the genuine opportunity to govern their environment they are very respectful and responsible — for the most part. This is not to say they are always right or that adults should abandon their love, views and interest in helping but it does mean that when given unconditional love in time adolescents develop a sense of trust and ultimately want to do good.

To dance is to relate. To relate, to truly relate, requires time to learn the lessons the adolescents have to offer.

Dance steps

When we think of dancing, at least metaphorically, we think of rhythm, flow and a mutual connection to shared music. The same is true with the “Dancing’ with the Natives” analogy. A dance requires trust, time and practice. So do relationships. When we first learn a new dance we need to begin with the essential steps that provide the foundation for the more complex moves that will follow. And so it is true with our relationships with adolescents. Although all the steps are essential there is a sequence to the steps. The learning of one step leads to the next and with time the dance evolves into a more complex and meaningful dance.

The biggest mistakes adults make is to negate the values and importance of the early steps. Many adults say to themselves, “I know what is right, I have been there, I am older and wiser and I know what you need to do.”

Some of that may actually may be true. But the reality is that that forcefulness will at best create compliance, but it may also silence the beauty of the deeper dance of life.

Naturally, all of the steps are engaged in simultaneously and continuously, but the sequence builds and deepens the relationship in a natural way. The important point is to try and suspend the tendency to tell, direct, control and lead until a solid relational foundation built on unconditional love, time, experience, listening, understanding have been solidly formed.

Unconditional love

The first step to Dancing with the Natives is unconditional love. Without unconditional love there is no foundation. Without unconditional love the whole dance falls apart. Unconditional love means that we accept and love our partner the way they are and that we in fact love them for who they are and we do not want to change them.

Time

Time follows unconditional love and provides the venue for solidifying the relationship, particularly in the early stages of the relationship. Time provides the opportunity to develop a shared history. Time allows each person to get to know one another, to share experiences, tell stories, understand each other. Beginning with unconditional love and sharing time one can begin to listen, truly listen.

Authentic listening

Authentic listening allows the adolescent to feel comfortable enough to empty their emotional well and share their inner self. Authentic listening is difficult for adults who have an agenda and are waiting to dispense their self-proclaimed important life lesson. Adolescents know immediately if the adult is an authentic listener.

Experience

Experience is next. Experience means sharing experiences together. Listening to music, going on road trips, meeting each others friends, walking in the field, sitting by the fire, attending a concert together, spelling the flowers and skiing. Experience creates a whole new category of shared feelings, sights, memories, sounds and smells that connect to the mind, body and soul and serves to represent the relationship. Experience extends and deepens both the relational memory and shared history.

Understanding naturally flows out of listening and experience and provides both the adolescent and adult with a natural opportunity for connecting. Understanding is not judging. Understanding is allowing the adolescent to be his or her own philosopher. Understanding leads to mutual understanding. This is when the adult has spent precious time learning the foundation steps and now shares with the adolescent their feelings, views and thoughts. The adult begins to develop a mutual relationship, sharing with their partner how they see the world. The adolescent is now emotionally prepared to spend time in the mind and heart of the adult. Although this will happen throughout the dance, the basic theme of Dancing with the Natives is to build this sense of trust so they are ready to receive the leadership and direction and wisdom the adult has to offer.

Like the remote islanders, adolescents need time to trust the outsiders and the outsiders need time to understand the feelings, philosophy and rituals of the native culture. It is now time to lead and the real beauty and magic of the process is moving beyond compliance to intrinsic motivation on our partner’s part and to accept (and dance with) the adults’ wisdom, guidance and direction.

To dance, truly dance with another person is a beautiful experience. This takes time. In our hurried world we don’t always have the time. That is the reality of the world that we live in. It is what it is. But the real lesson here is that it is worth the wait. None of this will happen overnight. We will step on each other’s toes, forget the steps, and get upset and slide backwards at times. But our mistakes and miscues can be short-lived if we keep trying. If we don’t give up and keep returning to the dance floor we will make progress. And the next time we meet we are in a better place.

Adolescents don’t forget. They know the time and love we put forth — they also know when we pull power trips. They may not admit right away or all the time — but they know. They also know that they are not getting the same love or attention in other areas of their life and they come around. Each step brings us closer to relating better, enjoying each other more, understanding each other and ultimately allowing us to enjoy a beautiful and fulfilling dance.

​Dr. Beedy is a leader in the field of child development. At Harvard, he studied with psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Robert Coles

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