Should parents and teachers intervene in the jockeying for status endemic among adolescent boys?
When I first started working I found it difficult to get into clubs and bars, mainly because I was under age, but also because of my appearance. I resolved to change this. I bought a crushed blue velvet jacket with the widest lapels you can imagine. (I know, but it was the early 1970s!)
I looked and felt very different when I wore this jacket. It changed my place in the pecking order. Suddenly, I was welcomed into all the clubs, and attracted the attention of women. Was it really just the size of my lapels that did it?
A few years later I worked in a Children’s Home, and the boys were amongst the most outrageously loud characters I’d ever met. In the confines of the Home they strutted like peacocks, they were Alpha males, but, during the course of any bus journey from the Home into town, they slowly transformed from cocky arrogant hooligans into timid quiet sheep. For some time this transformation puzzled me, and then I realised why it occurred. As kids from a Home they wore second hand clothes, they had hand-me-downs, not the latest fashions. The Home kids were intimidated by the clothes the ‘normal’ kids on the bus wore, and it radically affected their behaviour and sense of status.
I am employed to train social and care workers to work with teenagers, as a starting point I introduce them to the concept of ‘pecking order’. Teenagers seek out and want to know where they stand in the pecking order. There are any number of pecking orders to be joined, they cover a wide spectrum of activities—appearance, behaviour, football, sports, fashion, gaming, school, etc. They can be very specialised, or they can be generic, they are the equivalent of league tables: we can be high in some and low in others. They have always been there, and each generation of teens creates their own new structures and frameworks, as well as rules and regulations. He is ‘in’ because he wears the latest trainers. He is ‘out’ because he hasn’t tied his scarf in the right knot.
In my experience, the creation of pecking orders is a very healthy and normal part of life. It has always accompanied adolescence and the onset of puberty. It can on occasions become a very painful, spiteful and antagonistic forum. Rejection from your order is devastating, just as acceptance can be liberating. In each of the pecking orders there will be jostling and fighting for places amongst the Alphas, Betas and Gammas.
The Alphas try to stay ahead of the Betas by re-organising the specifications, exerting their power; the Betas fight amongst themselves for ascendancy and validation; and the Gammas, being subservient to their Alpha masters, do all the dirty jobs.
Many of the professionals I teach don’t like the concept of pecking order, especially the division into classes or factions, they feel such a state of affairs is inappropriate and divisive. I have worked with teenagers since 1975, and in that time I have been through my own transformative journey, as well as witnessing behavioural patterns which re-occur generation after generation. It is true what these other professionals say about pecking orders, but I have also observed it to be normal and expected. We shouldn’t suppress it; by doing so, we will only make it more extreme. We need to work alongside it.
Adolescents need to have peer appraisal and assessment, otherwise they won’t know who they truly are. If they don’t try to step up to their pecking orders, they will remain judging themselves by their parents’ criteria, not their peers. Peer appraisal can be harsh by other people’s (outsiders’) standards.
Within the framework of any newly forming pecking order there is continual posturing and competition. This needs to be channelled in such a way that it doesn’t lead to violence, intolerance and hatred, and this is mostly the case. As with competition in nature, 99% of the time it remains posturing—bravado—challenge and risk without going too far. I encourage the professionals to let these jostlings occur naturally and not to interfere. Pecking orders often give adolescents a sense of belonging, which they haven’t had before.
People can gain strength from their Gamma status in the pecking order, however lowly and demeaning this may appear to others. A few years ago I worked in the wilderness with a diverse group of teenagers, some from social services and others from well-off backgrounds. They divided and kept separate for the majority of the time, occasionally pushing the boundaries of their groupings, but mostly remaining in their social class. Early one morning I sat with the kids from social services. We poked sticks into the fire, we brewed tea, we chatted and laughed ,and there was a strong feeling of bond, mutual support, and camaraderie. After a while one of the boys from the other group woke up and came to join us at the fire. Through no fault or action of his, the atmosphere changed instantly: it became awkward and silent. The boys I was with withdrew; they chose to maintain the status quo.
To some extent the magic was lost, but it was also safer and more secure for those boys to inhabit familiar territory. The social standing to which these boys were conforming can be likened to the ‘Geeks and Jocks’ of America. As teenagers, the majority of us know which side of the divide we stand. Accepting our place can enable us paradoxically to gain status. Those geeks who know they are geeks, can attempt to become Alpha geeks. In recent years the portrayal of the geek as hero has become a strong motif in Hollywood, and it has shifted the balance of power.
So, despite apparent lowly status, boys can find self belief and confidence within their social group. ‘Belonging’ is a very powerful thing, and it reflects knowing your limitations and strengths. When I talked later about the incident with the boys this came over very strongly in their discussion. They said they were happy for the Alpha boys to be in charge of the fire most of the time, to make things happen, and they observed such actions with detachment and humour. That morning, through circumstance, they’d taken control of the fire for a period of time; they’d taken control on their terms and in their own particular way. Not stacking loads of wood and creating a huge conflagration, but sticking in the ends of sticks and making them glow. This had made them happy. As one of the lads said, ‘I don’t want to be so aggressive and competitive. That kind of behaviour looks very exhausting to me.’
Often those professionals opposed to the idea of pecking order are the ones who behave that way. As a test of this I remind them of the decisions they made (conscious and unconscious) when they entered the room for our training session. Who am I going to sit next to? I won’t sit too close to her. He’s a bit loud and bright, I don’t want to sit with him. Do I sit at the front of the class? Do I sit at the back? Pecking orders are acted on all the time, even when we are supposedly ‘grown up’.
Image credit: Harry Willis/Flickr