I often see kids in both their school and home environment and am often shocked at how different they can be. Moreover, many parents report to me that their teens are totally different around their friends than at home. Or that they have totally unique personalities depending on the type of friend they are with—more spunky with band friends, more shy with school friends. One fascinating study actually looks at how kids act differently depending on where they are. This particular study researched how, why and where kids tend to be picky eaters. Researchers found that kids are picky eaters either at home or at school. They watched kids eat at home and then watched them eat in the cafeteria or with friends. 92% of picky eaters were only picky in one of these locations, not both! Only 8% of kids were picky eaters everywhere.
What does this tell us? First, it tells us that it is in our human nature to have different ‘modes.’ It is very common for kids to act completely differently at school or with friends than at home. I actually call this having different ‘cultures.’
For example, a teen’s ‘school culture,’ is how their values, personality, and even likes and dislikes change at school versus other locations they spend time in. Many parents are horrified when I tell them that most likely—I would say at least 95% of teens act differently, or have a different school or friend culture. This is not always a bad thing. For instance, think of how different adults can be with their girl friends or buddies from college in comparison to having dinner at their parent’s house. Of course, in these two scenarios we act a bit different!
The key is to teach teens that it is ok to have a different school, home, Facebook, friend or soccer practice culture, where their attitude and even personality is a little different, as long as it is genuine. I get very upset when teens have a Facebook culture that is not genuine. For example, one girl I worked with had a very flirty profile with kissing pictures, favorite kinds of lingerie listed and coquettish quotes. I asked her if this culture, or alter-persona was real or just what she wished she could be. She said that she hoped to be more like this version of herself and that is why she created a page.
I encourage parents to talk to their kids about the occasional necessity of different cultures (personality at school should be a bit different than their personality at wrestling camp), but also talk about how important it is to be genuine in all interactions.
This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.
Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. New York: Free, 2009.