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A 13-year-old boy living in South Central Los Angeles spends weekdays caring for an ailing father and weekends behind a folding table, selling art, incense and body oil on the boardwalk of Venice Beach.

Is that youngster a victim of abuse? A high school drop-out in the making? An angry, bitter adolescent?

Would you believe none of the above? When writer Laura Sessions Stepp heard about Edwin Speaker, she was prepared to witness all of those things. What she discovered was a young man from the inner city who developed pride and self-confidence by conquering personal challenges.

"It surprised me. He was doing great," says Stepp, 49, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who profiles Speaker and 11 other youngsters in a new book, "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence" (Riverhead Books, $25.95).

The teen also set the pattern Stepp would see over and over during the two years she spent researching her book: From ages 11 to 15, youngsters were better off if they had a chance to develop a "competence" -- a hobby, skill or other activity at which they excelled.

More than any other variable -- from class or race to the level of parental involvement -- the chance to be challenged and succeed had the greatest impact on these young lives. Whether the challenge was in school, sports, music, a job or even steer-roping (as was the case with one Kansas youth she interviewed) didn't seem to matter.

"Competence makes a huge difference," says Stepp. "These kids are much more capable of doing things than they are given credit for. It's sad that we've gotten to the point where we think there's something wrong with work and have gotten away from the idea it is enjoyable."

For Edwin, whom Stepp identifies under the pseudonym "Eric" in her book, selling wares in Venice Beach was an opportunity, not a burden. It allowed him to demonstrate he was responsible -- and eventually he was rewarded with a drum set so he could pursue music in his spare time.

Now a 17-year-old freshman at West Los Angeles College, he believes the demands placed on him -- by circumstance and choice -- ended up making him "a better person." His father eventually recovered from his surgery and Edwin now hopes to land an internship with the music department of a TV network sports program.

"I know there's not a goal that's too high," he says. "I can accomplish anything."

Stepp, who covers family and children's issues for the Washington Post's Style section, was initially surprised by her findings. But she soon discovered no shortage of scientific research to support her observations.

Peter C. Scales, a developmental psychologist and researcher who specializes in early adolescence, is among those who agree with Stepp. He points to numerous studies that show youngsters who get a chance to follow their talents do better in school and wind up happier and less often in trouble.

"It's really remarkable," says Scales, senior fellow at Search Institute, a private non-profit children's research organization in Minneapolis. "There are so many things in social science that aren't consistent or clear. The importance of competence to overall healthy development is remarkably strong and consistent."

Understanding the self

The average parent of middle-school-age children probably won't be surprised that an activity like sports can boost a child's self-esteem. But experts say the effect goes deeper than that -- helping children understand who they are.

Scales call it a "heightened sense of self-capacity," an exhilarating experience that is "related to pleasure and joy."

"It inevitably helps school work and builds confidence," he says. "It helps a child's ability to plan. It reinforces values and skills required for success at school."

Jacquelynne Eccles, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says the need to discover and nurture a talent is something we all feel. What makes the adolescent experience different is that, as younger children, they believed themselves good at everything.

It's only at age 11 or 12 that youngsters start to realize they may fail, she says, and that failure may have implications for their future.

"It's just not a matter of pride. If they find nothing they're good at, it affects their feelings about hope for the future," says Eccles.

Both psychologists say a youngster, not his parents, has to choose his or her area of competence. They emphasize that whatever he chooses need not be competitive like team sports or graded like academics.

"A job can do it," says Eccles. "Having a job is actually predictive of a child staying in school. It's only when the work is boring or the hours too long that the benefits [of having a job] decrease."

Stepp believes it's crucial for parents to understand this need in their children. One of the tricks to raising adolescents is balancing opportunity with supervision, she says. While failing to do either can be harmful to a child, a lot of well-

meaning adults provide plenty of supervision but not enough freedom.

"When a kid goes to middle school, he just confronts page after page of rules. They have more rules than in elementary school," says Stepp. "We have become so deathly afraid of them, particularly in the wake of schoolyard shootings. What we should be doing is working hard to find ways they can be useful."

Stepp was inspired to write about the challenges of early adolescence by her 16-year-old son Jeff. After an idyllic mother and son day boating on northern Virginia's Lake Occoquan, she writes in the opening pages of her book, she suggested to her then-

11-year-old that he should do homework before launching into a computer game.

"Kaboom. You would have though I had asked him to hug me in public," writes Stepp, who is married to University of Maryland journalism professor Carl Sessions Stepp and helped rear two stepdaughters, now age 27 and 29.

" 'Why don't I ever get to decide things for myself? You're always telling me what to do!' As the argument escalated, he swept past, leaving me with this: 'I hope you know how much I hate you right now.' "

Stepp says that it was then she realized her son was entering the most challenging time of his life. Her book explores the physical, emotional and intellectual aspects of the age, but Stepp acts as more than a casual observer -- she also uses her dozen profiles and research to assess the most successful child-rearing techniques.

The title, "Our Last Best Shot," comes from her belief that while early adolescence can be a struggle for parents it can also be their best opportunity to have a lasting impact on what kind of adult their child will become.

"It can be a fun time, too," she says. "Too often we focus on the negative things and forget the good things."

She has also tried to practice what she preaches. Besides being a good student and musician (he plays piano and bass), Jeff has also been known to cook for the family, keeps the home computer in running order and bakes cakes for special occasions. "It's made a difference," she says.

Power of a mentor

Stepp also believes strongly that successful teens develop relationships with adults other than their parents. The adult could be a teacher, a coach, a family friend, grandparent or uncle, but ultimately, that person is a mentor, she says.

"A child can feel so inadequate at this age," she says. "When they have an adult they respect and who respects them, and they can talk to that person, it boosts their self-confidence."

Edd Speaker, Edwin's father, can attest to the power of mentoring. He's proud of what his son has achieved. Thanks to Stepp, he and Edwin were invited to a White House conference on teen-agers last May to talk about their experience.

"He's done a lot," Speaker, 54, who lives in West Los Angeles, says of his son.

Edwin, who hopes to pursue a career in sound engineering, credits his parents, his extended family and other adults he knew through his church for helping him survive the challenges of adolescence.

"I had a lot to do," he says. "I think it made me a better person."

Advice for parents

Laura Sessions Stepp's recommendations to encourage children aged 11 to 15 to acquire feelings of competence:

* Encourage your child to take on tasks that involve increasing levels of skill and responsibility, showing appreciation for effort as well as accomplishment.

* Expose him early to a variety of possible interests and talents, enlisting support from others.

* Ask his opinions about consequential matters and show respect for his answers.

* Prepare him for the world outside and then propel him toward it.

* Find ways to show how much you love your child when he is being most unlovable.

* Ask your child to help set rules and the consequences of failing to obey them.

* Quietly observe your child's world and the people in it. State clearly what is acceptable behavior, while allowing as much room as possible to act normal according to his definition.

-- From "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence" (Riverhead Books, $25.95)

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