Are Your Horses Pulling Your Chariot in the Same Direction?

When I was the chair of the counseling department at Churchill High School in Livonia, I was once asked by the principal to address problems that the school was facing with ninth graders. As most secondary educators can attest, the origin of school failure and dropping out is invariably traceable to the ninth grade. There are myriad reasons for this, many of them related to the developmental issues of early adolescence. The principal asked me to speak to factors that may influence adolescents’ poor adaptation to the high school environment. Essentially, I was being asked to teach a course in developmental psychology to teachers at an after school staff meeting. How much time could I take? “About ten or fifteen minutes,” the boss indicated. Overview of human development in ten minutes? No problem!

Searching for an image or metaphor to clearly depict the variables visited upon early adolescents, I recalled an image from the old biblical epic film, Ben Hur. In the movie’s most memorable scene, the chariot race, the titled character extracts revenge on his nemesis, Massala, while driving a beautiful team of white horses. An expert charioteer, Ben Hur had skillfully trained the four equine individuals into a successful and highly functional team.

It occurred to me as I planned my ten minute training that the four horses from the epic film could be characterized or compared to the four areas of human development: physical, social, cognitive, and psychological. Just as Ben Hur trained the four horses to move in unison, perfect human development, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, would involve even and measured growth and advancement in all four of the above areas. In other words, as a child grew taller, he would also develop age-appropriate social skills, even as he acquired new cognitive abilities as he also gained in personal maturity and self understanding. This smooth and even personal growth would be the developmental ideal, very much like a team of four horses moving smoothly forward together.

As we all know, perfection in anything is not to be found anywhere. Applying this principle to some typical teens, imagine a fourteen year old ninth grade girl. Let’s call her Donna. Her “physical horse” is very advanced, as she looks like she’s at least eighteen. Socially, that horse is moving at a fast pace as well, as older boys are pursuing her. Her psychological horse is lagging behind as she really doesn’t seem to understand the source of her newfound popularity or how to cope with it. Cognitively, she is a “C” student with little capacity for abstract thought at present. As we can see, her developmental “team of horses” is not moving smoothly as it pulls her developmental chariot along in lurches.

In contrast, her ninth grade classmate, Wally, presents a very different developmental picture. His “cognitive horse” is speeding along as he is taking advanced science and math classes already. Physically, he is among the smallest boys in class and could easily pass for a late elementary student. Because of his diminutive stature and academic superiority, he is often victim of teasing and pranks from the bigger, less cerebral members of the high school. His lack of popularity is exacerbated by his sarcastic witticisms with the bullies, leading only to an escalation of their abuse of him. Wally literally doesn’t see that he needs to keep his mouth shut if he wishes to avoid yet another locker stuffing.

The point is that most of us experienced a rather uneven progression through that key window of human development: adolescence. As adults, we are out of that turbulent stage in life. But are we?

Assignment: Think back to when you were in eighth or ninth grade. What did you look like? As a girl, did you develop physically early or late? If a boy, were you athletic and coordinated? Were you part of the “in group” or on the outside, looking wistfully in? Did you possess the insight that generates emotional maturity? Were you a concrete or an abstract thinker?

Developmentally, what were you like as an eighth grader?

Amazingly, many of us continue to operate under the control of a self-concept that was born many years earlier. Bright and successful men and women may still cringe when they think about dropping chemistry or geometry in tenth grade. Physically healthy, strong and mature men still feel the need to prove themselves on an “over 50” softball team to compensate for their lack of athletic prowess as a kid. And attractive women still seek affirmation of their beauty, perhaps unwisely, because of their residual angst over their awkwardness and braces as young girls.

What have you brought forward from your early teens into your late 20’s? 30s? 40s? Even later? Have those residual feelings led you to a lack of confidence or neediness in one of those four developmental areas? Have those old feelings of inadequacy motivated you to higher achievement or held you back?

Assignment: Close your eyes and picture yourself as you were back in eighth or ninth grade. Are you better now, in most, if not in all ways, than you were then? Certainly so. So breathe that sigh of relief and don’t allow scary images from what I like to refer to as “the low point in human existence” (8th grade!) hold you back now.

Thank goodness, those days are behind us!