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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Positive peer culture

Harry Vorrath and Larry Brendtro

A positive peer culture can exist only in a climate of mutual concern. However, since most youth do not initially show strongly positive, caring behavior, how can caring be made fashionable to them?

Positive values at the outset often are more acceptable to female than to male groups. The normal societal expectations for women reflect the values of service, caring, and giving of self to others. Thus, the central values of a PPC program are compatible with the role behaviors society has long advocated for the female. Certainly not all girls manifest kind, helping, sensitive behavior, nor does either sex have a monopoly on hurting behavior. Still, almost all girls have clearly been socialized toward positive caring behavior and thus are not initially likely to challenge the underlying values of the PPC program.

Among male delinquents, the task of making caring palatable is much more difficult. Many young males consider positive, helping behavior as feminine in nature. It is widely assumed that male delinquency is related to the strong preoccupation with manliness that is seen among boys reared in predominantly mother-centered environments. Because of a preponderance of female-based households and the absence or inadequacy of male models, many boys are highly anxious about their sex-role identification and seek to become “real men” as quickly as possible.

The youth gravitates to a male adolescent peer group in search of status and belonging. In the lower-class culture, the measure of manhood is found in the traits of toughness (bravery, daring, and other behavior that proves one is not soft or feminine), smartness (not intellectualism but ability in conning, verbal putdowns – ”playing the dozens” – and hustling), and au­tonomy (resisting control or domination by others) – (Walter Miller). Observers have noted that the same insecurity about sex role is present in middle-class male youth – (Talcott Parsons).

The youth strives to imitate the toughness, smartness, and autonomy he observes in his peers. He feels he must always appear strong, and he is very vulnerable to a challenge or dare lest his peers consider him “chicken.” Hence, the male delinquent rejects what he feels are feminine values (learned from his mother) in order to prove his masculinity. Cohen has clearly described this process.

Children of both sexes tend to form early feminine identifications. The boy, however, unlike the girl, comes later under strong social pressure to establish his masculinity, his difference from female figures. Because his mother is the object of the feminine identification which he feels is the threat to his status as a male, he tends to react negativistically to those conduct norms which have been associated with mother… Since mother has been the principal agent of indoctrination of “good,” respectable behavior, “goodness” comes to symbolize femininity, and engaging in “bad” behavior (proves) his masculinity. – (Albert Cohen)

Since it is virtually impossible to persuade delinquent males to accept a role they regard as weak and sissified, the group leader must present caring as a strong and masculine activity. The group leader can do this in two ways.

Modeling: A male leader can himself provide a direct model of helpful, positive, caring, and yet masculine behavior. The group leader must show the youth how to redirect the pseudomasculine delinquent toughness into a more appropriate masculine role. The youth needs to learn that the true man is one who is strong enough to stand up for his conviction and be of value to others.

Relabeling: Staff must constantly reverse the valence of helping behavior through a relabeling process. Helping behavior is referred to in such terms as strong, mature, and powerful, while all hurting behavior may be referred to as weak, immature, and inadequate. Further, the leader never attacks the youth’s desire to be strong but instead redirects this motivation. The youth is not told “you are not so tough as you pretend to be”; rather, the leader embraces and challenges the youth’s need to be strong: “Somebody as strong as you will really be able to become a great group member; helping takes strength.” In time the youth will cease to view delinquent behavior as cool and come to see positive, helping behavior as desirable and even fashionable.


Cohen, A. K. (1955). Delinquent boys: The culture of the gang Glencoe, III.: The free Press p. 164

Miller, W. B. (1958). Lower class culture as a generating milieu of gang delinquency. Journal of social issues 14 No.3

Parsons, T. (1942). Age and sex in the social structure of the United States. American Sociological Review 7

Vorrath, H. H. & Brendtro, L. K. (1985). Positive peer culture. (2nd Ed.) New York: Aldine de Gruyter. pp. 21-23

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