October 08, 2009

‘Values auction’ offers look at teens’ priorities

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The things students at a prosperous Chicago high school value most -- love, God, happiness, friendship and wisdom -- have changed remarkably little over the last 30 years, as have the things they value least: popularity, boyfriends, clothes and (with the exception of those asked in 1988) sex.

“The things the kids talk about most are things they don’t really want,” says Tony Calabrese, now an instructor in kinesiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Calabrese has been examining teen values at this particular school since 1978. He will talk about this work at noon Wednesday, Oct. 14, in Room 219 of Wham Education Building on the SIUC campus as part of the College of Education and Human Services’ free brown bag lecture series. Those attending may bring their lunches; the dean’s office will provide light refreshments.

Calabrese, who taught physical education at that high school shortly after it opened in 1965 until his retirement in 1993, devised a “values auction” as a way to understand what really mattered to his students. After receiving an imaginary $1,000 and a list of such items as money, success, helping others and self-confidence, students bid on the items they want most. Calabrese then averages selling prices from all participating classes to put these items in rank order.

The auction essentially makes students put their “money” where their mouths are.

“You can say sex is important to you, but if the bidding starts at $500 and you only have $1,000, how important is it really?” asks Calabrese.

“The amount they’re willing to spend tells you how important it is to them. With sex, if they had to buy it, they generally didn’t want it. Same with clothes and free time. They talk about these all the time, but they don’t want to buy them.”

Because he was curious about how student values may have changed over time, Calabrese began comparing the responses at 10-year intervals (though during his teaching career, he ran the auction annually).

“You can’t tell much if you look at just one year,” he says.

The values list expanded in 1988 from its original 30 items to 43. While students then added health and life to the mix of things they cared about and free time and prestige to the list of the unimportant, their five top and bottom choices remained much the same, though the rank order varied some from decade to decade.

Love made the top five in 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2008 -- the only item to do so.

“And it always goes for a lot,” Calabrese says.

Students clearly differentiate between love and popularity, though. The latter made the bottom five in all four decades -- again, the sole item that appeared there in each comparison.

Health ranked sixth of 43 in both 1988 and 1998 and 13th last year, but fitness -- something a P.E. teacher would consider a key component of health -- never made it past the No. 23 slot and once ranked as low as No. 35.

“Health is what they want, but fitness they have to work for,” Calabrese says with a shrug.

It may seem odd that teenagers, in the prime of life, would place such a high value on health, but Calabrese says a series of bad-news health stories -- starting with AIDS -- began surfacing in the 1980s, and the kids responded.

He also notes that independence, the fourth-ranked value in 1978, had dropped to No. 20 last year, a change in values reflected nationally in today’s “boomerang” kids who come back home to live, sometimes for years.

“Kids in the ‘70s couldn’t wait to get away from home, but beginning in the ‘90s they started to think maybe they couldn’t afford the car or the house the parents had, and they could see themselves going back,” he says.

Some of Calabrese’s former students now teach in Japan and have used the opportunity to run a values auction there. They found the Japanese students pretty much agreed with their American counterparts on every item save one.

“Their No. 1 value is free time,” Calabrese says.

Despite the congruence between the Japanese and American students, Calabrese cautions against presuming the existence of a universal teenage values system based on these results. What they do suggest, however, is a way for adults to help teens discover just what matters most to them.

The take-home lesson from all this?

“Be very careful about what you aim for, because chances are, that’s what you’re going to get,” Calabrese says.