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Teaching Adolesence

The Breakfast Club

Even though it is set thirty years ago (March 24th, 1984), The Breakfast Club is a riveting and relevant look into adolescent peer culture, and a film I think every student of adolescent development should see. John Hughes, who is also responsible for the films Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, masterfully captures the nuances of adolescent stereotypes and interactions, the culture clash between adolescents and adults, and the role that parents play in shaping the high school experience of each adolescent. The Breakfast Club follows five seemingly different adolescents throughout the course of a day as they are forced to endure detention on a Saturday. I show this film (in its entirety) in my Adolescence class every semester, because it enriches my class in a number of ways.

First, the film is a kind of “master-class” on adolescent stereotypes, and adolescent interactions. Each character represents a classic adolescent archetype (the athlete, the basket case, the brain, the criminal, and the princess). As they interact throughout the course of the movie, the fundamental differences—and in the end the fundamental similarities—of each stereotype are explored. At the beginning, the adolescents segregate themselves in predictable ways (e.g., the athlete and the princess sit together), and make judgments and assumptions about each other based on the stereotype they each represent. As the film progresses, however, the characters start to move past these stereotypes to realize they have much more in common than they ever thought. Towards the end of the movie, after becoming “friends,” the brain asks if they will be friends in school on Monday. In a very telling scene, the princess tells the group that outside the confines of this day she thinks the hierarchical structure of adolescent peer groups will prevail. She admits that she will likely ignore the brain in the hallway, for fear of the backlash from her popular friends. In the (somewhat cheesy) end, however, they assert that they no longer see each other “in the simplest terms and most convenient definitions.”

Second, The Breakfast Club is a great classroom tool to transition from discussions of families to discussions of peers. The film opens with each adolescent (except one) being dropped off at school by a parent, and ends with each (except one) being picked up by a parent—bookending the peer interactions in the film with the context of families. Although these interactions are short, they are very each unique and indicative of Baumrind’s parenting styles (based on the dimensions of responsiveness and demandingness). The criminal, for example, is the only one who shows up at school alone, giving a clue to the indifferent parenting style he may experience. When coupled with the details that the adolescents share about their parents throughout the film, these scenes give the viewer insight into the effects that each parenting style has on the adolescents and their peer interactions.

Finally, the movie is hilarious and entertaining, and serves as fodder for discussions on course material for the rest of the semester. Specific scenes in the movie, and over-arching themes, can be used as examples to discuss many of the subsequent topics that I cover in the semester (e.g., risk behavior). Moreover, I present longitudinal data on academic and behavioral outcomes of adolescents who self-identified with each character in the movie, giving my students a glimpse into the intersection of the stereotypes of adolescence and the scientific study of adolescence.

If you haven’t seen The Breakfast Club, I highly recommend it. If you have seen it, think about using it in your Adolescence class. I would be happy to share the activity I do with the class to accompany it. With all the ways that we try to “keep up” with the rapidly changing technology and media influences on adolescents, there is something profound in using this film to examine the timeless aspects of the adolescent experience.

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