Patricia Hersch

A Tribe Apart

  • This summary of A Tribe Apart includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Tribe Apart Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Tribe Apart by Patricia Hersch.

A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence is a parenting book by Patricia Hersch. In the book, first published in 1998, Hersch studies teenagers in a typical American town to uncover more information about what matters to them, and what influences are shaping American teenagers today. A mother of three, Hersch hopes to help other adults understand the complexities of the adolescent mind. Hersch is a former contributing editor to Psychology Today. She is a youth advocate, public speaker, and consultant. Her articles have appeared in prominent newspapers, including USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Post.

A Tribe Apart aims to dispel the myth that adults can’t understand teenagers. While Hersch acknowledges that adolescents think different from adults, she argues that they’re not “a tribe apart.” It’s on adults to reach out and understand adolescents to help them cross the bridge between childhood and adulthood.

To write the book, Hersch followed eight American teenagers living in Reston, Virginia, for three years. She observed them during high school classes and social gatherings, and she conducted home interviews. What Hersch discovered is that adolescents have their own culture, moral code, and social spheres that are more complicated than we realize. The good news, Hersch explains, is that it’s possible to understand this strange teenage world.

Hersch deliberately follows teenagers who run with different crowds. For example, she follows an environmental activist, Joan, and Brandon, a drug dealer. What these teenagers have in common is their ability to switch from one role to another. Joan isn’t just an environmentalist, and Brandon is a gentle Boy Scout. Teenagers are just as complicated as adults. They are contradictory and they struggle to understand themselves. Exploring these contradictions, Hersch says, is a key part of adolescence.

Something else teenagers have in common is their murky understanding of ethics and moral values. Hersch demonstrates this by running a one-day class on ethics for these high school students. What she realizes is that many teenagers lack positive, nurturing relationships with the adults in their lives. Many parents are absent, spending too much time at work and not enough time at home. Others neglect their kids, and others simply don’t know how to talk to their adolescent children.

The result of this absence is that teenagers must figure out a moral code on their own. No one teaches them values. They learn what works for them through trial and error. This scattered approach means that many teenagers lack a conscience, and the result is sometimes tragic. Adolescents indulge in risky behavior often because they don’t know any better.

What’s significant about the study, Hersch explains, is that it’s possible to instill values in the adolescents around her. She noticed a distinct upturn in social and moral values among the teenagers who received dedicated attention from caring adults. Adolescents are adults in the making, and they must feel respected. If adults patronize them or make them feel like their opinions don’t matter, they act out and it’s harder to get through to them.

Hersch interviews adults in the community who take their role as nurturers seriously. A priest, for example, is dedicated to setting up a safe space for teenagers, whatever their religious leaning. He believes in empowering teenagers to figure religion out for themselves with the support of caring adults, which in turn yields positive results.

Nurturing parents offer their insights, too. What they all have in common is that they treat their teenager children like adults. They share their lives with their adolescents, and they encourage these teenagers to talk about their own lives, too. The most well-adjusted adolescents are the ones with parents and other family members who care about what’s going on in their lives and actively share in it.

The alarming reality, Hersch stresses, is that we don’t have enough adults like these in the community. Too many parents are consumed by their own problems to notice their children. They assume that being an adolescent is easy when it’s the opposite—adolescence is one of the trickiest life stages to overcome.

What most adults fail to understand is that peer pressure exerts less influence on adolescents than they think. Although peer pressure is a real thing, most teenagers can make up their own minds, and they often do think things through before they act. It’s on adults to understand what shapes a teenager’s decision to act, and to help those teenagers make educated, morally sound decisions.

Hersch offers suggestions for what adults can do to engage adolescents. She suggests that schools run more relevant and stimulating after-school activities, and that teenagers are encouraged to join school clubs. These clubs should be safe spaces which allow teenagers to entertain themselves without indulging in high-risk behavior. The modern adolescent faces so many temptations and dangers, and adults must proactively help them avoid destructive, and sometimes tragic, decisions.