How to Use Veronica Roth's Divergent to Talk to Your Teen About Life Values
Talk About Life Priorities With Your Teen in a Fun, Engaging Way
Meet Your Teen on Their Level to Discuss Life Priorities
In case you don't already know, the tween and teen years are filled with eye rolls, texting, skinny jeans, friends, and dystopian novels that become blockbuster movies. Use any opportunity you can to have meaningful conversations with your child.
If you're looking for a fun way to connect with your teen, consider reading the Divergent series, by Veronica Roth, a set of dystopian page-turners with an underlying message. Your conversation can be a gateway to discussing personal life priorities, values, and what makes each of you tick. This is a strategy that I used to have an ongoing conversation with my daughter when she was a tween and young teenager.
You may find that you both learn something about yourself and each other.
Setting for Divergent Series: Futuristic Chicago
Plot Summary: The Future of the Human Race
The setting for the novels is a not-too-distant future in which the human race is cleanly divided into five major groups, or factions. Each faction upholds a central human virtue:
- selflessness (Abnegation)
- peacemaking (Amity)
- honesty (Candor)
- bravery (Dauntless), or
- knowledge-seeking (Erudite).
A faction's key virtue defines the group's purpose and its members' life priorities. Accordingly, each faction adopts strict ideas about the root of society's undoing and what it takes to be a successful person. Members of each faction differ drastically from one another in both their outward appearances and behavior.
Belonging Is Everything
Now imagine yourself as a member of Divergent's dystopian society.
At age 16, you must undergo aptitude testing. Then, on a pre-designated day, you must make a life-altering choice in a Choosing Ceremony: forever align yourself with one of the five factions.
Pledges must promise allegiance to their faction above family and all else. ("Faction before blood.") There is no turning back.
If you hesitate ... if you fail initiation ... if your choice is not the correct one for you ... then you risk a fate worse than death. In a world where belonging is everything, becoming "Factionless" means living as a pathetic societal outcast.
Does this sound eerily similar to the fear of being without a peer group in middle school and high school? Does the strict segregation into factions remind you of self-sorting into the Jocks, the Nerds, the Preps, etc.?
A Quick Overview of Divergent's Five Factions
Sacrifices large and small to aid others' comfort, safety, and happiness
Bringing people, especially groups, together
Can read body language and see through lies
Directly faces danger, threats, and difficulties
Studies, seeks to understand how the world operates
Grey clothes, uniforms, plain hairstyle
Comfortable, casual clothing, often bright yellow and red
Black suits & white ties (they see the world in black and white)
Pierced, tattooed, clothed in all black
Wear glasses whether they need them or not; item of blue clothing
Could Be Perceived As
Quiet, aloof, naïve, submissive
Tactless, trustworthy, confident
Abrasive, thrill seekers, fighters
Power hungry, know-it-alls
Real World Examples
UN peacekeepers, diplomats
World class surgeons and scientists
The Main Character's Dilemma
The main character in Veronica Roth's dystopian page-turners is a 16-year-old girl named Beatrice ("Tris"), who must face the choice of her young life. Should she stay with her family and the self-denying group she was born into? Alternatively, should she forsake them and join another group that aligns more closely with her values?
Beatrice's personal struggle is magnified by the fact that her aptitude test results demonstrate that she possesses a rare quality. Her results show that she is kind, brave, and knowledge-seeking. She is an appropriate "fit" for three groups. Unfortunately, she can only belong to one.
This unusual quality makes her "Divergent," or different from others. Being Divergent is extremely dangerous, and Beatrice is told that she must conceal this fact. What would you do? Which value is most important to you?
Read the Series
When the future of the human race is at stake, then what value group you align yourself with is all-important. Reading these books is a chance to actually talk with your teen and discover his or her evolving values as well as share your own perspective.
Whatever you do, DON'T cheat by watching the movie instead. The real value of this set of young adult novels is in actually reading them then hashing it out as you go. The movies are not anywhere as good as the texts are anyhow!
Today's Young Adults Face Similar Challenges
Roth's series consists of four books: Divergent (2012), Insurgent (2012), Allegiant (2013) and Four (2014). The series captures key struggles in becoming an adult, and in many ways, the storyline mirrors the challenges that today's teens face.
The reader follows Beatrice as she struggles to define herself. She grapples with love, guilt, and grief as well as the challenge of assessing who is worthy of her trust. In her challenging journey, Beatrice discovers that her perfectly ordered society has strong undercurrents of intergroup conflict, just as today's world does. Most of all, Beatrice learns what it means to belong.
The young woman's quest to determine just how and where she fits into a changing society strongly mirrors challenges that today's young adults face. For example, high stakes aptitude tests (e.g., SAT, ACT, GATB, or ASVAB) often impart clear messages about an individual's fitness for a given path in life. These tests sort us out into social strata and opposing groups.
In Divergent, there is value-based testing which helps to determine young people's futures. In real life, there are college entrance exams and career aptitude tests. Results can have similar long-reaching consequences for adolescents. (Maybe your child doesn't understand the impact of that yet.)
Today's teens also face their own version of a Choosing Ceremony, although it is less formal than in Divergent. Young adults must decide whether to stay close to family and the community where they grew up or instead whether to join another "group" by attending college out-of-state. It isn't an easy decision. Sometimes they face earlier such decisions like whether to attend a specialty-based high school. (My daughter ended up attending a Governor's Academy for Engineering Studies, for example. Although it was good for her educationally, it separated her from all of the kids she went to middle school with.)
Choosing to follow your own career path can certainly feel like you are forsaking those who raised you when there are high expectations to join a family business or fulfill a parent's occupational dreams for you. It takes fortitude and a solid sense of self to listen to your inner compass, as Beatrice did.
Just as faction newbies did in Roth's book, today's teens also face indoctrination and initiation processes. Military recruits, for example, face boot camp. Students of all levels undergo exams to ensure that they are worthy of continued membership in their new group.
What challenges does your teen face in defining himself/herself? Does s/he feel equipped to make the right choices? What was your path? Did you ever feel Factionless?
Which value do YOU advocate above all else?
Deciding Who You Are: A Conversation Worth Having with Teens
Parallels to the lost and wandering Factionless can be found among teens who feel like they don't fit into one social clique or another. Similarities to Roth's Factionless can also be found among young adults who have been "dis-enrolled" from college or involuntarily released from a job or the military due to poor performance.
Years ago there was a young man from my high school who was accepted into West Point. (Note that acceptance requires a Congressional recommendation and is quite an accomplishment.) However, I wonder whose dream he was truly fulfilling because, after only several days on campus, he relinquished his scholarship and returned to the small, sleepy town where he had spent all of his life. I bet he is still there. That was simply the nature of where I grew up; most people were "lifers." Make sure your child buys into the idea that they can control their destiny through the values they adopt, the behaviors they choose, and the groups they choose to affiliate themselves with.
Ultimately You Must Decide Who You Are
The drive to belong is a strong one, and the fear of being without a group identity—even temporarily—can inspire fear, shame, and doubt. Thus, one of the most powerful messages in Roth's Divergent series is this: ultimately, YOU must decide who you are.
Read the book and compare reactions. Use your reading of Divergent as a launching pad to ask your teen about what kind of person they seek to become.
Talk not only about how membership in groups can fortify you but also how there's tremendous value in belonging to multiple groups, thus making you uniquely you. This is a conversation worth having.
Whom does your teen seek to become? What do you want for them? How can you help them on their journey?
Use Divergent as a Starting Point
It is too simplistic to dismiss Divergent as just another fun saga, disconnected from the here-and-now. (After all, it features jumping off buildings for fun and one group mind-controlling another!)
However, examples are all around us regarding real people who uphold each of the five virtues. As you talk with your teen, look at your own life. How do each of you individually prioritize the values of selflessness, peacemaking, honesty, bravery, or knowledge-seeking? You may be surprised to find that your perspectives differ remarkably. That's okay. Your teen is a separate person from you!
My teen is very much a peacemaker (Amity), always bringing conflicting parties together, whereas I am your average Ph.D., an Erudite. Both of us, however, enjoy strong Dauntless qualities as well—her more than me. When she was only 11, she went hang gliding with me, for example. It's the Dauntless qualities that can cause us friction but also connect and bind us. (She was surprised to learn that I had been skydiving in college.)
See how easy and fun the conversation can be? If your discussion is open, you may learn something new about one another! Compare your perceptions of one another with your self-evaluations.
Need Some Real World Exemplars of Veronica Roth's Five Virtues?
Abnegation: Real World Examples
Real world examples of people who might fit this faction include nuns and monks.
Another example includes Red Cross volunteers who travel around from one disaster location to another, offering comfort and assistance to victims of tornadoes, floods, and other natural disasters. A retired nurse, my late aunt was such a volunteer. She was dispatched to New York City to help in the aftermath of 9/11 and refused even nominal subsistence payment for living expenses while on assignment.
Abnegation Is the Virtue of Self-Sacrifice
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some false friends and true enemies; succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; be honest and frank anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; do good anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; it was never between you and them.— Mother Teresa (Saint Teresa of Calcutta)
Amity Is the Virtue of Peaceful Accord
Candor Is the Virtue of Honesty
A Real World Example of Candor
A judge described Abraham Lincoln's honesty as virtually beyond reproach
"Such was the transparent candor and integrity of his nature that he could not well or strongly argue a side or a cause he thought wrong."
I wonder why more recent examples, unfortunately, are so hard to generate? If you can think of some famous people who are good examples, please offer them up in the comments section below.
Dauntless: The Virtue of Courage
Additional Tools and Resources to Build on Your Conversation
One engaging way to take your conversation to the next level is to do some on-line personality testing together. Then, discuss your results. An example of a free on-line test which does not require registration is the Jung Typology Test™. It is similar to the widely-used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). (I have no affiliations with either.)
After answering 72 yes/no questions, you get the following:
- your personality type formula with a detailed description of what it means
- a description of how strong your preferences are and
- a list of famous people who share your type.
The test is for ages 14 and over. The reports can be a little challenging to understand in some parts, but overall it's enjoyable and a very helpful conversation resource.
Absolutely Worth the Small Price You'll Pay
This book provides an access code to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder, an on-line assessment tool. Taking the survey will show you your top five strengths. Use the book as a resource for understanding 34 types of human talents. Develop a common, strengths-based language for understanding your teen and those you interact with regularly. You'll need one book for each person needing the survey.
**NOTE: I strongly recommend either buying this new or (if you buy it used) ensuring that the access code for the survey is UNUSED. You need the survey!**
StrengthsFinder Is Another Great Tool for Self-Exploration and Discussion
Another great resource is the book StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. Strengths Finder 2.0 presents 34 broad themes that characterize human strengths (e.g., Strategic, Maximizer, Achiever).
Based on over 40 years of research, including extensive research by the Gallup organization, the book centers around an online survey. Purchasing the book provides you with the access code.
As a result of taking the survey, you can learn what your top five strengths are and ideas for how to use them more effectively.
Positive, open discussions with your teen about popular fiction literature such as Divergent can easily lead to ongoing discussions about what makes each of you tick—deeply held values and personality styles. This is an enjoyable, non-threatening way to connect with your teen, and you'll both learn a lot about yourselves.
Questions & Answers
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