I was listening to the radio as I drove. The respected commentator on a respected station invited listeners to call in and tell of stupid things they had seen teenagers do. He himself gladly shared experiences of teen incompetence. Many listeners called in to laugh at their experiences of teen folly.
As I listened, I wondered—if the commentator had invited listeners to call in and tell of stupid things they had seen the elderly do, would there have been such an enthusiastic reaction? Would there have been an indignant backlash? Why is it all right to mock teenagers?
Stuck in a lonely no-man’s-land between the cuteness of childhood and the respect of adulthood, teenagers are a favorite cultural target. It is popular for people to say, “My child is about to become a teenager. Woe is me!” or “What can you expect? He is a teenager!”
It is unfortunate that, just as children become uniquely anxious and sensitive, adults become unusually accusatory with them.
The traditional psychological wisdom was that adolescence was necessarily a time of storm and strife; children needed to distance themselves from adults and their standards in the process of becoming adults. Unfortunately for that appealing theory, research said otherwise. The discoveries of social scientists said that adolescence does not necessarily entail storm and strife. For many families, it is a time of growth and satisfaction.
In fact, according to Steinberg, only 5% of children who did not have serious problems in childhood will have serious problems in adolescence. Said differently, 95% of children who progressed well through childhood will progress well through adolescence.
Yet social scientists continued to hear reports of strained parents of teens. A new wave of research found that the struggles and differences between parents and teens were often quickly forgotten by the teens. But parents, who may see their children’s styles as a rejection of their standards and a mark of rebellion, are likely to remain distressed and upset by their differences with their teens. This is especially true for mothers.
The recent recommendations from social scientists are much like that excellent prescription by Chieko Okasaki: “In matters of principle, clarity; in matters of practice, charity.” Applied to life with teenagers, we may allow silly posters and tacky shirts. We set clear standards around matters of principle: rules on dating, modesty, and morality in entertainment.
It is appropriate to show compassion towards those who are making the trek through those awkward, painful, uncertain years. Developmentalists recognize that teens are often burdened with specific egocentrisms. It is worth noting that some of these egocentrisms are made possible by the progress of their thinking. As children, they are not able to handle such complex tasks as thinking about thinking.
With the onset of adolescence, children enjoy greater mental capacity—which may be experienced as argumentativeness or contrariness. A wise parent will celebrate the growing mental capacities while providing gentle mentoring. To the teen who asserts that the U.S. Congress (or school principal or teacher) is doing things all wrong, we might respond:
“That doesn’t make sense to you. What do you think might work better?”
“I wonder why that person did it that way.”
“I can see that you are interested in understanding politics.”
Mocking a teen’s logical lapses is no more productive than belittling a toddler’s imperfect walking. Even as they seem outspoken and audacious, they are trying out their logical and rhetorical legs. We can offer the same kind of charity and encouragement that we offer to our toddlers.
Among the egocentrisms that teens suffer is the personal fable, the sense that no one has ever experienced life quite as they have. It is not helpful to point out that we were once teens; they cannot believe that life for us then was anything like life for them now. It is far wiser to tune in to their struggle: “Right now you feel pretty lonely as you try to make sense of this.”
Teens can seem moody, contrary, and independent. They are making a massive move from childhood into adulthood. They must learn to manage more of their lives, but the lessons of independence are best learned gradually. Wise parents stay involved but they also find ways to honor the growing sense of maturity. Rather than confront with “You aren’t going anywhere unless I feel good about it!” we can invite “Tell me about your plans for Friday.”
While granting increasing freedom, the wise parent also knows that teen judgment and wisdom is not well developed. We can provide some of our experience as a companion to their enthusiasm.
The teen years signal major work on identity for our children. More than ever before, they want to understand who they are and what they have to contribute. When we hold up an encouraging mirror to them, we help them discover their talents, their divinely granted gifts. The gifts are only a hint, like a seedling pushing foliage through the soil. How important it is that we encourage that growth! We should look for and celebrate every evidence of talent.
Between the elementary playground and high school graduation, humans learn vital lessons and make miraculous progress.
In God’s grand design, parents can make the same kind of progress as they guide and support their children through the teen years. They can learn to be wisely and helpfully involved with their children. They can support the unsteady steps toward maturity. They can invite their children to ponder the blessings of God’s perfect plan. What a blessing to be a parent to a teenager!
What can we do with our teens? Love them and enjoy them.