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A good word about teenagers

I’ve got teenagers. One of them is official—16—and the other one is some months off from having “teen” in her age. From what some parents say, you might expect that my next words will be complaints.

Teenagers are great!

Ha, fooled you! Or did I? Because I know that a few silent parents out there are like me. We are having a fabulous time raising our teens, and we read all those horrid articles wondering if a) we have exceptionally wonderful teenagers (unlikely), or b) we’re just incurably optimistic, sunny-faced people who don’t notice that we’re living with ogres.

Despite the fact that a few people lately have described me as “generally cheerful” (huh?), I can assure you that (b) is also incorrect. I’m not happy about having teens in my house because I only look at the bright side of things, because I fail to see my kids’ faults, or because I have a secret pill that I’m taking and that you want in on.

I’m happy with having my teens because teens are—this may shock you—so darn great to be around.

Why focus on the problems?

We all know about teens: They’re self-absorbed, snotty, rude, untrustworthy, messy, disordered, willful, self-righteous, yadda yadda yadda.

It’s all true, of course, with variation from individual to individual.

But what else is true about teens is much more worth discussing. Here are some true things about teens (both mine and the others I teach and know socially) that I value.

1. Teens care about justice

We adults have learned that the world is not black and white, and thus we are much more willing to settle for a muddy grey. Teens are not willing to settle. They are out there yelling themselves hoarse trying to get the rest of us to notice. But what the rest of us spend most of our time trying to do is shut up those darn, loud-mouthed teens who are so naive that they actually think they can solve the world’s problems. Perhaps we should admire them instead.

2. Teens can, and do, solve problems

Go to any high school and identify problems. Go to the administration and ask them to fix those problems, and you’ll most likely get a big yawn. No one cares about that, you’ll be told, or it’s not such a big problem, or that problem is minor considering how hard we’re going to have to work to get our test scores up so we don’t all get fired. If you want to solve a problem at a school, just get the teens interested in it. When they get fired up, they’re like an unstoppable army.

3. Teens are thoughtful

Many people, once they grow up, relax into the busy-ness of their daily lives and hardly give a thought to the way they’re living. But teens are full of thoughts. They’re full of ideas. Some of them are already shutting down and it’s hard to engage them in a conversation, but once you do, you’ll find that their brains are going full-tilt, even if the most common word you hear out of them is “whatever.”

4. Teens haven’t become themselves yet

This can be very frustrating for parents and teachers. We ask them, What do you want to do with your life? and they might not be able to answer. They seem to change daily, one day a model citizen and a juvenile delinquent (or so it seems) the next. Their opinions are strong but flighty. But the cool thing is how fascinating they are to watch as they flit through their ephemeral personas in search of who they will become. It’s instructive as an adult to remember that who we are, how we act, what we believe—all of this is by choice. Teens may change their choices daily, and that may not be optimal, but all of us could use a bit of self-questioning once in a while.

5. Teens bring new ideas and attitudes into our lives

I remember perhaps the first time that we were sitting at the dinner table and our son informed us about a current event he’d been reading about and his opinion on it. Perhaps he slowly grew into this, but it didn’t seem like it. To his parents, it seemed like one day he was a kid, and we were telling him things and listening to his droll, uninformed opinions, and the next we had this fascinating adult-in-the-making sitting across from us, bringing a new topic and viewpoint into our dinner table conversation.

This is not to say that I didn’t love my children’s droll childhood ramblings—I did and I’m sure I related a few of them on this blog in years past. But when your kids cross that invisible line and start taking part in conversations on something approaching an adult level, it’s wonderful and fascinating and thrilling. And like so many developmental changes, it seems to happen all at once, leaving parents gaping on the sidelines as their kids zoom past, developing (for the moment) at lightspeed.

6. Teens are people, too

One of the biggest failings of parenting approaches of the past (and some of the present ones as well) is that adults forgot the basic fact that each child is a unique, important, incredible person. With teens, it’s truly easy to shove them in a group and grumble about them. But taking the harder route is much more rewarding: when we treat teens as fully their own selves—capable, thoughtful, fascinating, lovely people—they work much harder to attain what we expect.

One of the most important realizations I had about parenting (and teaching) was when I learned about how educators who work with kids with special needs go about their jobs. They are trying to help kids with disabilities, but they don’t focus on the disability. (Not the ones I cared to listen to, in any case.) Long before mainstream education even got a whiff of this, special educators found a universal truth about humans: If you teach to their capabilities, their disabilities will come along for the ride. Focus on the positive, and encourage skills. Don’t forget about the disabilities, but don’t make it seem as if the child is the disability.

Teens are complex, growing, changing, fascinating human beings, and I am having a great time helping two of them along their path.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

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