I raised three awesome teenagers. I never would’ve guessed when my children were toddlers that I’d be able to say that someday. People were constantly reminding me to “enjoy them while they’re little, because someday they’ll be rotten teenagers.” I was also told to enjoy them while they still wanted to be around me, because someday they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I was told that teenagers were selfish and rude and self-absorbed and you needed to set firm boundaries or they’d fly off a cliff.
I got to wondering, back when my kids were small, if maybe part of the reason teenagers acted the way they did is because we expected them to. We projected bad behavior on them long before they were even able to imagine what that might be. So, I made a conscious effort never to project that my kids and I would have any problems as they got older. I talked about their upcoming teenage years with excitement, and suggested all the fun things we could do together as they got older, and let them know I liked and respected teenagers.
Now, I’m not saying we never hit any bumpy spots, or that things were always sunshine and roses, and maybe there were a few dicey things I’m not even aware of, but my kids stayed close to my husband and me through their teenage years. They knew we had their backs and we didn’t hold their age against them.
As a society, we criticize teenagers for being too self-absorbed. But I left room for my kids to be just that. I think the point of our teenage years (work and studies aside) should be to go deep, to spend most of our time figuring out who we are, what we’re good at, and what we want. I think we should spend those years trying to understand why some things make us cry and some things make us laugh, why we like some people more than others, and in what moments we even manage to like ourselves.
As someone who works in and studies the arts, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that teens turn so intensely to poetry, music, theater, and art. They have not yet figured out how to put words to their own suffering and elation and are searching for the language to help them define their place in the world. They find themselves in the work of other artists. Then they find themselves in their own art.
It’s not easy being a teenager. I know, I remember. No doubt, you do too. But we need these kids. We need them to grow up strong and creative and self-assured and brave and tolerant and all the things they’re striving to be when they “selfishly” throw themselves into sports, or art, or activism, or even video games.
Fine, so teenagers are hormonal. But you’ll never laugh or cry harder than you do when you’re a teen, and that’s a gift. Fine, so their brains are not yet fully developed and they take silly risks and make big mistakes, but how else are they going to learn? Fine, so teenagers may wish to spend more time with their friends than their parents, but don’t we all choose to be around people who get where we’re at?
Let’s stop talking down to teens and stop talking bad about them. The teenage years shouldn’t be something we all, parents and teens alike, just need to survive. These are important years full of new discoveries, great growth, added responsibility, and extraordinary potential. Listen to what your teen is playing on the piano, and you’ll likely “hear” how he’s feeling. Read her poetry, and you’ll get a glimpse into her soul. Listen to music with them and pay attention to the lines they sing the loudest, because that’s them finding the language they need to claim their place in the world.
You go, kids! I think you’re awesome.
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