Listen and Learn: Who is Your Teenager, Really?
Parents tend to enumerate a child's potential shortcomings before giving teachers the chance to form their own impressions. Let teachers get to know your kids, independent of your influence. Listen to how they describe your progeny; you may be both pleasantly surprised and slightly aghast.
If a teenager struggles in class, a vigilant teacher (and most of them are; trust me; they wouldn't do their thankless jobs if they didn't love those kids and believe in Making a Difference) will let you know. A teacher will present the actual struggle, which may differ from anything we have previously known about our kid. No teacher I have ever met relishes a confrontation about cheating, plagiarism, laziness, or bullying. It costs a teacher to call a student on the carpet. Parents who respond with "not MY baby" and "she's just not challenged in your class" miss a vital opportunity. Teenagers try on new personas and labels as frantically as they change their outfits before the mirror on Saturday night. The person he is at school may not resemble the person who comes home to us. Meanwhile, the labels we have for them grow increasingly uncomfortable and oppressive for our kids.
Even Positive Labels Fuel Their Rebellion.
Over and over, I see my own children and my students--well into their twenties, I am sorry to report--reject the labels their parents give them. They even--sometimes especially--rebel against the positive monikers we ascribe, thinking we are bolstering their self-esteem. The "bright" kid, the "brilliant musician," the "prodigy," also the "honest" or "responsible" child will, upon hitting puberty, cultivate some identity directly opposed to the one his parents have created for him. (Nobody manifests the conundrum better than "professional" children . . . say, Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan.)
A teenager's constant refrain (similar to the toddler's lament) is, "You don't know me!" coupled with, "I do it mySELF!" When adolescents divulge their secrets, I am stunned by their simultaneous longing for parents who really know them and their compulsion to develop covert personalities which would horrify their families. More than I care to remember, I have seen students pull what I call the "Little Man Tate," blowing huge opportunities (or sabotaging scholarship offers or throwing AP tests) in a misplaced attempt to assert their independence to people they think control their lives.
I do it; we all do it: we tell our kids what they really think. A teenager lists the "mean" people in his class, and we respond, "Oh, you've known her since you were three! She's not mean, she's just irritating you!" They hear, "Your opinions and feelings are wrong." They are hyper-sensitive. No doubt about it. We state facts about their lives; they hear a catalogue of irrelevant achievements that cannot possibly define them. We have to walk on eggshells--and maintain that elusive balance--when attempting to reach the human beings wrapped inside our adolescent children.
Teachers, coaches, grandparents, scout leaders, youth ministers--so many adults have helpful perspectives on our teenagers. The kids themselves have the most valuable insights. Listen to them. When we stuff a Christmas stocking with bacon-themed novelties for the boy who has cultivated a bacon-themed identity for two years, let us not be surprised by his pure disgust. Six weeks ago, he went on a vegan diet and considers our once-thoughtful gift the most personal of insults.
They Tell Us Their Stories: Let Us Listen.
It's exhausting. Teenagers speak in weird codes, at midnight when we are heading at last for bed, through idiotic fashion choices and missing assignments and their terrible choices in friends. They speak to us when they throw temper tantrums and lose their minds over relationships and lie about their whereabouts and shoot BB guns into plate-glass windows. Whatever cryptic messages they send, we do best to shut our own mouths and curb our desires to label them.
Let them speak to us, define themselves to us. Try not to be afraid. Trust your children; you've raised them well. They have freedom within boundaries and all the skills they need to navigate the rough waters of growing up. Nothing they do could ever really shame you; let them know they are okay in your eyes, no matter what. The whole wide world judges and mocks and challenges a teenager; let us be a safe place where they can express every little impulse they have without fear of being cut out of the will.
Let our teenagers tell us who they are and who they want to be. Watch them flourish. See them blossom, in ways that will profoundly surprise you. Let us honor each child's journey to happy, responsible adulthood: each personal, different-from-ours, unexpected, singular, beautiful journey.
When our teenagers are in real and present danger, let us KNOW it and swoop in to save them. Let us give them freedom within the boundaries which PROTECT them. Let us HONOR their own, surprising, mystifying, confusing, complicated expressions of who they long to be.