5 Ways We Sell Our Teens Short
As the mother of teenagers, can I rant for a minute about something that drives me crazy?
Is it that they don’t clean their rooms, do their chores, ask to borrow the car, yell at me, slam doors, act moody, do drugs, drink away their weekends, and worry me sick or sulk sullenly around the house?
Actually it’s not the teens at all. It’s the grownups, and I’ve come to believe that it’s what WE are doing that is causing a good percentage of the above behavior that has become accepted culturally as “normal” (also annoying, disruptive, and damaging to relationships).
You read that right. I think that most of the teenage angst and rebellion is our fault. The adults in the world. Not individual parents, per se. I’ve yet to meet a parent who isn’t doing her level best with her kids at any stage. This is not meant to be a guilt inducing heap of hot coals on anyone’s head; rather a call to sober reflection on the part of all adults, parents or not, teachers, coaches, politicians, legislators, employers, principals, journalists, factory workers, professionals on Wall Street - all of us. We need to really consider how our culture, how our society, has conspired to sell teens short and how our actions (albeit well meaning) are handing too many young people the short end of the stick.
We Expect Rebellion
If you’re a parent, you’ve rolled your eyes with me from the moment you made your big announcement. Your abject joy and the prospect of having a sweet baby, playing blocks with a growing toddler, teaching your kid to ride a bike, drive a car, and eventually stand crying and clapping at a graduation ceremony of some sort is tempered in short order by the “Just Wait” crowd.
“Just wait until that baby is born, you’ll never sleep another night in your life...”
“Enjoy that hot meal because you’ll never sit through a whole meal again, just wait and see.”
“Just wait until the terrible twos.”
“Just wait until they start school, and all of the bad influences are brought home.”
“Just wait until those hormones start...”
“Just wait until they’re teens...”
And it goes on, and on, and on.
From before our kids are born we’re braced for bad behavior, rebellion of some sort - and we expect the worst.
We expect the WORST from our kids, from sleepless nights to tantrums to sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll.
Why would we do that? Why would we set our kids up for failure? Don’t we all know that we get what we expect?
Why not expect the best? Not perfection, mind you; kids are human, they make mistakes - those should be treated as opportunities to learn and do better next time. We can’t expect them to be something we ourselves are not. But we also shouldn’t don crash helmets and brace for impact on the drive to the hospital in labour.
You want the best kind of teens? Expect (and indeed, celebrate) the best kind of babies, toddlers, school agers, and tweens, because those are your teens in the making.
We Legislate Against Them
Child labour laws were put in place to keep kids out of factories post-industrial revolution. I get it. No one wants eight year olds losing fingers by re-threading sewing machines, or working 12 hour days for fifty cents making shoes and toys. I’m not saying kids should work, or that those laws are all bad.
What am I saying? We have laws in place that keep some teens from succeeding wildly where they would otherwise. The laws are well-intentioned, I know this, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating to a kid who is on the fast track to a fantastically productive life.
I would like someone to explain to me why a 15-year old computer genius should not be able to compete in the free market economy for a job with IBM or Google. If he has the technical chops, why should he not be allowed to work a 40 hour a week career, make the big bucks, and get on with his life? I’ve yet to hear a good answer to that. Most answers center around, “Well, most kids can’t/won’t do that.” True. So why do we have a law that prevents it?
Here’s another thing: I suspect that the reason “most kids” can’t/won’t do that is because for generations there has been no incentive whatsoever to really push hard in the direction of their dreams as teenagers. Those who do hit the brick wall of legislation “until they turn 18” and unless they have incredibly progressive parents, that’s a thick brick wall. 250 years ago, teenagers were settling the west, sailing to uncharted islands on expeditions of discovery, being sent to foreign courts as ambassadors, and doing things that we can’t even imagine the average 16 year old doing now. What happened? Where did we lose confidence in their ability? What changed?
There are kids, and I have the great privilege of knowing more than a few, who are fully ready to participate in the adult free market economy long before they turn 18. My argument is simple: They should be allowed to, if they have the chops. To keep them from it breeds anger, discontent, disillusionment, and rebellion. If someone kept YOU from living your dreams, doing what you knew in your heart you were capable of, just because you hadn’t reached a magical age, you would react the same way. At least I know I would.
We Extend Adolescence
Someone please explain to me the current trend of 20 somethings moving home, eating their parents’ food, sleeping in their childhood bedrooms, and letting Mama do the laundry while they play at adulthood. Before you cite a million reasons you’re allowing your child to do this, let me give a huge pass to anyone attending college and living at home to save money, anyone actively job hunting in a serious manner, anyone caring for family members, or anyone who is recovering from a massive life blow. We all know that’s not who I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the ones who are essentially living at home because it’s “easier” and “cheaper” than being grownups. I cry bullshit on this. For the “kids,” but especially for the parents.
Here’s a concept: We’re raising ADULTS, not children. The end goal is: “Gain some skills, develop a dream, find your vision, get the hell out there and chase it.” The end goal is NOT: “Stay home ‘til you’re thirty and make me feel like I’m still needed as your Mom.” Hard words? Perhaps.
With very few exceptions, I see no reason for extending adolescence. In fact, if I had my way, I’d shorten it by a couple of years. Nothing builds capability like a fire lit under one’s posterior as to the impending reality of the real world. I’m a firm believer that 99% of kids are capable of about twice what we’re currently expecting and that fully 75% of those would love nothing more than to hear their parents say, “You’re free to do exactly as you please, as long as it’s safe and productive, as long as you find a way to pay for it, we support you 100% in your dream, whatever it is.” Imagine what those kids would do if those words were said, meant, and backed up with action. Just imagine.
We Expect Failure
My mom said she waited for three solid years after I turned 13 for “the shoe to drop” before she realized that was ridiculous and just learned to enjoy me for who I was. And I’ll add in here that I wasn’t an easy teenager. I was one of the ones who was ready to launch early (and did), but flapped my wings hard for a few years in the meantime.
All of the “Just Waits” leading up to the teen years scare the salsa out of most parents. They imagine the worst and, before long, they are expecting the worst too. How sad is that? Do you want to miss the most fantastic, creative, capable, interesting years of parenting because you’re freaking out about what might go wrong? Me either.
I mess up my life all the time. Sometimes, epically badly, and I’m 38. Is it fair to expect my 16 year old to magically get it all right because I bestow my shining wisdom on her? Ah. No. We need to allow for failure, but not expect it; do you see the difference?
When kids know that they are expected to fail, that we are just waiting for them to prove the naysayers right by messing it up in some huge way, where is the incentive to try?
They’re just going to fail anyway, right?
Wrong. If we expect success, then they’ll rise to the occasion. They will. I could introduce you to scores of teens who have. What do they have in common? Parents who believe in their ability to steer the ship of their one “wild and precious life,” as my friend Jill says.
We Project Our Own Fear & Failure
I’m not a psychologist. There are many who’ve written more and better about this topic of how we hold our kids back by seeing their childhood through the cloudy lens of our own.
Just because you sucked at math does not mean your daughter will.
Just because you were kidnapped does not mean your kid will be.
Just because you hated travel, or school, or art class, or anything else does not mean your son will.
Just because you got cut from the cheer team does not mean that your daughter has to make it on to one.
And the beat goes on. We tend to parent out of either the successes of our parents and our childhood, or in reaction to the fears and failures of the same. Either is an overreaction and sells our kids short. My kids are not me. Your kids are not you. They are their own, fabulous, free people who will go confidently in the direction of their dreams if you allow them, if you encourage them.
Don’t let them be held back by your own hang ups. Be brave, rise above your fears or your failures, and let them try, let them fly.
Okay, I think I’m done with my rant now. My teenagers are staging for an afternoon at the beach with new friends and surf boards. One is quickly uploading an article for one of her jobs. Another is rounding up little boys who are new friends and inspiring them to be “big” together with him. Don’t believe the hype: teenagers are great.
Jenn Miller is the Uncommon Childhood Editor for Wandering Educators.
She was raised in log cabins on the shores of lakes and in the back of a van across continents. She's the lucky child of nomadic parents and has grown into a gypsy mama herself. She is a teacher by trade, homeschooling mother of four, and a freelance writer for the alternative education and travel markets, having spent over ten years as an educational consultant and curriculum designer. She does a lot of things, but her real passion is found in helping people live their dreams. She and her
family are in their fifth year of full-time travel that has taken them across four continents by virtually every means possible, from bicycles to ocean ferries. They're currently exploring Southeast Asia with backpacks - you can follow along at Edventure Project. Her one great desire for her children, and all people, is for them to develop vision and create lives built out of big dreams. She's a believer in hard work, hard play and giving back to the world through pursuing our passions.
All photos courtesy and copyright Jenn Miller