Adult – One of the Biggest Obstacles to RevolTeens, by Christine Lively
If teens are going to change the world, and they absolutely are – they always do – they need the adults who love them to support them and have their backs, while giving them the space, time, and room to revolt. If our hope is that our RevolTeens will challenge injustices, solve the problems we’ve failed to solve – or that we’ve caused, and generally improve the future then we need to remove one of their biggest problems – the adults who love them.
When my kids were small, we had friends, family, and other assorted adults to spend time with them. When people showed an interest in playing with our kids or doing things with them, my mantra was, “Kids can’t have too many people who love them in their lives.” I am certain that I was right about that. Those adults and that time they spent with my children was important and showed the kids that they were important, interesting and lovable to people who weren’t their parents. Those relationships were essential to them developing confidence, self-worth, and happiness.
Working with and raising teens, I’ve realized that kids’ need for adults who value them doesn’t change. What changes is adults’ ideas of what a kid needs. However great and noble our intentions, many of us somewhere along the line have changed from fans and cheerleaders when they are little to overzealous advisers and nosy counselors as those same kids enter adolescence.
Making a kid’s childhood happy and joyful is usually simple. Most of us see the children in our lives and immediately feel joyful, hopeful, and excited about this time in their lives. We also feel confident that we can engage with them and make them happy. Playing, singing, celebrating, and just being with a little kid is a blast. They know what they want and their needs seem clear cut. Play, sleep, eat, repeat.
The teen years seem far more mysterious. So many of us have conflicted and frustrating memories of our own adolescence. The common mythology is that each person’s life trajectory is determined by their performance in high school, we want nothing more than to set them up for maximum success. We advise them, coach them, harangue them, and alienate them at just the time when they need as many allies and fans on their side than they did as toddlers and young children.
Are our intentions good? Probably. Does that matter? No.
If you are a parent of a teen or someone who works with teens, you’ve felt it and you’ve seen it. We want them to read the right books, take the right classes, participate in all the right extracurricular activities, play the right sports, have the right friends, attend the best schools, and “be successful.” Just writing that sentence made me stressed out and tired. If the kids we care about are academically minded, that whole list is tiring. If the kids we care about have any challenges, or don’t have any easily identified strengths in adolescence, we start feeling desperate to help them “stand out” and excel. It can paralyze them, make them feel even more alone, and cause rifts in the relationships they most depend on.
I have a son who is a junior in high school. He’s overwhelmed with all the “life altering decisions” he feels he has to make in the next year. We want him to be happy and successful. He and I were having a conversation about college options, gap years, and other things he needs to consider when he shouted, “Mom, I have no idea what I’m doing!” It was an epiphany moment for me. I took a second and looked at him and said, “Nobody knows what they’re doing. I don’t know what I’m doing. If you stopped any adult on the street and asked if they feel like they know what they’re doing, I bet nearly all of them would say no.” Yet, we continue to give our teens this overwhelming pressure to not only know what they’re doing but also the pressure to constantly be working toward their goals and to always be moving toward success. We become a menacing kind of Greek chorus of teachers, counselors, family, and every other adult in their lives constantly asking them where they’re want to go to college, if they’ve finished their homework, and on and on…. No wonder they’re revolting!
People will often point out that most of the sweeping revolutionary ideas, social movements, and cultural changes in our country have been started by and sustained by young people. Teens and young adults who aren’t fully invested in maintaining the status quo and who want to fix injustices are the ones who not only speak up, but who refuse to be quiet until the problem is addressed and fixed. Countless young adult books, teen centered movies, and teen fantasies center on teens upending the adults who are holding them back.
It’s a well used theme for good reason. If the adults close to teens are one of the obstacles in their lives, they have to spend time and energy fighting us before they can ever take on the world. If we stand with them and encourage them, they can take on the world with support and advice from people who love them. We can make a difference for teens who want to change the world by not adding to their stress and supporting their revolutions instead of becoming another obstacle for them to overcome.
What can we do?
Stop offering (or forcing) help on teens. Instead, we can all focus on being available and curious. Being a student is an overwhelming battle every day to prove yourself and your worth. Teens are literally graded on their performance multiple times each day. Asking them if they need help is always a good idea, and honoring their answer is the very best way to be helpful. Help isn’t always helpful, but honoring requests is.
Stop framing their interests as potential ways for them to excel and stand out. We all give a lot of lip service to the value of failing or dabbling in the things that interest us. As an adult, I have tried my hand at bread making, knitting, drawing, writing fiction, running a home business, and many other things. I’ve failed at all of them and learned from those failures and attempts. When I did try, the only thing at stake was a little bit of money and some of my pride. I never felt that my success or failure in any of those things would determine the trajectory of my whole future. Teens need to feel that, too. Find ways to help and support them in letting go of those expectations.
Start appreciating them again. We often know what we love about our teens, but are so busy helping them “get good” at things that we forget to celebrate those qualities that we love. We always ask toddlers and little kids to show us their newest acquired skills and we’re quick to marvel at nearly their every move. We can start doing that with teens and again focus on helping them enjoy and experiment just for the pursuit of joy rather than to find something to add to their college applications.
Listen, listen, listen, and only give advice when they ask or are clearly dealing with a critical situation. My daughter, who is now 22 and always patient with me, has taught me this skill. It was so hard to learn and practice. When my children come to me to tell me about a problem, my immediate reaction is to offer to help, offer solutions, and to generally try to fix it. What she has had to tell me many times is that she just needs me to listen. Listening is what they need. They get more advice, help, and instruction than they could ever follow. They need to be heard and feel heard so they can start to figure things out themselves.
RevolTeens are not a new phenomenon. They are a time honored force for change. The best way for all of us well-meaning adults to help them is to not become an obstacle ourselves, but to support them, love them, and let them lead the way.
About Christine Lively
Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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