Recently my neighbors and I were discussing which is harder to raise…toddlers or teenagers. This summer I had the privilege of hanging out with some extraordinary teenagers. We climbed some mountains, camped, did some freezing cold tubing, and spend a lot of time playing games and arguing over which Marvel movies are the best. The human brain doesn’t fully develop until people are in their 20’s especially the pre- frontal cortex which means that there are a lot of times that the brains of teens are completely full of mush!! Because of this mush, teens need some grown up tour guides helping them navigate the teenage years. These tour guides can be parents, youth leaders, teachers, or just some crazy neighbors who happen to love teenagers. I prefer teenagers over toddlers mostly because teenagers can go to the bathroom by themselves, put their dishes in the dishwasher, wash their own hands, and some have been known to do their own laundry and even cook!! Even though their brains are full of mush (at times), teenagers have many moments of complete brilliance and share many similarities with their adult counterparts. I feel the need to share or remind us all of a few of them….
#1 All teenagers ( and most adults I know, me included) are INSECURE about SOMETHING. Teens are still trying to figure out life, who they are, what they like, who they like, all while hormones rage constantly in their bodies. They are juggling growing physically (which can literally be painful), the stress of school, sports and activities, parents’ expectations, and trying to make use of their time for homework, work, and socialization. And they have a culture which is constantly changing in morality and virtue saturating them with sexuality, narcissism, and perfection….all largely behind a screen that they look at alone and for hours a day. They ask themselves and others…”Am I smart enough?’ “Am I pretty enough?” “Am I good enough?” “Do people like me?” They face rejection, teasing, isolation, unworthiness, and fear… sometimes on a daily basis. I learned they need, nearly crave, constant affirmation that they are enough just the way they are! They need to understand that they are not loved or accepted based on their performance….they are just loved and accepted. Period. Their grown up tour guides need to offer words of affirmation…..lots of them. Saturate them with timely words of encouragement, empathy, not flattery but true compliments that will help them feel more secure about who they are becoming. So the next time you see a teen, hug them and tell them that they are super cool and that you just love having them around.
#2 All teenagers (and adults) are BRILLIANT at something. When I was a teacher, I loved seeing my students shine in whatever they were gifted at. I went to plays, choir concerts, sporting events, and even a horse show just to see my students do what they did best. I still do that with my daughter’s friends. Not only has it been great bonding to attend the other kids’ events with my girl, but it’s so fun to watch her friends at their best. Plus when they come over, it gives us something to talk about. I don’t know a human being who doesn’t like to talk about whatever it is they are passionate about. When you attend their events, it sends a message that you genuinely care about what they care about. “Kids don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” And a word to the wise….only be encouraging at events you attend. Do NOT criticize officials, refs, players or coaches. Keep your mouth shut if you can’t say anything nice. At those events, criticism, especially of the kid that you are watching, NEVER helps. Just cuz you feel something, doesn’t mean you need to say it. Enough said.
#3 All people in the universe but especially teenagers have an inherit need to feel VALUED. Everyone feels valued differently. Some people need a word of affirmation. Some need you to spend quality time with them. Some need a thoughtful card or gift. Some need a meal or an act of service. Some just need a hug. People have written dozens of books on the love languages, and the bottom line is that everyone needs love spoken in their love language and teens probably need it the most. The tricky part is that your love language may not be the same as the teen you are investing in. You may be terrible at offering words of affirmation but that might be what that teen needs. You may not have time to go for a hike or a walk but that might be what speaks life into the teen, so you make time. Investing in people isn’t easy, fun, or rewarding at times. It’s expensive, inconvenient, and time consuming. But it certainly fulfills the most important two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind….AND love your neighbor as yourself. Those teens are pretty cool neighbors and they need some lovn’ from the tour guides in their lives.
#4 Every teen needs to be HEARD. Teens are smart, perceptive, and they have a lot to say. Even the introverts come alive in the right environment. Now in a group setting, they talk all over each other and they need some social cues in order to have a good conversation. You have to teach them when to talk, how to listen to each other, and not to interrupt. So as the grownup, you have to work on those things yourself. Try not to interrupt your own teen or their friends. Listen, really Listen. Don’t offer correction all the time or even advice. Just listen and the best secret….ASK QUESTIONS. And when they say something completely shocking, try not to over react. I have learned lots about the kids who come over. I even have some “tea” on all of them, but they need to know that there are grown ups who will talk about the hard stuff judgement free. Teens need trusted adults who aren’t afraid to ask them questions, gently call them out, and offer a listening ear. Most adults need a trusted confidant too…..I know my mentors have impacted my life greatly. I want my kids to have trusted tour guides they can rely on.
#5 Ultimately parents are the Moral Compass for their kids. Teachers don’t have time to teach kids morality and all the virtues in the classroom. Coaches especially volunteers shouldn’t be responsible for that either. If you want your kids to have a good moral compass as adults, you need to be the the moral compass for your kids. Monkey see, Monkey do. You thought your toddlers were watching and mimicking you….your teen is scrutinizing you even more closely. You will learn that lesson as a parent really fast as soon as you have a teen driver who will call you out on every driving infraction you commit. You model everything to your teen….modesty, behavior, words, habits–bad and good. Teens are sharp and they pick up on everything, and I guarantee they know more about the world than you think they know. So model humility and self control to those boys and discretion and confidence (with humility) to those girls.
As far as Teens VS Toddlers….they are pretty much the same. They are just kids (not adults) who need a good nights sleep, a good meal and a treat for dessert, and even the occasional band aid. Do we hold them to standards…sure…kids need boundaries…teens and toddlers alike. The teens that come over do dishes, and clean up after themselves but that’s not why i like them. I don’t like them because they meet my expectations or standards…I just like them. I believe I am called to “Love God and Love Others.” They are my Others. I love them.