Saturday, March 2, 2013

How to Stop Whining and Learn Teens Are the Bomb

For several years, and especially since the publication of The Fault in Our Stars, author John Green has discussed over and over and over (to cite just a few examples) the failure of most adults to appreciate the intelligence and insight of teenagers. I agree wholeheartedly. Adults who do value teenagers' thoughts, ideas, and activities are clearly -- and unfortunately -- not the norm.

And that makes me wonder: Why do some see it when others don't? Why do a few adults respect and enjoy the teen mind while most see it, at best, as immature and vapid, and, at worst, as willfully ignorant or even malevolent? Maybe it comes naturally to a few, but most of us who value teens highly have been led to this vantage point largely by two factors.

First, we simply spend a lot of time with teens. John's work -- in his writing, on YouTube, and elsewhere -- more or less revolves around teens and their world and, as a high school teacher and a highly involved aunt of several teenagers, mine does too. We're both constantly surrounded by and communicating with teens. We not only hear about their ideas and stories, relationships and solitude, dreams and fears, joys and frustrations, loves and hates, creations and mistakes, triumphs and disappointments, but we are in actual, meaningful contact with those events.

This constant interaction allows us to see them at their worst, it's true, but it also showcases them at their best. We get to know them as a whole -- a beautiful, variegated, complex, sometimes frustrating but always exciting mass of humanity -- and, if we are very lucky, get to know a few of them as individuals too. We have the privilege of seeing both the diversity of the group and the individuality that is inherent to all of us. Only a person with an utterly closed mind could experience that kind of interaction day after day and not ultimately recognize the depth and beauty of the teen mind.

I would be both remiss and dishonest if I didn't concede that teenagers, on average, do and say stupid things more often than adults do. Of course they do! Certainly even the most intelligent teenager still has a lot to learn.  But we don't disparage all adults based on the immaturity or ignorance of some, or on the bad decisions of which all of us are occasionally guilty. Exposure to the sheer volume of teen interaction that people like John and I get makes it much harder to ignore the bright spark of adolescent intelligence simply because the dark side gets more press.

The second factor that's vital to appreciating teens is caring deeply and sincerely about them. Unfortunately, merely caring isn't enough to make us appreciate teens as we should. Many adults truly care about teens but don't fully understand them, causing the adult to view teenagers with more concern than admiration. Caring deeply and sincerely about teens can easily coexist with an attitude that brands them as dull, lazy, immoral, unethical, unintelligent, troublemakers who just need to be rescued from their own ignorance and lack of integrity. And yes, certainly some teens need to be rescued from various situations. But many others are smart, industrious, and motivated and it's disheartening when adults are blind to that fact.

In the end, the two factors affect us most strongly when they are hand in hand. If we interact frequently with teens but don't really care about them, we'll tend to fall back on stereotypes rather than take the time to see their true potential. And if we care about teens but don't have enough meaningful interaction with them to learn who they really are, our concern may take us only in negative directions. But if we truly care, and if we allow that to motivate us to spend lots of time getting to know the teens in our lives and interacting with them in ways that allow them to be who they really are, their value will become not only obvious but vitally important to us.

I'm fortunate enough to have teens in my life even outside of my work. My 19 year old niece has been one of my best and deepest friends for several years, and I'm very close to several of my nephews too. I also talk online to several teenagers and young adults that I've met through the Nerdfighter community and various extensions thereof. I am constantly amazed at the intelligence, insight, creativity, humor, kindness, generosity, and otherwise strong minds and characters that I see in the teens everywhere around me. I'm thankful for the opportunity to know so many wonderful teens and I feel sorry for people who either don't get that opportunity or don't care enough to take advantage of it.

Teenagers, take heart. Yes, many of us don't appreciate you as we should and I apologize on behalf of all adults for that lapse. But some of us know what you are and, more importantly, what you can be and we're cheering for you. You have our respect, our support, and our love. And as for you adults, get on the ball and start paying more attention to the teens around you! I can promise you won't regret it.

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