Today’s teenagers are going through a myriad of things that can seem familiar and strange all at once to those of us who like to say that we have “been there.”
“No, you haven’t been there. You really don’t know,” a number of teenagers in classes I covered would, not a bit too touchily, say.
Behind the vape-in-pocket arrogance, the immediate whining over the tiniest inconvenience, the churlish eye-rolling, the Snapchat fixation, the my-life-is-sh*tty or they-are-horrible-to-me reactions to constructive feedback, a poor grade, and rejection at varsity tryouts, the chaotic social scenes that are pulsing with drama, and the fluctuating self-image struggles fed by heavily filtered lies of social media, I also see…
A teenager who loves books and “dorky” things that make him less popular, a teenager who hesitates to speak but whose eyes light up over a 1920s literary passage, a teenager who seems too cool to do well in school but will go on and on with profound insights about his climate change research topic, a teenager who gave me firsthand reflections about her father’s life in Palestine and its impact on her current political and religious views, a teenager who has always been in top-tiered American schools readily speaking of how his parents grew up poor in Egypt and didn’t have the education that he and his brother are presently enjoying, a teenager who is committed to working with the homeless and the abused, and dozens of other teenagers who have impeccable manners and dreams too big that they are at times embarrassed to share.
I look at the students I have the privilege to teach and interact with, from kindergarten to grade 12. I look at them and wonder about my son and how I can parent him in the way that he needs to be parented.
“Connect, before you redirect.” “Engage, not enrage.” “Name the emotion to tame the emotion.” “The child’s brain is changing, changeable, and complex.” These nuggets of wisdom from Dan Siegel and Tina Payne echo in my brain but I often question if I will be capable of applying all that I’ve read in the critical moments that will define my child’s happiness as an adult.
In a minuscule effort to not mess up parenting, I asked dozens of teenagers for parenting advice: just one bit of advice that comes to mind. I promised them that I would neither probe nor judge what they would tell me.
Interestingly, 95% of the high school students I asked were more than eager to help.
“I got you, Miss. I got you!,” said one of the students whose name the school administrators know too well for his frequent office visits; he is one among many that I am particularly fond of.
Allow me to share some very unforgettable pieces of advice straight from teenagers that I hope to remember when my toddler gets older:
- Stay engaged. Even if you may not like to listen to what we have to say, or even if we’re having a difficult time saying what we want to say, please stay engaged.
- Spend time with me. There are things I would like to do that you may think you’re not interested in doing or you’re too busy for it, but it really matters when you spend time with me.
- Respect my need to socialize. I really need to spend time with my friends and to connect with them.
- Don’t judge my friends. I know you know that some people are not good for me. But you know what? I’ll find that out on my own. Just guide me and be there for me but don’t restrict and judge my choices. Let me learn who is good for me because believe me, I will eventually know.
- Please don’t say my words for me. Sometimes, I try to explain but you already think you know what I will say so you say it for me. You don’t really know. Or even if you do, please let me say it myself.
- I’m going through a lot right now. I may not say it, I may not know how to say it. But I am going through so much right now. It’s tough being a teenager.
- Let me do things within reason. Please let me do anything within reason. I want to learn and experience life without constantly being told that I can’t and shouldn’t do it.
- Let me fail and make mistakes. I know that’s very hard for you but I will learn from them. Please be okay with my mistakes. If you taught me well, I will know how to bounce back.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Many parents talk about empathy among children but they forget to use empathy when their child is struggling so much. Please don’t get mad right away, listen like really listen, and empathize with me.
- Chill. Don’t be too hard. If you’re too hard, you make me not want to talk to you. You make me want to talk to my friends for help when it’s you I should be talking to. Don’t push me away.
- Be my friend. You will still be firm but please don’t be an enemy to me or someone who always doubts me. I can feel that you dislike me and it’s hard. I sometimes dislike being me, too.
- Build trust. I want to know that I can turn to you when I’ve done something so messed up that I’m embarrassed to tell anyone else.
- Develop independence. I really appreciate how my parents taught me to be independent so I’m not scared of being on my own and going off to college.
- Please make me stick with it. I wish my parents made me finish what I started. I pursued music and sports when I was younger but I never really stuck with anything because my parents made me give up when I wanted to give up. Now, I wish they didn’t.
I don’t know about you but I find these pieces of advice to be priceless, and I am deeply thankful to my remarkably self-aware and candid high schoolers who turned this into an opportunity for honesty and reflection.
If you know a teenager with parenting advice, I will be happy to hear what he or she has to say!