Teen Advantage I

Note to Parents

Teen Advantage I

Parents are anxious for their children to find a great college for a great education. This is so important, especially for future job security and a decent salary. In a rapidly changing world, good preparation is essential for college and for life. It’s a good thing teens have an advantage in the college search: they’ve been practicing making life-changing decisions.

Teens are immersed in a much bigger search process than the college search. It’s the search for their own identity. They’ve made decisions – at least, temporarily – about friends, their seriousness about school, their work ethic, how they treat others, how they care for themselves, where they devote their time and efforts, and their level of involvement with drugs and alcohol. Some choices will endure through their entire lives, for good or ill.

As their parent, you’ve seen the immediate outcomes of teen decisions. Your experience and maturity helps you to consider long-term implications, as well. You want to help them find success and avoid suffering. Your role is crucial in helping them to figure things out, one issue at a time.

The college search process fits in the larger context of teens’ search for an independent identity. Progress on the one contributes to the quality of the other. The two challenges complement each other by clarifying, broadening, deepening, and refining deliberate reasoning skills so beneficial to a critical thinker.

(Definition: critical thinker = someone who can give you a well-reasoned reply when you exclaim, “What were you thinking?”)

This disruptive, stressful, and exciting period holds opportunity, drama, and meaning. Your teen struggles to answer some big questions. Who am I? Who do I want to become? What is my purpose? The answers will guide your teen’s opportunities and choices, so it’s a perfect set-up for the preparation and transition to college.

So, how is this an advantage of teens? To find a good fit, students reflect on what they’ve learned about their own personality. It’s important in deciding if they’ll be comfortable with the college community. To choose a major, they consider their academic, work, and other experiences in and out of school. Their successes, failures, values, and goals shine a light on who they are and what they think they ought to pursue in life. This is important to you because a parent’s interest and patience encourage better reasoning and better results. What they decide - and how they decide - are both critical. Future decision-making will lean on the strength of this experience. They need you to help them get it right.

As teens make choices and take more control over their lives, they wrestle with issues of right and wrong, of good and bad. They seek consistency and harmony in a mature identity, but also deal with fluctuations in their bodies, emotions, and sexuality. They’re discovering their personal ethics. They face more ideas, more options, and more opinions from more sources than any generation in history. It’s overwhelming and defies understanding. Their judgment is on trial. In discerning their talents, interests, and personalities, teens are weighing priorities that anchor the college selection process. Through it all, the reasoning they use is largely influenced by what they absorb from you, their parents.

Because this process invites questioning every authority, even the family foundation gets challenged. This is when parents can be so helpful by keeping a patient, reasoning attitude that helps teens think things through. Tensions may arise when parents’ best efforts are questioned, but much of what you’ve taught will undoubtedly endure. Being questioned does not mean being rejected. After all, we want our grown children to know how to ask the right questions wherever they go.

Going to college will help them become mature, resilient, confident, self-reflecting, and socially responsible adults, but it takes a lot of concentration and work. It helps to have meaningful support. Your teen has to figure out what's worth holding and what needs to be let go. What's missing and what to seek. A search for beliefs is under way - belief in self, in principles, and in others. This reflects an active conscience grappling with moral and ethical issues. Good examples will help. Be one.

Through the teen years and college, defining the mature self may mean building some walls, tearing down others; accepting some ideas and rejecting others; moving toward and moving away. It's nice to fit in, but not to be hemmed in. Expectations may be perceived as encouragement or as inconsiderate demands. There will be successes and failures. It really does take a lot of work, so a little celebration of progress sure helps along the way. Honest acknowledgement and praise has lasting positive effects.

Identity development and the college search share common themes. Students are only somewhat prepared for the process, yet they feel compelled to reach conclusions. The destination is unknown. Information is abundant and overwhelming.  Opinions flow, whether sought or not. It’s not clear to the student (or the parents) as to what can or cannot be taken for granted. Questioning is constant. It’s important that parent encouragement and sound reasoning be constant, as well.

The promise of college is the gateway to adulthood and self-sufficiency. It is clearly defined and celebrated as an approved period of searching, learning, growing, and refining. What a relief (and privilege) to have a period in life devoted to self-governed, yet institutionally supported, formation and preparation! All the hopes and dreams that are poured into a child, all the good wishes and anticipated accomplishments, are untethered in the college years to find their own way in the world of competing possibilities.

Fortunately, the growing teen brain has tremendous potential for increasing judgment, while the developing reasoning power of the social conscience grows in its influence every day. More on these two concepts and their advantages in future blogs.

Can We Educate for Decency, Please?

We live in a challenging time for civil discourse and I worry about the lessons being caught by young people. Prominent rudeness and inconsiderate behavior are toxic and contagious. Leaders prey on common insecurities to inflame suspicion and doubt here and elsewhere in the world. Feelings of insecurity are stressful, make us fearful, and can escalate into a polarizing social disengagement that can splinter any society.

Insecurity and fear play a powerful role in the human mind. We are ever on guard against harmful threats and that has largely served our species well in securing our survival. For most Americans, though, survival is not what’s at stake when our common fears are triggered. Rather, we may instantly gauge an experience and elevate its importance beyond any actual risk. This occurs without the benefit of careful consideration and serves up the self-preserving trio of responses – fight, flight, or freeze. In essence, a mild panic ensues. Often, the pattern of behavior that follows is well rehearsed in our lives and leads to a predictable conclusion. But, does that perceived threat really matter?

The human brain developed to save us from straightforward hazards such as the hungry lion or the deadly snake. Today’s social and political issues are far more complex problems to solve. Instantaneous misappraisals and responses are inopportune and inadequate to these tasks. Lacking deliberate, reflective thinking, individuals may fall prey to bias, false assumptions, and unsupportable conclusions that invite division and antagonism. Real peril lurks, ripe for the descent of attitudes into suspicion, anger, bigotry, and worse. In public discourse, trust suffers. Opponents face off and fierce alliances thwart efforts at unity.

The unease that Americans feel has many causes – other people’s bad behavior, unfavorable economics, health issues, natural or man-made disasters, and more – but a disruptive, blame-seeking national squabble only aggravates our anxieties and divisions. This is no solution for our country. Communication suffers. Compromise and progress are stifled.

We are better than this.

Where is the evidence of clear thinking and emotional wisdom to help us make the smart choices we require? Young people must understand how negative emotions impact their thinking and behavior, and learn how to interrupt their own unmerited reactions. Where is the voice of reason that sets an example for idealistic young people who aspire to responsible leadership? We need role models of decency and respect. Who represents the examination and appreciation of the common ground on which most of us actually stand? Cohesion in society requires the public demonstration of our individual social consciences. Who will show the way?

Failing to find a rational, unifying voice on the national horizon, I’ve concluded that we – every one of us – must demonstrate and inspire in one another the best forms of hearty conversation, without overheated or witless contention. This is a lesson worth teaching to young people.

Three indispensable principles of democracy – citizen participation, equality, and political tolerance – steer us toward a more considerate and respectful exchange that benefits all. A little patience and humility wouldn’t hurt, either. If our greatest challenges were easily solved, they would never have evolved into such perplexing puzzles. Knowing that many great minds have struggled to explore cures or fixes, we must approach such topics with a healthy skepticism about the perfection of our own thought and carry an open mind as to the assets in another’s argument. Open mindedness is an act of freedom. We do not commit disloyalty to our personal convictions by withholding judgment of another’s.

Rather, we elevate the quality of our communication and refine our relationship. Encouragement, not censorship, opens hearts and minds in dialogue. As we all know, a little kindness goes a long way.

Some self-discipline favors positive outcomes in this quest for decency. We have an intriguing example for young people in our nation’s early history. Ben Franklin, the diplomat nonpareil of the original 13 colonies, was celebrated and admired in Paris as he negotiated essential French support for the revolution in America. He earnestly held to high standards of discourse. Franklin was a keen listener. He favored understanding another’s position before positing his own. He was graceful in accepting other opinions and gained trust by the warmth of his appreciation. Only after convincing others that he accurately understood their perspective, did he propose his own alternative thoughts. By cultivating consequential relationships, he achieved highly effective and beneficial results.

Franklin stands out as a unique example to young people. It is remarkable that young Ben withdrew from school in Boston at age 10 and left his family at age 16 to strike out independently. At 18, he was living and working on his own in London, England, conscientiously developing the diplomatic style that enabled his future political achievements. His charm and social grace were not accumulated under genteel tutelage. Rather, he read voraciously, embraced culture and society enthusiastically, and thought deeply and intentionally about his conversations and experiences. His disciplined habits in these formative years were motivated by confidence in reason and steered by intellectual integrity. As he matured, he shaped his behavior to his developing ideals, as young adults strive to do.

Franklin’s example is crucial because it is attainable by others who value fair-minded civil conversation and adhere to their own better virtues. Perhaps in our own conversations with young people we can seek, first, a full understanding of their opinions. Demonstrating a desire to understand their points of view, we honor the equal right to express ideas. Listening closely and actively, we respect their effort and, simultaneously, invite them to reason more logically about their ideas. In this manner, we help them to recognize and practice critical thinking and gain insight into the larger context of their own emotional and intellectual lives. This type of exercise confirms and strengthens their faith in fair-minded dialogue and the careful exploration of ideas for mutual benefit. The interplay of personal feelings and thoughts is managed in the service of a higher purpose. Instantaneous assessments are seen as only the first of many possible interpretations of evidence. The reasoning mind is capable of so much more. These are powerful lessons to educate young people who will pick up and struggle with our own unresolved national challenges. The exercise of elevated civil discourse advances the prospect that we reach more satisfactory solutions to the great issues of our time. Isn’t it about time that we give this a proper effort? We are, after all, all in this together.