Teen Advantage I

Teens have a great advantage in preparing for college because they are already striving to develop their own identity, independent of parents, family members, and other influences. Every teen charges into that disruptive process armed with his or her genetic make-up and life experiences. This is a dynamic time when fresh ideas from wide-ranging sources confront the established self. New options get a good look, some are tried, and a few find a good fit and become part of the growing repertoire of attitudes and behaviors. This change process is vital to young adults' ability to strive and thrive in the world as independent, self-reliant, and responsible individuals. The college search, stressful as it is, provides a critical focus here. It’s a practical opportunity to consider the implications of many decisions.

Two big questions challenge the thinking of teens: Who am I? And who do I want to become? The quest for some answers may take a lifetime, but most young people will achieve some satisfaction with developed conclusions within a few years. Our teens face more ideas and more options from more sources than any generation in history. Parents, family, school, peers, community, online friends, news and social feeds, and seemingly endless digital mediums and formats pour information and opinions continuously into their view. Each one competes for attention, response, engagement, and connection. Some request fleeting thought and instant reply. Others invite permanent linkage and deep relationship and affinity. Sorting all this out, and fitting together the new with the established in one's personality, is actually a pretty hefty challenge. Fortunately, most teens are up to the task and will struggle through to a successful and healthy adulthood.

Readers may recall their own effort to create an acceptable definition of self. I remember how resolutely I wanted an identity separate from my family. Our parents did their best to give us a good start in life, but we rebelled against some of their efforts to 'program' us in their own image. And, indeed, we should. As the joke declares, “You have to be yourself - everybody else is already taken!” The joke is on us in adulthood, however, when we hear ourselves saying or doing things just as our parents did or said. We carry their legacy every day. Our children will do the same. For good or ill. It’s a notion to consider when you’re wondering how much you matter to your bristling teen.

Becoming a mature, resilient, confident, self-reflecting, and socially responsible adult takes a lot of concentration and work. It helps when important others give meaningful support. A 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 help. Defining 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 long roads into the future and there will be dead ends. Success and failure. It really does take a lot of work and a little celebration of progress sure helps along the way. Honest acknowledgement and praise from valued others have lasting effects.

All the considering and sorting out and experimenting and deciding and adapting can really get on the nerves of parents, siblings, peers, and school teachers. Sometimes one doesn't know what a teen will demonstrate or believe from one day to the next. These are the famously irrational years when it appears that teens have subscribed to the three i's. That is, they fantasize themselves to be Invincible, Immortal, or Infertile. Huge risks may be undertaken in the throes of any of those mistaken beliefs and the outcomes produce some of the greatest disasters of the adolescent years. Even aside from disastrous behaviors, some unpredictability must be expected from teens. Mistakes will be made in the ongoing research and experimentation that is taking place in the hearts and minds of every one. The pendulum will swing from the most conservative, self-preserving actions to the most liberating, freeing, and experimental trying-out of wild and crazy options. But, to succeed with joy and strength, all teens need to know that someone believes in them. 

Adolescent development and the college search share common themes. Students are only somewhat prepared for the process. 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. Some criteria and standards are desperately needed, but choosing them is confusing. The future is unknowable, but students feel an urgency and momentum toward it. Sorting out all the options feels overwhelming and mistakes are likely. Ultimately though, some level of acceptance and satisfaction are found. The stress and pressure and worry subside and students move forward, informed by the struggle.

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.