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.