Two ways to grow teens
Teens present a challenge to parents who are used to the cozy snuggly younger years of wide-eyed curiosity about lady bugs. Teens can become bored by the wonder of the world around them as they navigate the far-more-interesting-to-them inner world of their thoughts, emotions, and yearnings.
That first teen—how I pity her or him! Parents don’t want to be awakened from the dreamland of their perfect, precious child. They want to prolong innocence and enchantment.
Teens want risk and adventure. They want to prove to themselves that one day, they will in fact be competent adults who live in the world outside the living room walls. They can’t know that they will be successful in that world until they get their hands on it—until they are out in it!
How do we—the anxious parents of these gawky, voice-changing, hair-growing, newly curvy bodies—give them what they need without panic and anxiety?
There are two critical pathways to the expansion of self:
One way to grow is to increase your exposure to a world that is different from your familiar one. We adults do that every day by reading the news, or watching television, or listening to radio. We “witness” the events from around the globe via film or satellite, we read interesting discussions about those events, we listen to interviews with people who live in the midst of those events, and we receive stories through movies, memoirs, and novels of people who live very differently from us. This “witness” to the experiences of others expands our worldview and rearranges what we understand as normative or important. We discover our values differently when they are held up next to the values of others (whether those others live down the street or across an ocean).
For teens—they “witness” a larger world in much the same ways, if they are given the chance! They have the Internet—which offers them Twitter, Facebook, bulletin boards for affinity-related discussion, news organizations, blogs like Tumblr, and more. It’s easy to want to limit the use of the Internet, but it’s almost impossible to do so successfully (teens can work around just about any limit you set). It’s even better to create conversation around what they learn there and to be a willing conversation partner for the cognitive growth that is happening at breakneck speed in that space.
They also witness the larger world through novels and films. These two vehicles help teens to absorb the motivations and complexities of being human in unfamiliar (or very familiar!) contexts. They can read, take time off, read more, and process it all safely at home with you.
Witness provides teens with a chance to explore unfamiliar territory at arm’s length. The experience is under their control. They can shut down the computer, they can turn off the television, they can close the book. They are free to sample or deep dive, to agree or disagree without consequence to their life’s situation.
Encounter is the more challenging, more impacting way to grow. Encounter is not at arm’s length. Encounter means being overwhelmed (all five senses) with the experience so that you can’t escape it nor package and manage it. For instance, you might “witness” what life is like in Iran by reading a book like Reading Lolita in Tehran. But to encounter life in Tehran, one would have to go and stay there! Travel is one level of encounter (visiting a place for a short stay). An extended stay working in a foreign country is another level of encounter. Moving to live in a foreign country is the most intense form of encounter.
In terms of raising teens, encounter can look a few ways. It is meeting someone who embodies whatever life experience and values are his or hers (that differ from your own). It is befriending someone who comes from a different background. It is visiting the sites where other views take place (for instance, going to a temple for a visit when you are studying about that religion, especially when it is not your religion; another example—visiting a plantation in the South when you grew up in the North hating plantations as representations of slavery).
Encounter is eating the food, hearing/speaking the language, wearing the clothing, adopting the customs.
Encounter is deliberately putting yourself in the uncomfortable position of being with someone different from yourself and allowing that experience to impact you.
We help our teens grow when we give them both opportunities. They love risk and adventure! When you allow them to develop affinities, to explore their curiosities, and to meet/know people who are different from them, you help their brains! They will experience the kind of cognitive growth critical to being critical thinkers and healthy adults!
Cater to their natural inclination to take “thought-risks” and put them in contact with material and people who challenge their assumptions. Celebrate the results (whatever they may be!). Remember: no teen retains the values developed at 14 and 17. Are you today the same person you were at 15? I doubt it.
Everyone adopts positions to try on like shoes when they are teens. So let them adopt away! If you create space for a teen to imagine herself into a viewpoint, she will also have space to move through and out of it too, if she gets more and new information from witnessing or encountering!
It’s an exciting time to parent, if not a little nerve-wracking at times. Try not to grip too tightly, and enjoy the ride.