Less Talk, More Love

When I was a teen, I could easily spot the adults who were uncomfortable with teens. They were the ones quickest to provide their opinions, especially if they felt my skirt was too short, my music too loud, or my opinions too vocal. I needed to be put in my place, in their opinion. So I heard statements like, “In my day, we didn’t have all the luxuries you kids have.” Or, “That’s what’s wrong with kids today.” What I thought didn’t matter. What mattered was my being told what they thought.

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My reaction was usually something along the lines of, “In your day, the Mayflower was still floating toward America, you old geezer. You don’t know anything about my day!” I quickly tuned them out, unwilling to listen to their criticism. I didn’t care what they thought. What mattered was their learning of my contempt.

See the disconnect? We call this the communication gap. Neither side was willing to listen to the other.

I couldn’t help thinking about this when I went to the Monologue Show at my nephew’s high school. I went ready to listen. This show is an annual tradition. Students who participate have to audition and provide their own material. My nephew’s monologue, which involved other students in skits, was hilarious and drew some of the night’s biggest laughs. Go ahead and say I’m biased, but had you been there, you would have noticed.

Other students’ monologues also were humorous, but several were heartbreaking. I was struck by a theme of perfectionism in the evening—students speaking about the notion of having to be perfect: perfect body, hair, and grades. This high school is one of the top high schools in the state, so perfectionism is a hot-button issue around the school. Many of the students despaired of ever measuring up to the standard of perfection set before them.

After hearing these sentiments, I thought, What have we [adults] done to these kids? Have some of our critical comments led to this?

Oh, I know you’re thinking, Whoa, L. Marie. That’s not my fault. I don’t know those teens. Easy, there! I’m talking about adults in general, rather than you specifically. And I get it. Some of the pressure teens face is due to the system. Scholarships are hard to come by. So great scores on standardized tests like ACT and SAT gain one admission into top schools and rake in scholarships. I understand the need to make good grades. I was a high school student at one point. (Um, well after the Mayflower landed.)

But today’s students also are expected to excel in so many other areas as well: athletics; community involvement; the arts—the list goes on.

Speaking of the arts, you have only to look at reality shows like Bring It! (Lifetime Channel) and others where well-meaning parents push their kids to be the best dancers, singers, whatever. I’m not knocking helping a child to excel at an activity where he or she shows talent and a desire to excel. But living vicariously through a child is where life gets a bit dicey and the pressure starts to mount. And in a world where talent is weighed and measured and bought and sold, well, teens are expected to bring it, even if they don’t want to.

BringIt

Let’s move on to the notion of looking perfect—an aspect of several of the evening’s monologues. We live in a culture saturated by visuals: billboards, commercials, magazines, ads popping up on our computer screens, smartphones gaining one instant access to the Internet. And let’s not forget the sites where you can upload images—Snapchat, Instagram, and others; places where thigh gap is measured and beauty displayed and dissected.

Teens live so much of their lives through social media. This prompted my next horrified observation as I listened to some of the monologues: What have they [teens] done to themselves?

We all know the horrors of peer pressure and the desperate desire to measure up. You can only push someone so far before that person reacts. Some snap under the pressure. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also been there.

So now my question is, what will we adults do? Okay, I get that maybe you don’t desire this responsibility. Maybe there are no teens in your life. But those of us with teens in our lives or who write for teens have an opportunity to help make a difference.

We don’t have to be those adults who talk at teens by telling them how much they’re failing us and society or demanding that they exceed unrealistic expectations. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a suggestion to hold back on discipline or to stop prodding a kid who wants to slack off and play videogames all day. This means knowing a teen’s potential and helping him or her to achieve it, without having a hidden agenda (like forcing a child to live out your dream).

Also, we can be honest with them about our own struggles, instead of pretending we have it all together and they’d better get with the program, especially if we don’t hold ourselves to this standard. We can write about their struggles without moralizing them. Above all, we can listen to and love them. The world can be a cold place for those struggling to find their way. We can provide a warm place, even if just for a little while, and invite them to come in out of the cold.

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Teens photo from lakesideconnect.com. Bring It! photo from rollingout.com. Heart from healthticket.blogspot.com.

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37 thoughts on “Less Talk, More Love

  1. The whole issue of kids and teens being pushed to excel at everything is quite prevalent in my part of the world (Asia). Honestly, when I hear the activity schedules of some kids, it makes my head spin. And sure by the time they’re teens they can speak several languages, excel at maths and play the piano really well (or whatever it is they’re learning in their “spare” time) but people are starting to realise that these kids are growing up depressed because of the tremendous pressure they’re under, and because they aren’t given the chance to just play and do silly things like kids do. It’s becoming quite an issue in some parts of Asia anyway.

    I kid you not though, in Hong Kong two years olds are interviewed (interviewed!) to determine whether they are “suitable” to enter particular pre-schools. So even before they’re two, they have to be enrolled in these little baby classes so they can learn to focus enough to pass these “interviews”. It’s so sad, and these kids are pushed and pushed by parents who want them to conform to this view they have of success, who want their kids to be in the ‘right’ school, etc.

    You’re completely right, YA and kids books can a powerful tool for showing that everyone struggles (teens and adults alike) and that it’s ok not to be perfect, or to know everything, and that it’s ok to be different. Which is what makes YA books so important. I don’t write YA books myself, but I love the fact that so many YA books I’ve read feature main characters who are different, who don’t conform to the norm. It’s a really important message for everyone – and probably why so many kid and YA books are very popular with adults as well as with their intended audiences.

    • Oh man!!! Two year olds? How sad! I saw a tiny bit of this when I spent a summer in Wujiang teaching English. We didn’t talk about it, but I’m sure my students felt the pressure to succeed. The fact that they were spending their summer at our English camp showed that.

      Teens are pretty vulnerable despite their often crusty outer shell. 🙂 I’m glad there are so many books for young adults that showcase their struggles.

  2. The generational thing-the tension between young and older, reminded me of the song Youth Of Today by Amy MacDonald. Check it out and listen to the lyrics, maybe.
    As for the pressure. Here in the North West of England recently we have had several cases of young people taking their own lives. For differing reasons, perhaps, but all so tragic.

    • Oh. That’s sad, Andy. And that happens here too. Sometimes cyberbullying is the culprit.
      I thought I felt pressure when I was a teen. But what I felt is only a fraction of what teens today feel.

  3. Such important points! The distinction between “talking at” and “talking to” is huge. And I think you’re so right about the need to be honest about our own struggles, when talking to teens or writing teen characters.

    • So true, Laurie. When I was drafting my current novel, I realized that I wasn’t allowing my characters to really be who they were–teens. Consequently, they sounded too adult. I had lost sight of what being a teen was like. Once I started over and allowed them to make mistakes, the story began to feel truer.

  4. All I can think about when reading this is how part of the system the adults created is geared toward every child being the same. Thinking more about education as well as the expectation that a child’s only dream is to get a ‘serious’ job. A sense of perfection seems to come from this idea that you’re in competition with everyone for everything. I’ve seen artistic children be scolded and their imagination squashed because they choose painting over math. Apparently, that’s not a real job path.

    Maybe it does stem from what you mentioned about parents living vicariously through their children. My generation has become very bitter and jaded in that we swallowed the ‘get good grades, go to college, and you’ll get a good job’ pill. For many of us, it never happened or at least we majored in something that has nothing to do with our current job. So we try to stop our kids from making the same mistake by diverting them from the path that we took. Almost like that polar opposite of the previous generations where a parent tries to force a child to follow in their footsteps. Why does it seem like every parent has the instinctual urge to meddle in the life of a child no matter their age?

  5. It makes me so sad to see young people caught in this trap. My way of dealing with it, as a young punk, was to stick two fingers up to the lot of it! And even now, testosterone-soaked rebellion aside, I still think we had a point. The punk scene among others things, was inclusive. Black, white, asian, rich, poor and in between, gay or straight – come as you are (as Kurt later sang). Okay, so we had no goals, nothing to achieve and just wanted to tear everything down, but look what happens when the youth conform and lose that rebellious steak – endless talent shows, conformity and vicious peer pressure to fit in, look good, earn money and essentially be a shallow dipstick.
    I think you’re right L. when you say ‘listen and love’. That’ll go a long way. But I also think we need to shout “BULLSHIT!” when we see it. We owe that much to the young! Let them know it’s not just them that thinks whole swaths of our society and it peer-pressurised reality show fakeness suck!
    Ta-ta. I’m off to untangle my ranty-pants.

    • I hear you, John. I wish other people could have seen these teens and how weary many sounded. Though I totally rebelled when I was a teen, I have to say this for my parents: they gave me space to explore. I was 14 years old, but I could find my way all over the city. I’m not proud of some of the things I did, but I learned a lot about myself. Back then, we didn’t have smartphones or Facebook or any of the social media where our lives were on display. I don’t want to go so far as to say, “Back in my day we had it good because we didn’t have these luxuries.” I like some of these. But I feel sorry for teens who are bullied by these luxuries.

  6. I think children need to be encouraged to do their best, but not pressured to be number one. I have friends with children and the pressures that are put onto these kids…well, they can’t be kids. Their schedules are completely overbooked with sports, clubs, tutoring sessions, it’s crazy. When do they have time to just be a kid? I blame the media for the emphasis on looking perfect. I’m just happy that I grew up when I did and my parents were secure with themselves and provided a good example.
    Great post, Linda!

    • Thanks, Jill. Yes, they hardly have any free time. And parents seem swamped too, driving them everywhere. The hard part now is that many teens can’t drive themselves places, thanks to the shift in age for the driver’s license.

      Yes, the steady visualization of our lives is taking a toll on lives. 😦 I don’t know about you, but I never do Facetime on the phone!

  7. This is a well-timed post, because I’m in the revision cave and facing a scene where a teenage girl and her aunt, who haven’t seen each other in eight years, are finally developing a relationship. The aunt has never related well to kids, but she’s dealing with some very difficult circumstances in her own life, and her willingness to share her struggles provides the opening. At the same time, her desire to have an ally leads her to let down her guard in a way that leads the teen into peril.

  8. My heart is all kinds of sad after reading this. But this is a great post and I am willing to place most of the blame on adults, even the ones who mean well. Now the question is, how to find a balance? How to know if you the adult are doing too much? pushing too far?

    • I hear you. And finding balance is very tough. Prayer helps! Having a plan helps. Kids will push back when challenged. If we’re honest, we want things to come easily. Hard work is . . . well . . . hard. Some kids will whine even if you ask them to do something easy!

  9. Great post! Kids have always had pressures, but it does seem as if they have even more these days. Excellent point about being honest about our own struggles. Modeling that it’s okay, normal, inevitable, that we will be imperfect is huge.

    • Thanks, Stephanie! And that’s what I think a lot of teens and kids don’t see–adults acknowledging that they’re imperfect. I’m not saying we have to act like fools. But it’s no good pretending that we never make mistakes. It’s not like the kids don’t see that we do!

  10. Good post Linda and something I’ll need to start thinking about as I take on responsibility for my son. I try to remember back to when I was an annoying teenager and I think most kids just want to be listened to. You don’t have to agree with them and yes, they’ll be mad at you for a little while, but for them to feel like you haven’t listened to them seems to be the worst thing in my mind.

    • Ah, so you know your baby’s sex? How cool!!!
      I was an annoying teen. But even the most annoying teen could use a listening ear from someone who cares. With your child, you’ll have plenty of time to practice listening until the teen years hit. 😀

  11. A great, GREAT post, Linda. I definitely felt the drive for perfectionism when I was in high school. So, it’s something that’s been around for a long, long time. As for how to keep the balance between challenging kids to grow and learn and putting too much stress on them, I think it goes to what you said at the very beginning. Paying attention to the kids–really seeing what they are going through–and not focusing on ourselves. You’re so smart.

    • Well, having seen your daughter, you’re obviously doing something right, Sandra. You have a good kid!
      Yes, balance is key, though finding it is the tough part of parenting, isn’t it?

    • Thanks, Ionia and very true. When I find myself slipping into that “you kids today” mode (and I have), I can’t help recalling my own hypocrisy and how much I hated when an adult talked at me.

  12. Oh Linda, you have definitely struck a chord with me on this! Have you heard of the documentary called, Race to Nowhere,http://www.racetonowhere.com where they feature the pressure kids are under today to be the best and to compete. There is not such thing as being average anymore, everyone finds they need to strive to be above average regardless of the consequences and sacrifices. Kids are depressed, anxious and going to all extremes to be the best.

    My daughter felt this and we had to calm her down and at times force her to stop studying and get to sleep. We kept having to remind her that things didn’t have to be perfect and that her mental health was more important! This documentary has been seen all around the country/world and importantly, by college presidents who have some power to minimize the pressure on their prospective students.

    • I hadn’t, but I’m grateful you brought that up, Maria. I bookmarked the page you sent. I’ve seen how burdened teens are, with their huge backpacks and full schedules. It makes my head hurt just hearing what they have to do each day. It would be nice if test scores weren’t always the deciding factor for budgets and other aspects of education. I’m not saying that students shouldn’t strive to do their best. But my goodness. So many have hours and hours of homework! They’re exhausted.

  13. Wow, I could write a book about this subject because as the mother of teen triplets plus one tween, I have A LOT to say on the matter. Hmm, maybe I should chuck my ms’s out of the window and get started! (But, I love my ms’s because they are like my children, too.)

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