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