Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Teens Need

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. -May Sarton

^ Welcome to the sunshine, little cherub. Looks like you could use a bath.

This was the kind of gorgeous spring day that makes a long, grey Seattle winter worth every gloomy moment. Because today, the sun shone with not only glory but also with purpose. The air was warm, the breeze was sweet, the song of nature alive and well filled my ears.

So you know I dropped everything and ran outside. Ain't nobody got time for inside chores when the sun is shining in the Pacific Northwest. 

I spent all day in my gardens, pulling wicked weeds, pruning roses, raking out old leaves, and letting my mind run pleasantly amok. Garden time is thinking time, and I always enjoy seeing where my thoughts will take me.

^ These soon-to-be red tulips were the very first flowers I planted when I moved into my house. And when they bloom every spring, I feel very satisfied.

Today, my mind was on teenagers. Now make no mistake, as long as there have been human beings shuffling around this planet, there have undoubtedly been teens. But something about our culture has accentuated and complicated these years of hormones and growth. Teens as well as the adults who love and tend them don't always see eye to eye, but most would probably agree that these are difficult times.

And while I don't necessarily claim to have definitive answers, my experiences as a mom, youth leader, teacher and friend to the sassy rascals have led me to some strong opinions about what teens truly need to survive, thrive and move ahead with their lives.

^ Soft green leaves unfurling from a tender delphinium stem. If you slugs attack those precious bits, I will hunt you down and throw you in the street. Mark my words. 

As anyone who has ever gone to the mall on the weekend knows, teenage girls are highly social creatures. They define themselves by their relationships and social circles; they draw great meaning from their friends. 

But girls need much more than peer group socialization. 

* * * * *

Teenage girls need time with younger children, to practice and enjoy their fledgling maternal instincts. Pets can serve the same purpose, which explains why so many teenage girls are fascinated with dogs, cats, horses, gerbils and unicorns. 

Teenage girls need close relationships with a variety of adult women, to experience and catalog the rich variety of ways in which one can be a woman. These friendships can help a teenage girl see herself in new ways, which often makes her feel competent, connected and more grown-up.

Teenage girls need to spend time with their mothers. Even if there is an undercurrent of hostility and snarky push-backs (duh), it's a no-brainer that mothers are the single most important model for emerging young women and spending time together is vitally important for both. Daughters need ongoing assurances that their mothers love and respect them as separate, independently-minded and perfectly capable young adults. And mothers need to spend time listening to and learning about their daughters, in order to earn the right to occasionally speak truth into their young lives.

And teenage girls need close fathers and father-figures. Healthy, protective, nurturing relationships with mature men are absolutely essential for young women. As they discover their emerging sexuality and begin to choose romantic partners for themselves, our girls need constant reminders of how a real man treats a woman. When teen girls feel safe and protected by the mature men in their lives, they are less likely to get mixed up in unhealthy romantic relationships, and more likely to break things off quickly if they do.

In their deepest hearts, teenage girls are seeking love and belonging. They thrive when they feel protected, and they crave opportunities to nurture.

^ Jagged sage green petals of a fall-blooming sedum. Wait. Let's not talk about fall yet. I need some summer sunshine!

Now, I'm not saying that teenage boys don't need relationships. Of course, they benefit from a rich variety of connections with peers, younger kids, and caring adults of both genders. That's a given.

But as teenage girls define themselves almost exclusively in terms of relationships with other people, teenage boys tend to define themselves in relation to things.

* * * * *

Teenage boys need to test themselves against the world. Robotics, fencing, lacrosse, hiking, chess, Call of Duty, soccer, and snowboarding rail jams are all twenty-first century mechanisms that allow boys to compete against one another and prove themselves worthy. But we adults often overlook the most historically obvious and physically demanding form of testing for young men: doing chores. Teenage boys benefit from relevant, demanding chores, preferably outside in the elements.  By making such a contribution, young men are able to not only challenge themselves, but also to see how their efforts affect other people's welfare.

Teenage boys thrive when they can see that there are real, concrete, natural consequences for their behavior. If you don't handle the ax properly, you will cut off a finger. If you don't keep your eye on the ball, you will strike out. If you don't brush your teeth, girls will think you are gross. Our boys struggle when they find themselves in situations where the consequences don't seem to matter. Grades, for example, are often too abstract and seemingly inconsequential to the young male mind. Getting grounded can also seem like a short-term annoyance, and well worth the hassle for a night of wild fun.

Teenage boys must be allowed to fail. Girls can often learn through the experiences of others, but boys almost always have to learn important lessons through the school of hard knocks. Our culture is remarkably risk-adverse, and it's hard for us parents to stand back and let our boys fall flat on their faces. Yet the sooner and more completely we let them fail, the better these young men will teach themselves what they need to know. 

Teenage boys need respectful, manly relationships with grown men. There's an amazing bond that develops almost wordlessly when mature men spend time together, and teenage boys who spend much of their lives with talkative females need the balance of some quality man-time. And besides learning about Fantasy Football and what sauce to order with the next basket of wings, teenage boys need men who show them what it means to be responsible, honorable, and a good husband and father.

By the ripe old age of 12 or 13, most boys are aching to become men. Teenage boys thrive when they are allowed to challenge themselves, and expected to live with the consequences of their actions.

^ Sunny purple petals explode from a green ribbed pot, and a happy post-walk Ranger rests in the shady grass.

All these thoughts flitted and floated through my mind as I weeded, raked, cultivated and accidentally squeezed the occasional slug with my bare fingers.

It occurred to me that guiding a young person through the challenging and often stormy teenage years is a bit like enduring a long, hard winter. There are days when the darkness seems unbearable, there are moments where one feels like the end to these difficult times will never come.

But trust me, the day will come when the sunshine of maturity suddenly bursts forth, and that sullen, moody, irritable, reclusive, sassy teen will reinvent him or herself as a young adult with glory and purpose.

And that, my friend, will be a very special day indeed.

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