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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Acknowledging Teenagers

I had quite an enlightening conversation with a group of teenagers the other day and thought I'd share some pieces of it. In school that day, the class had been shown a documentary film. I don't have the full details on the film, but rather imagine it was something to discourage drug addiction. It maybe linked drug use with poverty and child neglect and a whole lot of angst. I'm not judging the film, just explaining the context of the conversation. So somehow the lesson, or the interpretation of the lesson by this group of teenagers, was that people (insert teenagers in particular I guess) should be doing more to help others. This group of teenagers was upset by that and perhaps a little overwhelmed by the enormity of that task. As we talked, one of them said, "Why don't they realize that we're already doing good things, instead of telling us what we aren't doing or should be doing." We explored this a bit more- which means; I listened, and they talked, having forgot I was an "adult". As a group, they really feel they are criticized by adults, and perhaps the school system, instead of being acknowledged for the good they do.

One of my best friends in the world, is a high school teacher. She has an incredible way with teenagers. She doesn't just teach them academics. They come to her with all manners of problems. She has been known to sit with them through cancer treatments, to hug them through funerals and to counsel them through suicidal thoughts. Not because she's trying to "save them" or "fix them", because they want her there. They show up at her house years after they have left the school system, just to thank her, tell her what they have achieved, or share a laugh with her about life in general.

Once this friend and I were heading into a store in the early evening. Clustered around the front of the store, was a group of teenagers, just kind of "hanging out". I had already, in the few seconds of our approach, judged them as a bit of a threat. My friend walked right up to them, completely unintimidated and had a friendly conversation with them. It was nothing heavy or preachy, just a casual conversation like you might have if you saw some women your own age waiting under a bus stop. Later, over a glass or two of wine, I asked her about the encounter. She told me that teenagers know adults are afraid of them and they don't understand why. Adults expect that teenagers are "up to no good" no matter where they are or what they are doing. This fear, or criticism for no reason, sometimes becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy. Teenagers figure if we're going to think the worst of them anyway, what's the point trying to act otherwise. If nothing else, it puts up a barrier that discourages conversation and interaction on a meaningful level. My friends' approach is very simple. She just treats them like people! Imagine that. It's also very successful. I've tried to follow her lead.

So when I was talking to the teenagers about the documentary and why they were upset, I remembered my friend's advice. I realized what these teenagers were saying was a lot along the same lines. They sense, even if it's not actually said, that adults don't think they care or are concerned enough, about drug addictions and poverty and teenage pregnancies. I think we are wrong. They do care. They are aware. And the majority of them are doing wonderful, incredible things, that we don't even begin to understand.

Anyone who has, or has been exposed to teenagers in the past few years, knows how out of date today's picture is. For one thing, no self-respecting teenager is talking on a phone with a cord! And not many would be texting on a cell phone without also being plugged into a music device of some sort that is probably also connected to the Internet and some type of social media at the same time. If that sentence gets your "hackles up" a bit- you're an adult. If you think "technology is evil", they should be outside playing something or another instead of inside stuck to the computer devices- you've started to judge. I know because I've been there. We are afraid of "teenage weapons"- technology. We don't understand their world so we decide they are "up to no good". They sense that judgement call and insert the earplugs to tune us out and retreat.

I told the teenagers about an event that has stuck in my head. I was traveling for work and in an effort to get outside for a bit of a walk, found myself a little lost, in not a great part of the city, not really sure exactly where my hotel was. It was getting dark and my "fight or flight" reflexes were up. I turned a corner and met up with a homeless person pushing a shopping cart of possessions. Our eyes met. It was a second in time, yet years later, I can close my eyes and still see him. We didn't say anything to each other- that's the part I regret. Because I saw something in that man that was very powerful. He was "doing good" and I know that with every cell of my being. I don't think we had much in common, we probably wouldn't understand or be comfortable in each other's lifestyle, but we are both in this world to "be". And that alone, is a purpose and is "something good".

So the other day, I told "my" group of teenagers, that to me, they are a bit like that homeless man. We don't always have a lot in common. We don't understand, nor would we be comfortable with each other's lifestyle. But we are all doing "something good". Rather than be afraid of them, or assume the worst from them, when our eyes meet, or we are having an opportunity to share, I'm going to listen to them. I'll ask questions, and I'll share my thoughts and opinions as well. I know they are "doing something good", and that should be acknowledged.

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