It’s been said that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. And teens? Well, they seem to be from a completely different universe! Sure, teenagers look human, but the way they speak, the way they dress, and the things they value all seem to point to an origin in a galaxy far, far away. I don’t want to “date” myself, but you have to admit, it is different. And it’s that culture that you and I have said “I’m glad I don’t have to grow up in today’s teen culture.” Ever said that?
But maybe I exaggerate. Just because some elements of the new teen culture are alien to us, doesn’t mean our kids are from another dimension (even though it can seem that way). Let’s face it; the world that our sons and daughters are growing up in is far different than the one in which we were raised. When we wrote a school paper, we had to travel to a place called “the library.” Students now have the all the information they need at their fingertips, just by visiting Google. Our TVs carried three stations. Today, teens have access to a thousand different programs, not only on TV, but on their computers and phones. I grew up respecting coaches, police, clergy, and those in authority. Our teens live in a culture where the flaws and mistakes of those in charge have left them questioning their leaders.
You could likely come up with even more differences between your world and your teen’s world. We could also spend considerable time beginning conversations with “I would have never done …” or “I couldn’t have imagined saying …” or “They didn’t have this when I was …”, but I’ve come to realize that such nostalgic comparisons don’t accomplish much. The homespun wisdom of how we navigated our world does little to help our teens survive theirs. No doubt today’s culture is vastly different, and perhaps even more dangerous, than our own. But instead of preaching the virtues of a bygone era, as moms and dads I would suggest we learn how to live in this culture, and guide our kids in the here and now.
In order to do that, let me offer a basic crash course on the universe your son or daughter currently inhabits.
The average teen today spends ten hours in front of a screen every single day. Whether it’s the computer in the classroom, the TV in the living room, or the phone in their bedroom, kids spend a lot of time with eyeballs glued to monitors. All that screen time is hurting our teens because it’s affecting their personal connections. There is a lot more communication between teens these days, but a lot less interaction between them. Kids are gaining tech skills, but losing social skills. And it’s a loss that teens acutely feel. That’s why social media is so important to young people. They are hungry for meaningful connections, and so they gravitate towards Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, texting, and IM in order to interact with those around them.
But we know that nothing can replace the act of sitting down with another human being and conversing with them face-to-face. Texts are fine. But personal conversations are so much better. Facebook friends are nice. But real friends are valuable. And more than peer-to-peer relationships, teens need a good relationship with mom and dad. To help your son or daughter navigate this connection-starved world, shut off the phone, power down the computer, and turn off the TV. Take them to coffee and talk with them. Practice meaningful conversations around your house. Show them how to communicate with a spouse and how to interact with friends. The ability to maintain and develop personal connections is an invaluable tool teens need in order to survive this culture.
As I mentioned earlier, respect for authority has dwindled in today’s climate. Authority figures don’t garner the same respect from teens anymore. But it’s not only those in authority. We live in a pessimistic society where no person or topic is off limits to derision. The ability to mock, ridicule, and sarcastically put down others is considered a virtue. Thrust into such a hostile and negative culture, it’s no wonder our kids have a tough time nurturing a sense of respect.
So how can you climb into their world and help your son or daughter navigate this problem? First, know what music, movies, TV shows and websites your child is interacting with. The purpose is two-fold. First, you can monitor what your child is being exposed to. And second, you’ll be able to actively engage in your teen’s life! When you sit down with them, you can intelligently talk about the storylines of a TV drama. You can discuss the antics of current musicians. You can understand the draw of popular video games. You may even surprise yourself and start to enjoy some of these things along with your child! And if kids find out that you know what you are talking about, you’ll earn their respect.
But if you say, “That’s a bad movie!” or “Don’t listen to that song!” simply because you don’t like it, your teen is going to see right through you. Then it’s no longer a discussion of the merits of media; it becomes a generational debate between Elvis and Lady Gaga.
If you want to teach your teenagers respect, begin by respecting them. Listen to their thoughts. Ask their opinion. You don’t have to agree with them. And you may still put your foot down about certain movies, music, or video games. But if you engage your children with respect, they will be more likely to listen to your rules. And then, model what it looks like to respect others. Speak respectfully of government leaders, even if you don’t agree with them. And don’t lob negative character assaults against people. I hear parents disparage celebrities all the time, then wonder why their teens turn around and mock and ridicule other people, as well! To gain and teach respect in this culture, you have to model it well yourself.
Here’s the truth; teens love themselves. A lot. We have given birth to a “me-first,” narcissistic generation. Many teens walk around believing that the universe revolves around their needs, wants and expectations. They think, “Success doesn’t come because we earn it; success should come because we deserve it!”
Moms and Dads, correcting this narcissistic mindset begins at home. We may have to change our own behaviors and attitudes towards our kids in order for them to change. Does your life revolve around your teen? If so, put an end to that today! Stop doing everything for your child, and let them start figuring some things out for themselves. Let your son make his lunch for school each day. Put your daughter in charge of managing her clothing budget. Give your kids chores and responsibilities around the house. Don’t drop everything to chauffer them to the mall, or help them with an over-due school project, or fix a problem they got themselves into. Parenting a teenager should feel more like coaching, and less like being a butler.
And then, as a family, volunteer to help others. If your daughter thinks the world revolves around her, take her to the rescue mission to help out. If your son thinks he is the center of the universe, encourage him to use some of his hard-earned cash to support local missionaries. When you model this kind of service as a parent, and then ask your teens to get involved, they’re more likely to join you with a willing attitude. And by serving others on a regular basis, they’ll soon sweat out any remnant of that narcissism that remains.
Teens may be from another universe. But that’s simply because they are trying to live in a culture that is vastly different than the one we used to know. As moms and dads, if we step into the culture with them, instead of standing on the sidelines shaking our heads, we’ll find that we not only understand our kids more, but we help them become better people. Remember; change starts at home. With you.
You might wonder, why is this whole topic of “Navigating Your Teen’s Universe” so important? It’s because in a world where “connections” and “respect” are missing, and “self” moves to the forefront, you, as a parent, might just be the last hope for your child. I’ve always thought that it’s not my job to pass judgment on a world that seems to be a mess, but help teens navigate through the challenges it presents in their life. And, I’ve found that my navigation in their world happens best when I make a “connection” with them, “respect” them for the challenges they face, and become “selfless”, with the intent of helping them, not just forcing what I think they need to do. Remember, kids change because of relationships, not because of my forcing a lifestyle upon them.
May the Word in you become flesh and dwell among your kids in such a way that you offer help, and hope, and light in the darkness of this teen culture that is far different from the one you and I grew up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.