working with teenagers: adults are boring

I have often lamented in life that adults suck, pure and simple. What I’m realizing as I grow older (biologically, at least) is that adults have innate perspectives that just come naturally from constantly shouldering responsibility. In working with youth, I have been lucky enough to catch myself when I realize some of the bad habits that adults use.

A great example is that the other day, I was out with Kevin and I mentioned to him how I totally had a brain fart. I had driven to the grocery store, happened to forget my wallet at home, had to drive home and then back to the store to pick something up. After telling my story, Kevin, in turn, started telling about how he got stuck at work one time because he forgot his bus pass. In true adult fashion, I thought about it for a second, and my first response was, “so how did you get home?”

The second I said that, it dawned on me that adults are boring. My immediate reaction was to examine the logistics of solving the problem instead of enjoying the story for the humorous life experience. I’ll admit I felt slightly deflated that I would do that. I realized, though, that I was asking that because in my adult mind, problems like that are commonplace — achieving objectives as efficiently as possible. A teenager would approach the problem from a totally different perspective than an adult would, and while there’s nothing strange about that, it shows off my character a bit that I was interested in the details of the experience more than Kevin’s viewpoint and how he felt about the whole thing.

Another thing that I have noticed recently is that I absolutely *freak out* when teenagers start talking to me about things they want to do, because I see them as long-term decisions that they are jumping into. The reality is often that, for them, it is either just a short-term decision or some options they are exploring in their head.

I’ll use Kevin as an example again (poor kid … he sure gets the brunt of my learning experiences). One time he told me that he wanted to work at a fast food joint. My adult brain quickly translated this to mean, “I’m considering an exciting life-long career in becoming a hamburger whisperer.” I remember that I was so shell-shocked that my brain locked up and I started staring off into space. I felt myself going into insta-lecture mode, which, I knew, would not be the best course of action. After a few seconds I realized I hadn’t said anything, and I just kind of mumbled an inquisitive “Okay …”. Internally my mind was racing and wondering how in the world I can immediately reverse this dangerous line of thought.

The reality was much different from my hastily-constructed vision. He wanted to find somewhere close to work to his house so that his mom didn’t have to drive him there. My crazy adult instincts, though, just jumped to the worst-case scenario and prepared myself to drop a bomb of logic and a long talk on the glamour of working with fattening foods as a lifestyle.

I believe responding with a lecture after someone tells you what they think is not good, because it’s not creating an environment where they feel like they can talk to you. The best thing to do, I’ve found, is to listen to them and not offer feedback until it’s requested — and even then, be moderate and say things like, “have you considered … ?” It’s incredibly hard to hold my tongue sometimes, especially when I think someone could be cruising straight down Dead End Alley.

One principle that I try to adhere too is that if I feel so strongly about something that I think is important, then it’s going to take time to craft a proper response. Flipping out is not going to help, because my initial reaction is going to be emotionally charged.

When it comes to responsibilities, I’ve always thought that adults always focus too much on how important they are. What I have noticed in my life is that while they *are* important, they are not *everything*.

Too often I completely ignore the simple things in life that make it worth living. Things like pursuing dreams, making close friends, enjoying autonomy and having a purpose in life. Adults seem intent to make youth realize the effects of their life decisions in the major areas, but totally ignore the secondary ones. And naturally, I forget those things as well. Frankly, the last thing I want to be is boring by focusing only on a few of the big things.

I found this great book recently, titled “Befriending Your Teenager.” I rolled my eyes when I saw the cover, because I was like, “Oh my froof, this sounds like some pootsie pants who thinks if you give them a hug and a smile, they will come to you asking for apple pie or something.” It turns out that the author has been a youth pastor for years, and that this is the most awesome book I’ve read yet. I think a better title is in order though … something like, “This Is Why Teenagers Think Adults Suck.” Maybe I’ll write a book like that some day.

There is an excerpt that I want to quote verbatim, because it is exactly how I have always perceived things when I was a teenager:

“As adults we often appear to have failed at happiness. We walk through our lives with a shroud of stress over our shoulders, talking to one another as if the goal of life was to stay busy and serious. We wag a finger in the faces of adolescents, telling them of the perils of the real world. We seldom talk to teenagers of anything but grades, drugs, sex, SAT scores, and how the human condition and world are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Oh, sure, we try to compensate with an occasional pep talk about how these youths are the hope of the future, or how they can be anything they want to be, but both adolescents and adults fail to believe this tired little speech.

Today’s teenager probably does not need to hear any wornout pep talk or any cliche that simplifies the staggering complexity of modern living. What today’s teenager needs is to know that becoming an adult is not some bland, bleak experience of boredom, intermittently interrupted by storms of grief or showers of joy. Is it any wonder so many youth question the value of life when we adults make adulthood a rat race, an endurance test of back-breaking, heart-breaking, spirit-breaking difficulty? Think about it. When was the last time your teenager, or the youth you work with and care about, saw *you* really laugh, really look happy? I have come to realize that I owe it to these young people to share openly my happiness; more importantly, the greatest gift I can give them is a happier me. If we want them to choose life, which I know we deeply do, we must make adulthood–the bulk of every lifetime–more appealing, much happier. We do not need to hide our struggles from them, but we do need to let them see our joy, our delight in being alive.”

What I got from reading this was basically, it’s okay to let teenagers see that I have emotions too, that I struggle with things as well, and that my emotions are the same ones that they have. Then for me to share those experiences with them — not putting the burdens on them to help me solve them, but rather let them know that life continues to be both challenging and rewarding … just in different ways.

The idea of sharing my feelings about how things were going in *my* life never occurred to me at all before reading this book. My general attitude has been, “I am here to teach you and ask you how you are doing, and focus on your problems. My life is totally perfect, so I am in a great position here to make this a one-way relationship.” I think, though, that as youth see me as a human, that they will be both impressed that an adult would open up to them, and also see that it’s possible to trust someone with your emotions.

I can say that it is really hard to apply these principles in working with youth. It’s hard to know what the best approach is all the time, and it’s a real struggle for me as I search to find some good methods that bring positive results. Anytime that I come up against some advice like this, though, that is counterintuitive to how adults naturally approach things … that’s when I think I must really be onto a good idea. 🙂

4 comments on “working with teenagers: adults are boring

  1. Ryan

    That quote is true. For about half my adolescent years our scout leader was all about the insta-lecture. It didn’t help that he was an avid backpacker. Scout night and activities were something more akin to see how many times soandso will freak out.

    No wonder then that attendance was lackluster!

    Later on we got a new leader who…I guess he was just tuned into these principles, and because of that I want to say that he was just a big kid (which isn’t true, looking back he had a lot of heavy burdens to shoulder in his life). His big “reform” was basically to let us have fun. Whenever we went for a camp out he’d made sure that we could have Dutch oven cobbler every night, and even more importantly, he knew the magic ratio of about 3 cans of whipped cream to every cobbler. I’m sure he expected responsibility out of us as well, but looking back I just remember that he wanted us to have fun because he wanted to have fun. Two drastically different approaches with two different results.

    1. beandog Post author

      Hey Ryan, thanks for the comment … it somehow totally flew under my radar and I just barely noticed it tonight.

      Interestingly, I can relate to a lot of the stuff about your new camp leader. I’m pretty much the same way. Man, real life is way too insane to not want to have fun. It’s a good way to relax and work with others whose problems are totally different. 🙂

  2. Greg

    “Oh my froof, this sounds like some pootsie pants…” Is definitely the my favorite phrase from this post…well said! ;-D

  3. velda

    Anyone who refers to work in a fast-food joint as “an exciting life-long career in becoming a hamburger whisperer” isn’t boring. Just sayin. And I’m sure both of your LBs would agree.

    Thanks for being one who most certainly aids in allowing my kids to see me laugh out loud on a regular basis. Here’s to all the happy years ahead!


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