I spent last week with around 200 young people. Every morning, I sat around drinking coffee, listening to a group of 20 teenagers discuss things like minimum wage, abortion, poverty, same-sex marriage, welfare reform, the legalization of marijuana, and society’s standards of beauty. In the afternoons, I sat in a circle with 16-year-old girls and talked with them about what stresses them, what they love to do, whom they go to for advice, and what is important to them.
Every summer I spend a week at this camp. And every summer I feel like some sort of undercover agent, a mom infiltrating a society of teenagers and learning their secrets — which aren’t very secret at all, by the way. I like to think I’m giving back to West Virginia 4-H, the program which contributed so much to making me who I am today. But really, I am the recipient. I am the student learning from these young teachers. Spending a week with them and learning from them makes me a better mom.
Yesterday, I realized I’ve been selfish. I’ve kept this information to myself. Maybe you, my bloggy friends, need to learn from these young people too. Maybe we all need these reminders. So here goes —
First, I want to tell you that I’m always so impressed with these young adults. Sometimes the comment section of the internet can make you want to stab your eyes out with a fork so you’d never have to read another comment section again. The hatefulness and harshness and ugliness of the comment section can make us lose all faith in humanity. My morning discussion class at camp was a beautiful, lovely antidote to the internet comment section. These young men and women talked about hard things, controversial things. We boldly stepped right out into potential conversation minefields, but these kids gently and intelligently peeled layers and layers away to get to the core of the issues. They disagreed kindly and with respect. They asked questions and then truly listened to each other with an eagerness to learn. And they made me laugh a lot. This week, I was reminded that it’s easier to discuss hot-button issues when you share a sense of humor and laugh together.
As I spent time in the discussion class and with my group of girls and one-on-one with campers and at meals with these young people, I listened hard. I listened for what was deep in the words they said. And I came away with four main things kids want or need from their parents.
1. Our kids want us to put down our phones and really listen to them. I hear adults talk about how kids these days are always looking at their phones, but we are just as guilty — maybe even more guilty. Our kids need eye contact with us. They want to know they are more important than whatever we are doing on our phones – more important than a status update, more important than Bejeweled or Candy Crush or whatever. I am sad to say that I’m guilty of this too often, but I am trying to do better. I’m trying to put down the phone or close the laptop or stop whatever I am doing and look my kid in the eye whenever he wants to talk to me. The teenagers I spent the past week with want to talk to their parents, but they don’t want to compete with Words with Friends or Twitter.
2. Our kids need us to provide downtime for them and allow them to say No. Teenagers are stressing out about their AP classes and sports and band and choir and college admissions tests. Their schedules are full. They worry about having enough time to do the piles of homework they have in addition to all their extracurricular activities. They need us to tell them over and over and over again that we only want them to do the things they LOVE and that it’s OK to say NO to everything else. They need us to give them time to sleep or play board games with the family or watch funny videos and laugh together. Our kids feel a lot of stress and pressure, and they need us to help alleviate that instead of add to it.
3. Our kids need to know that we love them, no matter what. They need to know that if they fail algebra or choose not to play a sport or sit on the bench the entire season, we will love them. If they disagree with us, if they get pregnant or have an abortion, if they are gay, if they smoke pot, if they go off to college and become Calvinists, if they drop out of band, if they get a tattoo, if they don’t get a part in the play — no matter what, we will love them. Our kids need us to tell them often that our love for them is not based on their performance. They aren’t earning our love. It’s free and plentiful, and they have our love simply because they belong to us. The young people I know want to please their parents, and they are worried about letting their parents down. We have to assure them and reassure them and reassure them that we love them. No matter what.
4. Our kids need us to be honest about our own shortcomings. When we make mistakes, our kids need us to own those mistakes and apologize. They need to see that we are human, that we fail and learn from our failures. They need to see us humbly confess when we have messed up. Our kids want us to tell them we’re sorry when we are wrong. When we are too proud to admit our own humanity to our children, we rob them of an authentic relationship with us and we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to humbly grow and learn from our mistakes. The teenagers I know want genuine relationships with their parents. And they can’t have genuine relationships with parents who aren’t honest about their own shortcomings.
So there you have it — the four big things I heard from young people last week. The good news is — friends, we can do this!
We can put down our phones and look our kids in the eyes and listen.
We can give our teenagers downtime and let them know we don’t expect them to do forty million extra activities and make straight A’s in every AP class their school offers.
We can tell our kids we love them often. We can praise who they are more than we praise what they do. We can straight up tell them we will love them if they flunk math or score on their own team’s goal or squeak their way right out of concert band.
And we can be honest about our mess-ups. We can apologize when we lose our cool or when we overreact. We can tell our kids about that speeding ticket we got or about the time we missed curfew.
We can do this. These four things are totally do-able, Parents.
Let’s start today – pick one of these things to do right away. Then please let us know in the comment section what specific ways you’re doing these things for your kids. Let’s use this comment section to help each other out and encourage each other. Let’s be like the young people in my class and listen with an eagerness to learn from each other.