By Linda Ritchie.
I have had the (many call it “questionable”) privilege of teaching teenagers for the past six years. That amounts to approximately four hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks per year – about 4 800 hours in the company of 12-18 year olds. I’m always amused by the comments I receive when people discover that I teach in a high school. Comments like: “I don’t know how you could teach teenagers – they scare me!” However, this on-the-job experience has allowed me to experience a different, and far more positive, perspective of teenagers.
Let me clarify up front that it’s definitely not my intention to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of this particular sector of the population. Teenagers are often labelled as obsessed with labels; addicted to social media; lazy; self-centred. And let’s face it, these stereotypes certainly hold true for some teenagers some of the time. (Then again, all of these labels are also true for some adults some of the time!) But, as we’re talking about clichés, we can’t and shouldn’t “paint all teenagers with the same brush”.
In fact, almost every day I have the humbling experience of seeing teenagers make a positive impact in their worlds. I watch young men and women voluntarily picking up litter and helping at Kitty and Puppy Haven. I notice teenagers in tears about abandoned babies and wearing ribbons in support of a school that suffered a terrible tragedy. I observe matric students making time to mentor and pray for young Grade 7’s. These young people are heeding Paul’s instruction to “let no one despise you for your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12, ESV).
Therefore, I believe that we do teenagers a great injustice by only viewing them through a stereotypical lens. These half-child half-adults are actually a wonderful combination of child-like perspective – that enables them to see the world as it truly is – and a belief that they have the ability to make a difference. For teenagers, the world is their oyster and they are the pearl makers.
The question is: can we do anything to enhance this positive side of teenagers? I believe the answer is “yes”. And the change begins with acknowledging the unique life-stage in which teenagers find themselves. Teenagers are transitioning from children (who are completely dependent on their parents for almost everything) to independent young adults. This change is a process. It needs practice and it certainly does not happen overnight.
I’m no expert on teenagers, but from working with hundreds of teenagers, here’s what I believe teenagers need from us to help them make this significant life-transition successfully.
Demonstrate Christ-like love
First, teenagers need to be assured of our unconditional love. The teenage years are largely characterised by identity-formation and accompanied by immense peer-pressure. During these often turbulent years, teenagers need to know that we love and accept them unconditionally. As trying as the circumstances can be! When pushed to the limits, we need to take a deep breath and ask God to help us demonstrate the type of love described in 1 Corinthians 13.
Get to Know Teenagers’ Worlds
Second, we need to learn what is going on in teenagers’ lives. When teenagers are confident that our interactions with them stem from a place of love, they feel more comfortable with expressing what is really going on in their lives – and not what they think we want to hear! Just as God, our loving Heavenly father, wants us to communicate with Him “without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17, ESV), we need to encourage teenagers to share their lives with us. After all, the generation gap is a very real thing. The world in which teenagers live today is significantly different to our experiences as teenagers 10, 20 (and more) years ago! Think about it, some of the main stressors in teenagers’ lives are linked to technology – something which didn’t even exist when some of us were teenagers. This gap makes the need to listen to teenagers and really “hear” their experiences and the choices with which they are confronted, even more important.
Decide which Choices to Allow and which to Veto
Third, from a place of love and knowledge of the realities of teenagers’ lives, we are better equipped to discern which choices to allow them to make for themselves and which choices to veto. We need to allow teenagers to make the choices that will teach them positive life-lessons, like learning that a late submission of an assignment results in a mark penalty. Equally, we need to intervene in decisions that have potentially life-destroying consequences, such as the use of harmful substances (to cite the obvious).
Apologise When We Fail
Ouch! None of us enjoys acknowledging our mistakes, but the Bible instructs us to: “Confess your sins to one another” (Jam. 5:16, ESV). Teenagers don’t need us to be perfect but they do need us to model integrity. The uncomfortable practice of admitting we made a mistake models for teenagers the principle of honest confession taught in the Bible (1 John 1:8-10. ESV). It gives them the freedom to take risks and make mistakes. It shows them what humility looks like in relationships and teaches them that cleansing only comes through owning up to sin.
Guide and Discipline in Love
Unconditional love does not equate with unconditional acceptance of all behaviours. God is the perfect example of this: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6, ESV). The world – and today’s world in particular – is a frightening place that celebrates many types of liberties and often contradicts the teachings of the Bible. Now, more than ever, teenagers need boundaries and the consequences of transgressing these boundaries.
However, discipline should fulfil three criteria: it should be fair, preceded by a warning of the consequences that will follow particular behaviours and administered in love. I have found that teenagers are generally accepting and respectful of discipline when these criteria are met. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the reinforcement of the promised consequences serves to make teenagers feel more loved and secure, because we have been true to our words. They value our consistency.
I firmly believe that there is far more to teenagers than common stereotypes and perceptions suggest. In fact, any relationship with teenagers has the potential to be mutually beneficial: we can use our life experiences to mentor and guide them and they can use their lack of life experience to show us the potential in the world around us. As Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (ESV).
There is a different and positive side to teenagers. I can vouch for that and I’d so love for more people to experience it.