There’s a novelty sign, hanging in many a home, that goes as follows:
TEENAGERS – Tired of being harassed by your parents?
ACT NOW – Move out, Get a job, & Pay your own way,
QUICK – While you still know everything!
Adults like to post this sign to make light of the real-life situation they often find themselves in, that of being endlessly criticized and lectured by their ‘know-it-all’ teenagers. Most parents of teenagers are very familiar with being told just exactly how stupid they are by a kid with no drivers’ license, no job, and no plans for his future. People who take on the difficult job of raising more than one teenager get the pleasant experience repeated for their efforts. It may even appear that the more teenagers you have and raise, the stupider you actually are, as illustrated by how frequently your children berate your ridiculous decisions.
The funniest thing about this novelty sign is that teens don’t object to it being posted, and sometimes they post it themselves, as they are generally in agreement with what it says. They are, in fact, tired of being harassed by their parents. They want desperately to move out, get a job, and pay their own way, and they want to do it now because they are quite convinced that they do know everything. When they compare how stupid their parents are with how brilliant they and their friends are, they aren’t kidding. They’re being totally serious. They are completely convinced that the adults are doing ridiculous things and that, if allowed to rule the world, kids would do it much better.
That’s where the argument gets interesting. I love to work with teenagers. I was born in 1968, which makes me truly ancient in their eyes, and almost completely incapable of knowing anything of any importance. To work with them effectively, I accept that premise and I look to them as the expert on their own life. This is key to getting a teen to think critically about their own thoughts, ideas, opinions, and plans.
You see, teens are so critical, judgmental, and opinionated because they just acquired the cognitive skills necessary to consider hypothetical situations, to project alternative endings, to compare and contrast ideas without having to see the projects go to completion. They have just learned to do mental gymnastics and they really have fun trying out all their new thinking skills. This is what makes many teens look like promising young lawyers. They are learning to look at an issue from every possible standpoint, no matter how ridiculous. And this is what causes them to think the older generation is so stupid.
Teens are not hampered by a lot of life experience. They haven’t failed a whole lot of things yet. They haven’t had that many bad experiences. They still think everything is possible, and that’s what I really love about teens. They are so full of life and ideas and passion. Now, not all of their ideas are that good, and not all of the projects they want to undertake will succeed, and some of the things about which they are passionate may not matter to them in the long run, but I don’t think that’s up to me to dictate. That’s their choice to make and in therapy, I help them to make those choices themselves and I teach their parents how to guide them in making their own choices as well. The time to tell a kid what to do is over by the teenage years. At that point, you’ve already told them what you want them to do, over and over and over. They know. They’ve heard you. Now it’s time for them to try out different things they want to do and your job is to stand nearby, supervise, and help them accept the consequences of their actions, both good or bad. Not that you should let your child jump off a cliff or smoke crystal meth, but it’s okay to let them make minor choices about things in their life and experience the consequences of those choices so they learn how to make choices. The more they learn about making choices while they are a teen, the better choices they’ll make as an adult.
So, sometimes it’s okay to accept that a teen knows enough about himself and his life to make choices that might not be the same choices you’d make for him. Let him make some of those choices, quick, while he still knows everything.