Rethinking How We Raise Teenagers
by Jan Birney
Last week, one of our former students was killed in a car accident. Of course, we are all devastated. We saw Michael almost every day as he picked up his 5th grade sister, Dominika, after school. He was both older brother and dad to his little sister, since their dad died in an accident when Dominika was a year old. Michael was as responsible as a 17 year old could be. And that is the point I want to make in this article.
This sort of thing happens all the time: teenagers in a car, drive too fast, lose control, hit a tree. Teenagers get involved in risky activities--drinking, drugs, sexual behavior, --and fail to see the consequences of their choices. At the extreme, teenagers who are at risk take guns to school and shoot their classmates, or commit other acts of violence. Some take their own lives. It has occurred to me that these behaviors are so prevalent among teenagers because adolescents are not developmentally ready to understand the implications of many of their actions.
Of course, we say that they think they're invincible, that they are at an age when they take risks, that they don't think bad things will happen to them. But I think it's more than that. I believe that we adults have done a disservice to our children. We call teenagers "young adults." We allow them to make choices about their lives that theyaren't equipped to make. We advertise our materialism to them and target-market them for movies, fast food, music, and consumer goods and expect them to make wise, discriminate choices. We have convinced them, and ourselves, that they are ready to understand the ramifications of their choices. And we are wrong. Because they are kids. And I think, but I don't have any research to back this up, but I think, that teenagers are no more ready to see the consequences of their actions than a three year old is ready to be left alone on a busy sidewalk. Just as the three year old will walk into the street, despite our admonitions not to, teenagers will make choices based upon their own limited view of the world and its realities.
So we have teenagers who smoke cigarettes despite the Surgeon General's warnings, teenagers who engage in sexual behavior, teenagers who amass credit card debt in the thousands. We have teens who wrap their cars around trees, experiment with alcohol, drugs, and firearms, and teens who take their own lives. They think they will be just fine. They can't see the consequences or how their behavior will affect their lives. Because teenagers have not grown enough to reach the level of maturity that allows them to make sound judgments.
Michael Smaga was a wonderful, responsible kid. He cared for his mom and his sister. He did his homework every night. He went to Mass each Sunday. He was a "mature" 17 year old. But he was a 17 year old. And he and his friends were just doing what 17 year olds are hard-wired to do. Because they're kids.
We adults need to start paying attention and rethinking how we raise teenagers. They deserve to be protected just as we protect our three year olds from busy streets.
The above is the text of an email I sent to a friend several days before the most recent school shootings. These tragic events reinforce for me the importance of the responsibility we, as adults, bear in order to protect our children, sometimes from themselves and their impulsive natures. We spend so much time teaching toddlers that the stove is hot-"Don't touch!" We are careful to feed our babies the finest organic, preservative-free baby foods. We would never think of allowing our pre-schoolers to play alone on a busy sidewalk. We make sure our kindergartners wear their galoshes in the snow. Why do we abandon our middle-schoolers to advertisers and entertainment media purveyors? Why do we think for one minute that teenagers are capable of making rational choices in social situations where bravado trumps safety? "Wear your seat belt!" "Don't drink and drive!" "Obey the speed limit!" Why do we think they will listen to us? Why do we believe that any child, no matter how ghastly or foolish or impulsive his or her behavior, deserves to be considered an adult, when that child cannot possibly understand the ramification of the choices he or she has made? And why, when we fail to teach them, or they fail to absorb the lesson, do we insist that they are ready to bear the full consequences and punishments, as if they were fully formed, mature adults?
Our children need to be protected, from the adults who peddle disaster to them, from each other when they turn in anger and violence on their peers, and sometimes, from themselves, when the choices they make render consequences they can't possibly understand.