Teenagers: Tears, Fears and Warnings

Young people cry at funerals. Old people cry at weddings. The tears reflect fears. We know too much. Everyone cries at graduations because we know too little. No one knows what’s around the bend for the young grads anxious for the next chapters in their lives. Last Saturday presented a perfect bright and warm morning with the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue. Although my responsibilities are such now that I didn’t need to be there, I watched a hundred young people graduate from a prestigious Ontario private school. I watched tears and at one moment felt the welling of my own. But I knew the question that had me wiping my eye.

All schools do graduations well. They are worth the pomp. This one takes place every June on a massive lawn under a big, sparkling white tent. Parents are seated to the left of the front long tables with graduates and next year’s grads to the right and staff and faculty at the back. As speakers speak it is always fun to watch the three groups react differently. I listened, sort of, but my mind wandered and as I scanned faces I wondered.

I wondered how many of the seventeen-year-olds sitting in their sharp jackets and striped ties realized just how proud the group behind and beside them were of their efforts and of them. They were all more beautiful and healthy than they will ever be, shining in their youth and bursting with potential. Yet they sat largely oblivious to the fact that by graduating from this place, with their families, in this country, at this time in history, they were already on second base without even having swung the bat. But that’s okay. The dumb luck circumstances of their births had nothing to do with them but neither was it their fault.

The parents and teachers knew that and more. They understood that the young people had earned a right to be a little self-satisfied today for, after all, teenage years are tough.

Teenagers- Tears, Fears and Warnings

Here they are still searching for identity while their bodies continue to change and often betray them. Here they are with brains still not fully wired and therefore unable to fully and accurately read people and situations but being held to adult standards. Here they are stuck in our society’s drawn-out childhood when for thousands of years and in other places they would be an adult with adult decisions and responsibilities. Here they are being forced to pick university courses that will determine their futures when they really tell us what they want to be when they grow up only so we’ll stop asking.

It’s amazing that with all of that, and for many of them much more, they keep going, smiling and trying. They made it all the way to this moment. For many of them, after all, and especially for far too many girls, high school is not a sanctuary but a battlefield. Too many people put teenagers down for the actions and attitudes of a few. It doesn’t matter where the teenagers attend school or who their parents are, hormones don’t care and society’s dangerous messages and temptations don’t discriminate.

I would rather accept that there are a few unfortunate teenagers just as there are many unfortunate adults and instead consider the many. I am in awe of the vast majority of teenagers for their generosity, energy, intellectual curiosity, and goofiness. I admire the resilience they muster in the face of so much and so many stacked against them.

Resilience, in fact, was the theme of one of the speeches that I found particularly poignant. The headmaster spoke of failing forward. The notion, he explained, is that we learn more from failure than success. We learn what works and what doesn’t. We learn of our own character as it deepens through our growing ability to adapt to circumstances without sacrificing values. Anyone, the headmaster said, can experience a failure. Only if you refuse to learn, accept responsibility, or try again do you become a failure.

It was an excellent point to make and especially to those gathered that day beside parents with the financial ability to have constructed a net beneath them of sufficient strength that any failure or fall would be recoverable. I wondered how many of the young people really absorbed the message. I guess I wondered, as I do when I see wedding day tears staining wrinkled cheeks if winter can ever warn the spring.

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Two Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

You should never try to teach a dog to whistle for it will result in nothing more than frustrating yourself and annoying the dog. Similarly, there are questions that you should never ask a teenager. The two most important are these:

Question One: What were you thinking?

Last Saturday evening I was leaning on a railing enjoying the majestic view of the river and parliament buildings from Ottawa’s beautiful Major Hill Park. Then, far below, a young man had missed the Frisbee thrown by a friend and they were staring forlornly into Rideau Canal’s shallow, stagnant water fifty feet down.

The taller, skinnier one was suddenly climbing down the lead used by boats in the summer. A small crowd gathered at my railing. We were too far away to intervene but some giggled, some shook their heads, and, like me, others held their breaths.

Two Essential Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

Rideau Canal from the park (www.tripadvisor.com)

At the bottom of the cable, the young man found himself six feet or so from his little yellow toy. He clamoured back up. Soon he had descended again, had a leg linked over the bottom of the cable, and was precariously dangling upside down. He’d gone Cirque du Soleil on us. His friend then dropped a long stick that he miraculously caught. He used it to snag the Frisbee and then sailed it back to the top. Clearly exhausted, he slowly climbed out with his legs visibly shaking. Our little crowd dispersed as our two heroes commenced a spirited victory dance.

Why did he do what could have led to a serious injury or death? It was his brain’s fault.

You see, the last part of our brains to become fully functional is the pre-frontal cortex. It is just behind the forehead. It is the area responsible for being responsible. It links cause and effect. The incomplete wiring renders teenagers not unwilling but unable to fully comprehend situations that adults would consider socially awkward or inherently dangerous. As a result, teenagers often embarrass or infuriate adults or take what an adult would consider crazy risks like, for instance, climbing into a deep, concrete canal.

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

(Photo: sharpbrains.com)

The nucleus accumbens is another part of the story. That is near the back of our brain and is the first to develop. In teenagers, the impulses flowing through that wiring work overtime. It is the pleasure seeking, reward loving part of the brain. It is the part that inspires action not because it would be right or safe but only because it would be fun. With no frontal cortex to warn of risks, the teenagers are off to the party, into the fast car, skipping away from class, or, like last Saturday, lowering themselves down canal walls.

I wish I had been closer so that I could have warned our young friend about what he was about to do. I could have done as good parents and teachers do and, like a computer’s remote hard drive, acted as his remote pre-frontal cortex. But we spectators were all too far away. And it was just as well there were no adults waiting at the top when he emerged to ask our young climber what he was thinking. His honest answer would have been, “I was not thinking at all.”

Question Two: What do you want to be?

This question is dumb for three reasons. First, it implies that the teenager is nothing now. That’s insulting.

Second, the question is probing for a profession. The problem is that most teenagers don’t know and so will just proffer an answer likely to please. Why encourage lying? Further, according to Forbes magazine, teenagers today will have 15 to 20 jobs in their working lives. So why ask the question left over from the days of gold watches? Plus, one or more of those occupations will likely involve a job that does not now exist. So how can a teenager know what their job or jobs will be?

Most important of all, though, is that the question perpetuates the sad habit of defining oneself by a job. It’s the game show mentality of defining questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? It’s what crushes the souls of the un- and underemployed, led to baby boomer suicides after the 2008 crash, and makes retirement difficult for far too many. What am I if I am not the teacher, lawyer, or whatever? If a person is more than their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, ability, and body shape, then are they not also more than their job?

So if an adult asks a teenager what they want to be, a good answer would be this: “I hope to be an engaged citizen, a person of good character, a responsible parent, and a person who loves and is loved.” In fact, that would be a good answer for even those of us with fully wired brains.

For now, let’s avoid both questions. Instead, let’s enjoy our non-whistling dogs and the teenagers who are doing the best they can.

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