Teenagers are a piece of work, didn’t you know? They are shallow, self-absorbed little beasts who eat their parents’ food, snicker at old ladies, and drop out of school every nine seconds. They break into grandpa’s liquor cabinet and sell drugs out of their ninth grade backpacks in the bathroom behind the baseball field. Teens destroy things. They sometimes torture cats.
If this is what you think of young adults, come hang out with me for a few days. I see things differently.
It might help to know why I care so much. I started living in Teen Land at age thirteen, and never really left. I went from high school, then to college, and right back to high school having earned a secondary teaching credential at the tender age of 21. Since then, I’ve taught public high school in the rural Ozark Mountains of Missouri, the material world of Orange County, and a middle class suburb of California’s Central Valley. Twenty-five years later, I’ve earned the right to love them.
Many of the teenagers that I know deserve respect. They are curious, vulnerable, creative and spontaneous. Most of them, even despite some horrific setbacks, have an internal spark of optimism. Some teenagers are nurtured into their hope and others simply carry it in their DNA. Nearly all of them believe in love. It will take years before some of them will see the dark weight of their world smother their dreams, but in the meantime, young people want to be shown that the world is good.
As works of art, they possess the beauty of Spring: full blooming, well-watered and without decay. The youngest ones look like colts moving across a field, long-legged and beautifully awkward. Their faces remind me of my past; their eyes are clear and wide. They’re often shy around their adult selves, having just met them, so rather than assert maturity, they sometimes introduce you to the child they used to be.
The movies turn them all into idiots while Fox News turns them all into doomed statistics. But in my classroom, I see more natural girls than beauty queens, more loyal friends than bullies, more humility than swag. Most of the young people I know still read books, still eat dinner at a table, and still know how to defend an underdog. They are also confused, impulsive, and sinfully fallen, but the last time I checked, so am I.
Here’s an interesting case study: two young men transferred into my classroom at the halfway mark of the school year, both with unimaginable challenges: no parents, a broken past, little-to-no training in the Art of Being Good. From the paperwork alone, one might consider them statistical disasters waiting to happen. And yet both of these young men, despite their battered life, carry the spark of God inside of them. They are kind and intelligent, raw and curious. I have so much to learn from them.
Now you might say these two are an anomaly, and perhaps they are. To be sure, many of the teenagers who’ve sat in my chairs have been downright nasty. But even the cat-torturers and liquor smugglers can teach us something about the world. Human beings are not disposable, not a single one.
If you think about it, teenagers don’t get to choose where they live, who’s their daddy, what they eat, or what words are spoken to them. They don’t get to change the soil from which they grow. They don’t decide whether they get a Ferrari at age sixteen or get ignored at age seven. They don’t pick out the color of their skin or the frequency of doctor’s visits. On the free will scale, they are living under a dictatorship--maybe a benevolent one or maybe a communist one--but a dictatorship nonetheless. Given that set of constraints, all while trying to become an independent adult, they should be praised often for their fortitude rather than condemned for their inexperience.
So in honor of the younger generation, here are ten things I’ve learned from teenagers:
1) God allows do-overs.
Young people know that mistakes aren’t permanent. God gives us all extraordinary grace, but sixteen year-olds tap into it with some regularity. When you watch a girl reclaim her identity after selling out to the highest bidder, that is grace at work. When you see a young man start high school with D’s and end with B’s, it inspires all of us to hit the re-set button.
2) The digital age hasn’t killed our creativity.
Contrary to our current panic merchants, the digital age hasn’t zapped our young people; it’s actually nurtured innovation. No longer are a few gatekeepers allowing only some to paint, make music, direct films, or publish poetry. The digital age has opened up a world of creative possibilities, and our young people are often leading the way.
One of the first secrets of parenting teenagers is that when they pretend they don’t give a rip, they actually do. Young people teach us to protect a man’s soul even when the exterior is hard. Your fellow man may appear self-sufficient, but who doesn’t need another’s warmth? Pay attention to the crusty ones.
4) If you believe something, be ready to explain why.
Warm fuzzies are always nice, but having clear, rational explanations builds credibility and trust. When it comes to our faith, the Holy Spirit is the primary wooer of our hearts, but if I Peter 3:15 is correct, you must also be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”
5) Life is funny.
I love the giggling, elbow-nudging, side-splitting silliness of youth. Watch a group of girls make laughter out of absolutely nothing. The endorphins are flying.
6) Hypocrisy kills a testimony.
Teenagers have a hypocrisy alarm set to go off any time that someone doesn’t keep his word. They have an instinct about posers, and it teaches us to keep our real narratives in sync with our stated narratives.
7) Teen books might actually be the ones I want to read.
Sometimes the YA bookshelf is where the good stuff is hiding. No, not the weird paranormal-meets-emo-meets-bitchy-girls stuff, but the literature that taps into the powerful archetypes of good, evil, society, love, and the human heart.
8) Insecurity feels like hell.
In case you’ve forgotten what high school can feel like, imagine standing in the center of a circus ring naked surrounded by spotlights. Telling someone he’s good and right and beautiful isn’t just some liberal self-esteem gimmick. Combined with spiritual truth and discipline, it allows a person to be whole rather than broken.
9) The proximity of family forces me to grow.
I don’t have the option of contentment and pleasure overrunning my kingdom; I have three teenagers who nudge me toward discipline and self-sacrifice every day. And it’s not noble at all--it’s often ugly. Marge Kennedy said that “The informality of family life is a blessed condition that allows us to become our best while looking our worst.”
10) We don’t “age out” of the human condition.
I would like to separate those annoying, self-absorbed hedonists under the age of 20 from my own generation, but it doesn’t work that way. The moral speeches given to our young people in churches and schools simply must be turned on ourselves in order for them to have any weight at all. If principles of purity, honesty, character, and love are good for children, why wouldn’t they be good for all of us?
So there you have it.
If you know a great young person whose value has been neglected, pass this along. And if you don’t know a great young person at all, open your eyes. They’re everywhere.