Teenagers have opinions. If you spend any time at all around them, this will not be surprising to you.
It might, however, surprise you to know that their opinions often sound a lot like yours.
During the past week, I have engaged students several times with questions about the upcoming Super Bowl. In the closing moments of class, I asked the students whether they believe the Patriots did, in fact, purposely deflate footballs during their recent game against the Colts. We discussed whether the team’s history of cheating should be a factor. We discussed whether it matters that the game likely would have ended the same way regardless of the deflation. And we discussed the NFL’s role in the controversy, and how it affects everyone involved.
I have lost count of the number of times that students used the phrases “My mom says” or “My dad told me.” Which might not seem like a big deal to you. But it’s huge to me, because it tells me that they are listening.
Last school year, an 8th-grade girl decided that she didn’t like me much. She and I were frequently at odds because she wasn’t interested in doing her work.
One afternoon, at the end of class, I asked the students whether our government has a responsibility to provide nutritional shakes for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who refuse to eat the meals that are provided.
And the 8th-grade girl absolutely came alive.
She offered an intelligent, reasonable opinion about the issue. She listened intently when kids on the other side of the issue disputed her facts. And then she engaged again, displaying a good understanding of the background of the story.
When I met her dad a few weeks later at a birthday party for our kids, I shared the story with him, and told him that I was really encouraged by her understanding of the issue. And he was absolutely stunned. Because he was certain that she wasn’t hearing anything he said to her at home. He was convinced that she was “checked out” and that his efforts to educate her about the world were fruitless.
The take-away from this is that teenagers are listening. They hear the opinions around them, and they retain much of what they hear.
We can empower our teenagers by asking their opinions: about politics, current events, sports, and anything else happening in the world. We can ask their opinions about things that happen at home, and problems we’re trying to solve in our own lives.
We’ll be giving them an opportunity to think about the things they know and figure out how those things affect them. We’ll be challenging them to become problem solvers. And, most importantly, we’ll teach them the value of dialogue, which our country sorely needs.
It’s worth noting, though, that ours aren’t the only voices they hear. They hear from teachers, administrators, coaches and peers. They also hear from the media and the Internet. And we have little control over those other voices.
It’s possible, too, that if we never ask teenagers their opinions, we’ll raise a generation of kids who base their opinions solely on what other people say. They won’t understand that they have a right to share their own perspectives, and they won’t know that disagreement can be a great motivator. They will rely entirely on other people to shape their beliefs, and they won’t appreciate how their own experiences make them unique from other people.
Given that the world is full of people who could lead our teenagers in the wrong direction, this isn’t a chance we should take.
Ask teenagers their opinions: about school rules; about choices they face; about issues challenging our nation. Engage them in discussions about the world around them. Challenge their opinions about the things they believe. (Admittedly it’s a little easier for me, because I have a captive audience: law requires these kids to be in class and, in their minds, discussion usually trumps written work.)
My relationship with the 8th-grader changed that day, largely because I saw a side of her I’d never noticed before. I discovered her interest in politics, and it gave me a sense of what motivates her. She and I regularly talked politics after that day, and I learned quite a bit from her.
She taught me that teenagers care about the world. She reminded me that they have ideas about how to make things better. And she reminded me that we sometimes forget to ask for their input.
There are likely moments when you have a captive audience, too: when you’re driving him to yet another social event or driving her to soccer practice. Tell her what you think. Challenge her ideas.
Arm your teenager to distinguish between positive and negative voices. Make sure your voice is one of the many he hears.