One of the simple joys of my life is that I run on Saturday mornings with a group of women who are mostly older than I. As I’ve been navigating high school ups and downs with my kids, they are reporting on graduate school, weddings and other young adult milestones with their kids. They take an appreciative interest in my kids, but always with a perspective that I sometimes lack.
I was on a run with these experienced moms a couple years ago, during a time when I found myself having obsessive thoughts about my kids’ grades and athletic accomplishments. As everyone was just doing the usual catching up, one of these wise women chuckled, “Isn’t it funny how quickly our kids are forgotten?” She was noticing that the same young people who were featured in the local paper for their school records or state tournaments are now just … somewhere else. They moved away. They found their careers. They boomerang back occasionally for family holidays or to show off a new grandchild but for the most part, no one but their immediate loved ones know what they are up to. It turns out to be a blessing that they get to find their independence without any community spotlight on them whatsoever.
Ever since the post-war era carved out the teenage years as a distinctive phase in life, our institutions have paid outsized attention to this tiny slice of the age span. Sports pages devote column inches to high school teams; churches obsess about whether “the youth” are active in their congregations; parents shell out thousands of dollars to give their adolescents a leg up in whatever their 15 year old has decided their “thing” is. In a small town this attention is magnified by our ability to know so many kids by name — and for self-conscious kids that attention can be crushing.
While it may be true that adolescence has special perils that can affect a life permanently — particularly driving, sexual maturity and access to drugs — the idea that a 16-year-old’s academic, artistic, social or athletic success is somehow indicative of the rest of their life is a myth that needs to be smashed, for the mental health of kids — and their parents — everywhere. Life is long. People can change.
Some of us blossom at 15 and others drift around for another decade until somehow all the pieces come together. If a high school junior doesn’t feel the freedom to branch out and try something new – to be a beginner at something, what kind of society have we become? Worse, if the identity explorations of teenagers are a political football for some to use to drum up fear, what will kids think about the safety of the world?
The drama of adolescence is intense for the one going through it and sometimes worrisome for the persons observing it. Our memories of emotional moments tend to be more technicolor — though not necessarily more accurate — so of course most of us can recount moments in our teenage years that seemed formative in some way. But it is a mistake to assume that because a person feels something intensely, that feeling will be lasting or indicative of the person’s future.
What if, instead of magnifying the importance of the high school years, we intentionally let our young people grow without any assumption that who they are now will determine who they will become? What if high school was actual exploration instead of building a college resume full of things you already know you are good at? What if our actions as well as our words said to young people, “We know this feels intense and confusing, but you have all the time in the world to figure out who you are in relationship to God and to others?” In his book-length argument against specialization, “Range,” author Brad Epstein says his one takeaway for the young reader is this: “You are not behind.”
Country singer Brad Paisley has a song, ‘A Letter to Me,’ in which he envisions telling his 17-year old self the things he wishes he’d known in high school. Of course, that kind of advice is possible mostly only in retrospect. But one line strikes me as the most important to say to our young people: “these are nowhere near the best years of your life.” May that be so, and may those of us with the hindsight to know it make it evident in all that we say to our kids.