Celebrating the Wisdom of Teens—Really!

I’m ridiculously amazed at how much my son has grown in the past few weeks while I’ve been conducting what I think of as my “compassionate observation experiment.” 

My intention during this time was to focus on replacing instruction from me about what he should do and be with compassionate observation of who he is already, where it seems he wants to go, and how it works best for him to get there.

It’s an experiment that builds on the belief that he is already good and wise at the core of his being (even as a teenager!) and therefore, that he knows more about what’s best for him than I do.  (For my college-aged readers, I want you to know especially that I believe this about you too.)

Side note: This is the idea that academic and life coaching is based on too and that’s why I love it so much.  It opens a whole realm of untapped wisdom that we often overlook.  

This belief in the inherent wisdom of individuals contrasts with dominant views about teenagers that emphasize their poor judgement, lack of knowledge and experience, and resulting need for lots of adult instruction and control over their lives.

There’s some truth to this more deficit-based perspective as well, of course.  Teens do, in fact, have undeveloped brains with some significant disconnections between the logical, rational part of the brain and the parts that determine their emotions and actions.  They often do need adults to “connect the dots.” 

Still, teens (mine included) tend to get PLENTY of instruction and control from parents and teachers and counselors etc.  In this experiment, I wanted to tip the scales a bit in the other direction. 

My goal wasn’t to abdicate my role as a responsible adult and parent, but to learn more about who my son is already, right now, and what internal wisdom he might have about his life that I might miss when I see him through the lens of my fears, expectations, and biases about how his life "should" be done.  

By the way, did you notice there that it's HIS life he's figuring out?  Not mine (sorry parents, we've got to admit this.)  And again, college students, this is true for you too.  Your life is NOT your parent's life.  It's yours.  It's tricky to figure out, but it's yours.

Maybe it’s all just a big coincidence, but the results of this "pilot study" are compelling enough that they’ve inspired me towards further investigation along the same lines—with myself, my husband, and even my anxious little rescue dog. 

So in this week’s post I'm celebrating my son's amazing teenaged wisdom and my ability to get out of my own way long enough to see it. I did it! 

I kept my mouth shut (well, more than usual).  I asked more questions. I watched more closely.  And guess what happened?  My son kept finding his way forward! 

  • After months of trying to cajole him into trying a club at school, he picked one and signed up with a friend. 
  • After months of pushing him to try more activities outside of school, he’s gone out with new friends 3 times in the past 3 weeks. 
  • On top of that he’s advocated for himself in relation to his current passion—music. And he did so in totally new ways—very mature ways.  He proposed plans that addressed concerns he knew we would have and he met those concerns—in advance.  For example, he wanted to have more freedom to listen to music at night, so he proposed that we turn off our wireless internet (no other midnight temptations) AND that he’d add in an extra half hour of studying after school in return.  WOO HOO!  He has offered to study more!  I’m all in.  I’m celebrating.

Lest you think it’s all perfection and roses here, be assured that is not the case.  His grades still aren’t where I’d like them to be, nor do I love his approach to school overall.  And I am far from being a perfect parent.

But I am celebrating the wins in the midst of the losses, in the middle of the process.  You can do it too—with your kids, with your students, with your roommate, your spouse, or yourself.  

I’m purposefully sinking into celebration with you here because celebration doesn’t just feel good.  It’s a strategy for success.

I want to keep going on this new path of parenting—and that means ongoing work to change a whole collection of habits.  If you’ve been hanging out here for a bit, you probably know that celebration is crucial in habit changing.  Why?  Because our brain is super smart in some ways but not so smart in others. 

Scientists tell us that when we celebrate, our brains don't know the difference between an “I won the lottery” cheer and an “I just managed to keep my mouth shut for 10 minutes instead of lecturing my son” cheer.   But they DO know that celebration feels good.  And we human beings like feeling good.  So, when we celebrate our small wins we make it easier and more likely that we’ll continue down the new path we’re trying to follow.

Some ideas for how to celebrate your small wins without making it another task on your “to do” list:

  • Quick silent fist pump in the privacy of a bathroom stall
  • 5 minutes of crazy dancing
  • Buy an extravagant but under $10 treat you usually won’t allow yourself – like a container of raspberries or fresh flowers or a girl scout cookies and either share them or don’t share, depending on which feels more decadent (if you’re a mom it’s probably NOT sharing!)
  • Give yourself an extravagant treat of time – like spending 15 minutes reading an unimportant magazine or watching silly YouTube videos, playing in the snow, or taking a nap despite your "to do" list.
  • Just tell someone – "I kicked butt/ass (your choice) today!"

Questions for you to ponder:  

  • Who do you want to observe with more compassion this week?  
  • And what small wins can you celebrate right now - for yourself or others?  

If you can't think of any accomplishment to celebrate (though I'm sure you have something) why don't you celebrate with me the wisdom of teens?  God knows they don't tend to get a whole lot of celebration energy coming their way!

Here's to thriving!



P.S.  I read two GREAT blog posts this morning I want to share with you.  This one by Tara Mohr is about how much we need to work from a place of love in this challenging political climate and this one from Yes & Yes from which my favorite line is "Sometimes the place where stress lives is the same zip code as our happiness." - totally true (I think) for those of us who work with kids and for those of us with the privilege of being in school.


In the spirit of the movie Hidden Figures — have you seen it yet?  If not, go now!—I’d like to tell you about Mae C. Jemison, who became the first African American woman to go to outer space in 1992.  I first learned of her when I was looking for bias-busting books for my kindergarten classroom.  Dr. Jemison is no joke!  After growing up in Chicago, she began her college education at Stanford at the age of 16, then went on to Cornell and became an MD.  She worked as a medical officer with the Peace Corps and then practiced medicine in Los Angeles before beginning her training with NASA.  She’s still involved in international projects to improve healthcare and advance technology. She speaks Swahili, Russian and Japanese, in addition to English.  There are bunch of books about her available to order online, including easy-readers, so you can easily get one for your students or your kids!  She’s also published a memoir and several science books for kids herself!

Want more?  Read this article (not by me) about the first Black woman who’s headed to the international space station, Jeanette Epps of Syracuse, NY.

P.S.  For those of you who requested the resource list I mentioned last week – re. talking to kids about race, fill in the form below and I'll send it to you.

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