Don't treat teens like they are wrong about everything. Don't treat them like they're right about everything either.
My first rule of parenting teens is to always say “Yes” when they want to talk. These moments come about rarely, often late at night, so you have to take advantage when they come. If you don’t — even if it’s for a good reason, like bedtime — they will walk away remembering that you refused to talk.
If you do talk, well, there are a couple of rules. First: Never treat them like they are wrong about everything. That will lose them. Second: Never treat them like they’re right about everything. They aren’t, and they know it. What to do instead?
First, acknowledge it: Teen drama notices something true that adults ignore.
Teenage years are filled with drama. Relationships loom large on your teen’s mind — especially their own, but also others’. Discussing relationships consume hours of texting and talking. It’s almost as if teens think the human person is of infinite importance and that connecting with others is the central concern of human life!
Oh wait. They’re right.
Not only are they right, but adults often get this wrong. Often, we have learned to blunt our view of the human person. It hurts too much to acknowledge just how important other people are, so we avoid the pain by denying our true feelings. Tell your teen you admire them for seeing the truth. And them tell them something more (which I’ll share in a minute …).
Second, recognize that teen idealism is right.
Teens think the world is stupid. They think politics is a sick pastiche of lies and truths, and that politicians tend to speak in phony nice words occasionally mixed with real caring. They think many leaders in our institutions are hypocrites, pretending to have high motives while really just serving themselves.
Teens want to cancel the whole system out and start over. They want to point the world’s institutions toward the common good and put them to work for what’s true and right. Furthermore, they think they can.
In other words, they have the right spirit, Christ’s spirit. Admire them before you correct them.
Third, teens are (too often!) rightly cynical about the Church.
Young people see “church” as boring and unintriguing, something comfortable for old people to do. The Church isn’t that at all — it is the furnace in which great saints are forged. But they’re right. It sure doesn’t always seem that way.
In a conversation with Bishop Robert Barron, Jordan Peterson said, “The church is bleeding its young people, and my sense of that is it’s because the church does not demand enough of its young people.” Young people want to be called to heroism and adventure, he said, but the Church instead tries to make its message smooth and easy. Barron agreed.
So, teens get all that right. But adults get stuff right too.
First: Adults know that trust is better than drama.
It is true that adults have learned to hide our vulnerabilities. But let your teen know the other reason our lives have less drama: We have come to trust in God (hopefully).
We know that we will get what we need, eventually. We know that one person’s slight to us has to be taken in the context of all the gifts of beauty, truth, and goodness God pours on us through his creation and our fellow human beings at all times. Tell your teen: Take your worst day ever. If you list out every good thing that happened that day in one column, and all the bad things in another, the day always nets out positive, if you’re thorough and honest. Believe me, I do this often.
Second, adults know that small acts win big.
It is true that the world is, well, kind of stupid. It’s true that a lot of what happens is messed up and should change. But it is also true that each of us can make an eternal difference at every moment.
St. Thérèse showed us how: By doing small things with great love. “My whole strength lies in prayer and sacrifice. These are my invincible arms,” she said. “They can move hearts far better than words. I know it by experience.”
One of my teens told me his whole life was changed by a priest’s simple advice in the confessional to fulfill his state in life better. He did, and everything was transformed. Now I give the advice to everyone who asks: If you want to change the world, do the small things given you every day simply and thoroughly. You will be shocked at the benefits.
Third, call your teen to be a hero for God.
In that conversation with Bishop Barron and Jordan Peterson, they decided that what we really need to do is tell young people that “it’s each human’s obligation to become like Christ.”
Teens have the capacity to do this better than us. Put it all together: They know their soul is infinite, and that relationships are nearly everything. If they trust God and act for him throughout the day, they will quickly surpass anything we have done.