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Teach Your Children Well

Excerpted from

The 7 Best Things (Smart) Teens Do

By ,

I tell that story every time I teach one of my graduate classes to schoolteachers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I tell it somewhere in the beginning of the class, which is entitled "Working with Adults and Children from Dysfunctional Families." You might wonder why that story is relevant in such a class. To me it is one of the most relevant stories that I tell because, above all, the greatest gift that a teacher can give to a child who lives in a painful or even abusive family is competence. When I tell that story, I make sure to point out that when all is said and done, the kids who know something, and who know how to communicate it either in writing or by speaking, are the ones who will run the world. The rest will work at McDonald's. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one.

World-renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead said that she had nearly completed a book she was writing when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She tore up the manuscript and threw it away, saying that the world had changed so drastically that the book was no longer relevant. The same sort of thing happened when Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh made his gravity-shattering solo flight across the Atlantic, when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, and when the first pieces of the Berlin Wall came crashing down. In "Oysters and Pearls," Jimmy Buffett sang that Lindbergh "thumbed his nose at gravity," and that the world was forever changed.

Throughout history, we humans interpret certain events as so large, so influential and so powerful that we believe life will never be the same afterwards. We mark our brief stay on this planet by what we believe are transformative milestones. These include the Code of Hammurabi, the birth of Jesus Christ, Gutenberg's inventing the printing press, a solo flight across the Atlantic, harnessing the power of the atom, the first lunar landing, the first genetically engineered cure for a disease. . . . What will be next? You probably know better than we do what that might be, to be honest.

Rebellion or Transformation?

Some people call the time when a child is twenty-four to thirty-six months old the "terrible twos," which I have always found to be so interesting. In fact, upon the birth of my first child, I was given the well-intentioned advice to "enjoy them when they're little, because the older they get, the harder they are to raise." Even in all of the inexperience of my youthful new parenthood, a voice inside of me said, "That doesn't make any sense." I turned out to be right. There are always at least two ways to look at the same events. When that first child became two, all I could think was, "What a wonderful age to be!" I watched her strive to be independent. I listened to her say "no!" and by so doing, she declared to the whole world that she discovered she was separate from us. Terrible twos? No, it was the wonderful twos.

According to Jean Piaget, easily the most influential developmental psychologist in history, the years from thirteen to nineteen are transformational in just the same way. Many adolescents (unfortunately not all) will gradually shift from what he called concrete operational thinking to formal operations, which includes, among others, the ability to truly hypothesize-to ask "What if?" -the ability to think systematically and to test out hypotheses systematically instead of impulsively and haphazardly, and the ability to empathize with others at a much deeper level.

Part of this transformation is the crucial need to question and wonder, and especially to question many of the values and beliefs that we were given in childhood. In other words, not only is it normal, it is also essential for teenagers to ask things like: "Is there really a God?" "Can a truly good person feel hatred?" "Is the universe infinite, or is it finite?" "Does two plus two always equal four?" "Can I be a wise person and vote for a political candidate for whom my parents would surely never vote?" "Did Thomas Jefferson really father children with one of his slaves?"

Parents who recognize this emerging autonomous thought as a sign that their teenagers are healthy, normal and "right on schedule" will rejoice and feel relief, even if they find their adolescent's challenges exasperating at times. Parents who don't understand that this is healthy and normal may find themselves anxious about it, which may cause them to try to control or even prevent this exciting milestone, resulting in unfortunate consequences.

I am fifty-three years old. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in a suburban home about twenty-five minutes north of San Francisco. My older brother and sister and I watched the early black-and-white television programs pretty regularly after we bought our first TV set when I was five or so. We watched many of them with our parents, who were as enthralled with this new technology as we were, if not more so. My father and older brother watched the Friday Night Fights and the whole family watched Your Hit Parade, waiting in breathless anticipation to see what songs or instrumental pieces were picked as the top ten of the week.

As silly as it may sound now, one of my disappointments during grammar school was that our family was unable to watch the Mickey Mouse Club. We lived at the base of some coastal mountains with a bunch of redwood trees just up the hill, and our reception for that channel was nonexistent. I'd go to school the day after it showed and listen to my close friends talk excitedly about what had happened on the show, and I tried to follow along, but something was obviously missing from my experience. You had to see the show to appreciate what they were talking about, I gathered. Regardless, it was part of the culture in the 1950s, and so it was important.

Barry Levinson's film Avalon (1990) is a celebration of his own family history as well as a testament to the enormous, irreversible impact of both television and "suburbanization" on the American family. When I first saw the film, I finally realized, in a visceral way, how profoundly these two cultural forces had affected all of us back then. As my father, mother, brother, sister and I huddled around that little television set in 1954 waiting to see which song would be number one on the hit parade, we didn't have an inkling of how our lives were being transformed. Few people could have predicted the multitude of transformations that little tube would go through, and all of us right along with it.



Tags: Parenting and Families