I’ll never forget the first time I realized my teenage son was beginning to get it.
My oldest son had spent time, effort and love preparing lunch for his three younger siblings. Nothing about the meal itself was overly special; it was mac n cheese, some veggies and a small sandwich. What was super special was the fact that Sporty took it upon himself to make the lunch for his brothers and sister, without being asked.
I’m sure he thought his act of love would be rewarded with a huge hug, big smile and a bold, “Thank you!”
Instead, in typical preschool style, my 4yo son turned his nose up at the lunch and declared in overly dramatic fashion, “Yuck. I don’t like this. I am not eating this lunch.” With feelings clearly hurt, Sporty reacted as a hurt person often does and became frustrated with his younger brother and said harshly, “Eat your lunch. I made it for you and this is what we are having. You will NOT get anything else.”
Part of my mama heart felt sad for my teenage son. After all, what mama doesn’t know what it feels like to work hard trying to prepare a meal, dessert, outing, vacation, etc. (etc. etc.) only to have her loving efforts met with rebuke and a rotten attitude from her offspring?
Yet, another part of me felt strangely comforted. Not because I was happy that Sporty had his feelings hurt; rather, I realized that perhaps all kids should know what this feels like. Perhaps actually experiencing this rejection will teach my teenage son what no amount of talks or lectures ever will? Perhaps real life lessons like this one are the ways, day in and day out, that we instill values and character into our children?
In that one mildly painful instant, Sporty learned a major life lesson. He learned what it feels like to authentically want to please another person and then be rejected. And since learning that lesson, I’ve also noticed that his words and actions toward me, when he may not love a meal I prepare or idea I share, have drastically changed. BAM!
The more I think about lessons like this, the more I realize that children and teenagers absolutely need real responsibility. And I truly mean real. With real risk involved and the real possibility for failure. Classrooms can only do so much. Talks, books, and anecdotal stories can give us ideas. They rarely, however, put us inside the situation where rubber meets the road. As the saying goes, “Experience is life’s greatest teacher.”
Below are three reasons I believe giving our teens real responsibilities will help them grow in their true potential.
- Empathy and Compassion. You simply cannot teach either empathy or compassion without actually living, and getting involved in the messy world. In books and in classrooms, situations are contained and can be shelved when no longer convenient to think about or engage in. In real life, however, things are messy. And complicated. And rarely…if ever…by the book. So, shelf the books and other people’s tales and instead live the story. When my son’s labor-of-love-lunch was easily and hastily turned down by his brother, he learned exactly what it feels like to be the recipient of rejection. And I’d imagine this simple lesson has stayed with him ever since, shaping his character and helping him grow in compassion. More than just listening or imagining, empathy involves entering into another’s story and feeling what they feel. Empathy, if we allow it, changes us at the heart level and often moves us to compassion. And compassion moves us to change situations and realities that are unjust. Having a meal you prepared rejected is one thing, and it certainly teaches empathy, but imagine the amount of empathy and compassion that our youth would possess if we empowered and equipped them to handle real responsibilities in other areas of need in our communities? Our homeless shelters, food banks, community service projects, literacy initiatives, elder care, etc. Truly, they would change the world.
- Work Ethic. Just recently, I read an article in our local paper that mentioned how most of our local community pools are staffed by lifeguards from Eastern Europe. I didn’t initially think too much about this trend of labor importing, as I grew up vacationing at a beach town that almost always employed European teens and young adults, side-by-side with American teens and workers. I always thought it was fun to meet and get to know people from around the world. However, the article then went on to say that lifeguards were recruited from Eastern Europe because, “American teens no longer want to work.” While that statement may be more of an overstatement than actual truth, the sad reality is that is this is too often the case. Teens sheltered from real life responsibilities and not made to work for any of their possessions or wants often grow in feelings of entitlement; which can lead to apathy, depression and all sorts of other ills. While I do believe in providing for our teenagers’ basic needs and some fun in the mix as we are able, I also want them to to know how it feels to work and save. I want them to understand that they can’t have everything they want, and that some things require working an awful lot to earn. My oldest daughter has been working and earning “credit” all summer long in order to save up for an iPod that she desires. Most of her friends have iPhones (or the like) and are connected up the wazoo, but we simply cannot afford to “connect” our entire house, both in terms literal dollars and in terms of the cost in character development at this juncture. While it’s sad (not really) knowing that she is probably the only kid on her soccer team who doesn’t own a phone, by simply observing others’ behaviors, she is also now clearly able to see the the potential downsides of constant connection. For example, she is able to see that it is rare for her friends to actually look at one another and talk face-to-face unless they are device free. While she still does want the iPod, when she finally earns enough credit to purchase a device this Fall, she can feel good knowing that a lot of hard work and delayed gratification went into her purchase.
- Self-Esteem and Healthy Pride. Working hard produces a sense of accomplishment that cannot be found elsewhere. Yet, we have to be willing to allow our teens to get in the mess, and even fail every once in a while, in order to experience the growth in self-esteem and increased belief in oneself that follows when a project, task or job is successfully completed. Thomas Edison once said, “We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I believe this is often true for our teenagers. Programmed to the max with academic and extra-curricular activities that they need to get into college, they miss opportunities at life and living and finding their unique identity. Teenagers often do not have time for engaging in simple (or complex) home repair projects, mowing a neighbor’s lawns, or holding a solid part-time job to save up for college. And parents are often quick to buy into the lie the their kids need to check all sorts of boxes in order for them to be successful in life. We must stop and ask ourselves “What are we chasing?” and “Why?”
Those are just three areas where I have personally observed growth in my own teens by allowing them to own some real responsibilities. I’m sure you have others! Watching my teens self-esteem and self-confidence grow is simply priceless. Allowing them to be proud of earning enough credit to buy an iPod when everyone else has something “better,”equips them to truly know that a material and trendy possession does not define their worth and will never contribute to their authentic happiness.
While the world seems to be screaming that our teens need to be doing more, achieving more, and consuming more, I am coming to believe that what they/we truly need is a whole lot less. Of everything. Less running from here to there; less consuming; less stressing about things that don’t matter; and less programmed life.
By taking away things that don’t matter, we have more time for one another and we are able to see that what our teens actually need is really quite simple. They need to know they are loved and cherished and special. They need to believe they have something to contribute to the world; and one way to help them achieve a belief in their unique purpose is to invest in old-fashioned character building and life lessons. Lessons that don’t require anything but a heart-to-heart connection, trust, and willingness to build our children from the inside out, rather than the outside in.