Last Thursday evening, Dr. Chap Clark, Associate Provost for Regional Campuses and Strategic Projects at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, spoke to over 200 parents at Folsom Middle School, on the challenges and social/cultural landscape of teenagers and the implications for parents.
Featuring his new book, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Clark addressed the social, cultural and biological dynamics of growing up in today’s world and offers insights for parents whose own development experience cannot compare. “Teens are portrayed as narcissistic and entitled in the media headlines,” he said, “And the reality is every one of you knows your own child. They have many good qualities.” And then Clark launched into a narrative that puts the plight of the modern teen into context. “Society has moved out of community, where people are familiar with one another, and there were more conversations happening, like Leave It to Beaver,” he said, “[In that era], teachers and parents talked about what is going on with kids. And today there is more fragmentation or ‘atomization’ – wherein life is more isolating. People are so busy, and there are so many expectations that finding relationships has become a matter of survival.”
Insights gleaned from Dr. Clark on parenting the modern teen
First, remember that your job is to support your teen’s search for identity, autonomy and belonging. This is something they have to do; you cannot do it or prescribe it for them. This involves encouraging them to make their own choices and take responsibility for them so that they can explore their own uniqueness and learn from mistakes and other life experiences on and off line. So when you emphasize grades, the chances are they will pursue good grades because they are seeking to please your agenda. The outcome, then, is that they have been trained to adapt to the identity expectations of the adults. In this scenario there is no room for experimenting and exploring their own identity, autonomy and sense of belonging. Hence the feelings of isolation and disconnect are further intensified.
According to Clark, brain science tells us that the adolescent brain development today is protracted well into the mid-20’s, which is in stark contrast to the pre-1900’s when 16 years of age represented adult threshold capacity. So we need to be circumspect about establishing expectations that 18 years is a magic age when adulthood is flipped on like a switch. There were two main reasons offered for this extension of adolescence. First, according to Clark, since the pre-1900 era the age of girls experiencing onset of menses cycle has become younger, and the younger the onset of menses, the longer the adolescence period. Secondly, the social and cultural landscape today is more complex, competitive and it takes longer to develop identity, autonomy and sense of belonging.
Now more than ever teens need family to be a safe place to learn and discover their sense of identity, autonomy and belonging.
Parents can be assets in this process by:
1) Building social capital for all the children in your community to benefit your own child as well by developing report with neighbors and other parents. We are encouraged to take collective responsibility for the kids and reinforce one another’s efforts to raise children who feel valued, capable and who want to contribute;
2) Pointing out what you see in who your child is, their character, and do not emphasize what they do, i.e., performance; and avoid shaming;
3) Encouraging your teen to find a vocation, a calling (so they do not simply adapt or comply with someone else’s assignment about their mission or purpose);
4) Preparing your child for the road, rather than preparing the road for your child such that you protect and resource your child to help avoid catastrophic consequences, without entitlement and bailouts becoming the norm. For example, stop taking responsibility for your teen’s homework and GPA. “Be careful and reasonable,” he said. “Have confidence that you are the right person to parent your child. You are uniquely qualified.”