The Kids Are Alright: Testing Assumptions About AdolescenceThere are certain ideas about life and kids that are axiomatic.

Parenting is hard. (100% true)

Marriage requires hard work. (100% true)

Teenagers are notoriously difficult.

Stop for a second. And read this article from the January edition of New York Magazine. Then come back to finish this post.

If you cheated, then let me paraphrase the main thesis: kids are feeling just fine as they grow up. In fact, one of the preeminent researchers on puberty and adolescence, Laurence Steinberg from Temple University, offers us the following outstanding passage.

“It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids,” he says. “Most adolescents seem to be going through life in a very pleasant haze.” Which isn’t to say that most adolescents don’t suffer occasionally, or that some don’t struggle terribly. They do. But they also go through other intense experiences: crushes, flirtations with risk, experiments with personal identity. It’s the parents who are left to absorb these changes and to adjust as their children pull away from them. “It’s when I talk to the parents that I notice something,” says Steinberg. “If you look at the narrative, it’s ‘My teenager who’s driving me crazy.’”

Let that sink in for a second.

I’ve been operating under the assumption that teenagers are stressed out, anxious, and rebellious since, well, I stopped being a teenager. I was an average kid that kid average things, and I didn’t find life particularly overwhelming in a suburban middle-class life of the mid 1990s. Could the same thing be said for my older sister, who had knock-down, drag-out arguments with my mother? Well, no, but it does beg the question… was that because of my sister being a rebellious teen, or due to my mother having a hard time during their first go-around with a teenager?

I’m not here to make dramatic endorsements of the article, although I did find it quite compelling, but reading it made me think about my budding adolescent. I remember being his age, and desperately wanting freedom and autonomy, decision-making power and privacy, and more. As I look at the situations he (and we) find ourselves in, it’s important for me to keep that as a frame of reference.

The other day we had a…not a discussion, not an argument, but somewhere in between, about hair. I like short hair, as does my third grader, but my big guy likes the shaggy look. After pushing him on it and making snarky comments about it, this article (and my prescient wife) made me realize that I should just leave him alone. Should I be imposing my hairstyle likes and dislikes on him at this age? Is his haircut being harmful to him or to me? No. But I felt compelled to make it an issue and cause a small conflict- a conflict that didn’t need to happen.

When the article mentions how much less favorably teenagers view their parents than their younger siblings do, my heart sank. Am I really on the cusp of being uncool, interfering, and, yes, embarrassing? Did that little flare-up push help further that inevitable process of alienation? I hope the answers to those questions are “no” and “no.”

As he grows up, and I grow up as a parent of an adolescent (and four other adolescents-to-be), I’ll be more careful about where to draw my lines and make my stands, and more careful about understanding how my personal hopes and dreams for him will intersect with his natural desire to find his own way.

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