Thursday, February 18, 2016

These Are The Good Old Days, Aren't They?

When teenagers stress, it's tempting to pooh-pooh the whole thing. How often have I found myself dismissing a complaint with some condescending parental retort? Answer: a lot.

"Oh, you think you're tired? Try being in my shoes." This is typically followed by a litany of middle-aged woes. (Don't worry, I'll spare you.) Somehow, we assume that because these younger people have a free place to live (not to mention, smartphones and North Face jackets, and in our case, an actual horse), they have no worries.

I've changed my tune lately. As high school draws to a close, I wonder how my daughter and her classmates will look back on it. Will they cherish the hours spent studying for AP tests, filling out the common app, or trying to secure enough community service hours (doing something, let's face it, that they probably don't give a shit about)? 

There seems to be a lot less fun than there should be.

These days, anyone who assumes teenagers have time on their hands and nothing on their minds is just plain wrong. They are under tremendous pressure to take the right classes, get the right grades, apply to the right colleges. And, that 's just academics.

Here are some things teens worry about:

1. Their peers

Mean girls are nothing new (there were mean girls even back in the dark ages, when I went to high school). But, digital media adds a new element and a whole new dimension of meanness. If you were unpopular or bullied back in the 1970s, you could leave it at school. Go home, shut your door, put on Elton John's "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road." These days, your troubles follow you home, compliments of group texts, Instagrams and Tumblr. And, even if you're not a victim of bullying, per se, social media can make you miserable. Remember when you couldn't go to the amusement park because you had to work? Well, apparently all your friends went without you — and they're having a wonderful time.

2. Sex
Like everything else, sex is more complicated than it used to be. There are entirely new concepts around which today's teens have to navigate. Like "sexting," "friends with benefits," "virginity pledges," and every parent's worst nightmare: Tinder. Some kids move too quickly, while others seem paralyzed. (Some parents buy their daughter a horse and with it the knowledge that she's at the stable all day every day with nary a randy teen boy in sight.)

3. Drugs and booze and cigarettes and, and, and ...
Whether they're experimenting themselves or watching their friends, traditional teenage bad behavior causes a lot of stress. In addition to illicit substances, more and more teens are using prescription meds — they're cheap and easy to come by. In fact, too many teens abuse drugs they've been prescribed themselves, for anxiety, depression, ADHD, and sports injuries.
4. School
I talked about it above, but I can't underscore it enough. Today's teens have too much homework. Summers, vacation weeks, it doesn't matter. In our quest to raise the quality of education, we are ignoring the value of down-time. The kids are burned out. This week is February break and since we returned home Sunday, my daughter has been studying AP Bio pretty much non-stop. And, the weekend itself was a college visit, so there was inherent stress there as well. 

Which leads me to ...

5. The future 
At a different, also recent, college visit, an academic dean told us that she encourages freshmen not to declare a major right away. This was refreshing, but met with skepticism by most of the parents assembled. There is tremendous pressure for students to already know their major, their post-graduate plans, their career path. They need to be focused and driven. And countless articles analyzing the R.O.I. (that's return-on-investment) of various institutions really doesn't help. What about going to college and trying something new? Or learning about yourself? Or falling in love? 

It's difficult to measure the R.O.I. of these things. But, they are just as important. And, I can't help wondering, what happens when this generation of ├╝ber-focused, ultra-motivated young people suddenly realizes that their youth was hijacked? And, botox aside, they ain't getting it back. 

I'm reminded of an anecdote that's often attributed to John Lennon. "When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy.' They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life."

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.  

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