Addressing the Inner Adult

“If you want your teen to hear you, you’ve got to talk to the adult in them.”
—Dr. Christine Carter CdeP 1990
Some of you heard Christine Carter say this on the webinar she and I hosted a couple of weeks ago. Christine, Thacher grad, former Thacher parent and board member, and sociologist with the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley where she specializes in adolescent well-being, had suggested that parents should be asking their kids to share in the responsibility for the household while they shelter in place.

A parent immediately asked how to do that without it devolving into nagging them to do chores. 

That requires talking to the grown-up in our teens.

Adolescence is a time of in-betweens. Developmentally, teens are not on a linear progression from childhood to adulthood. The kid and the grown-up are both present, sometimes at odds with one another. And teenagers are particularly invested in their adult side, the part that can drive a car and make decisions independently. They are constantly looking for cues as to whether they’re being seen and talked to as adults or kids.

They don’t like it when we treat them like children. But sometimes, they act like children. 

We parents and educators face the challenge of finding the right balance between providing the structure and guidance that teens need and encouraging the development of their independent, grown-up selves.

This spring’s Senior Exhibitions are a great example. Seniors always chafe a bit at the expectation that they complete these capstone projects in the spring of their senior year; it’s the beginning of their separation strategy. They’re getting ready to move on from high school and senioritis is one of the ways that reality manifests. This year, of course, their frustration with Senior Ex had an added element of grief. “Really?” I could see them thinking, “With all the spring rituals we’ve lost the only one to survive is Senior Exhibitions? Are you kidding me?”

Speaking to the adults in our seniors meant we had to first listen to them with compassion, then invite them into our thinking, and finally collaborate with them to design a Senior Ex that was responsive to the realities of this moment. 

If we had ignored their concerns, telling them simply to buck up and get the job done, we would have been talking to the kids inside them who can’t see beyond the steep climb ahead, assuring that the experience became all about the climb. 

If we had simply given in and canceled Senior Ex, we would have been treating our seniors like children, ignoring what we know they’re capable of and how much they have grown since their first Thacher Assembly (see photo above). We would have underscored their doubts about their ability to navigate discomfort and to meet the challenge in front of them.
If you saw any of the Senior Exhibitions (and if you haven’t, you can check them out here), you know that our seniors showed up as the burgeoning adults they are, ready to be the teachers, the guides, the experts. You watched them demonstrate their independence, their strength, their smarts, not to mention their creativity and adaptability. You saw them recognize how much they’re capable of. 

When we talk to the adults in our teens, they have a way of becoming their best (grown-up) selves. 

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