He’s Hot, She’s Hot. Judging a Book by its Cover.

I wonder…how much do we really judge based on externals?  “He’s hot,”  “she’s hot” are frequent descriptors teens use in everyday conversation. We’re not immune as parents.  Why do we secretly enjoy it when our kid dates an attractive guy or girl? Don’t we want our teen to believe it when we say “character counts”?

If we want to direct our teens to think about how they might be affected by a culture that values looks, perhaps the following provocative sayings might lead to interesting conversation around the dinner table tonight:

Boys think girls are like books. If the cover doesn’t catch their eye they won’t bother to read what’s inside. – Marilyn Monroe

That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful. – Ninon de L’Enclos

You can take no credit for beauty at sixteen. But if you are beautiful at sixty, it will be your soul’s own doing. – Marie Stopes

One story I tell in the classroom is about my 20-something friend who married a young woman who is attractive, yes, but not drop-dead gorgeous.  Because he’s a really good-looking guy, his own  mom didn’t show up at the wedding because he could have done better. Yet his bride has the kind of character we would all want in a daughter or daughter-in-law!  Our culture says he lost out…but I say, “Well done!”

Why Teens are So Self-Centered

Well, that explains it!  Recent research has determined that when our son or daughter exhibits a breathtaking lack of compassion and understanding, it’s because of a deficiency in the ability to experience empathy.  Empathy refers to the ability to share someone else’s feelings or perspective…to “step into his shoes.”  As in other areas, boys are a bit older when their ability to empathize increases–15 rather than 13 like girls–according to the research.  In a Huffington Post article, Psychologist Barbara Greenburg gives 5 tips on helping teens develop empathy.  Here are three:

  • Point out social cues.
  • Make your teens aware of how much impact their behavior may have on others.
  • Praise your teen when he or she exhibits empathetic behavior.

Helping Teens When They Fail

I just drove two teens to their third ACT test.  They are on a quest to eek out a few more points in hopes of getting into the best schools.  I remember taking the test just once, and not worrying much about it.  Today’s teens seem to fear failure more than previous generations.  And who can blame them?  Failure, in the teen world, can be associated with being a “loser” or being “stupid.”  John Eliastam writes in daddyzine.com that two trends make it especially hard for teens to deal with failure (which, after all, is inevitable).  First, “Teenagers are especially prone to the instant gratification mentality and this can tempt them to give up if success doesn’t come quickly and easily. ” Second, parents can add unbearably high expectations.  Says Eliastam, “From preschool, children are pushed to achieve, with competitive parents standing on the sidelines keeping score. This makes failure an almost impossible burden for a child to bear.”  His article gives many suggestions under 5 categories for how a parent can be a “life coach” who helps his or her teen learn how to handle failure, learn from it, and persevere:

  • Getting Perspective
  • Developing Persistence
  • Learning Patience
  • Redefining Success
  • Avoiding the Comparison Trap

Teens Who Don’t Have Sex Say It’s Because…

“Among those teens who haven’t had sex, the primary reason they give for…well…not doing it is that having sex at this point in their lives is against their religion or morals, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”  This quote comes from a Washington Times op ed by Sarah Brown from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, in which she discusses the difference that faith may have on the sexual choices of teens today.  She continues, “Research makes clear that religion, faith, and a strong moral sense play vital roles in protecting teens from too-early sexual activity and teen pregnancy. In particular, being connected to a religious community has been linked with a decreased risk for teen pregnancy. Moreover, a survey we released this week suggests that the majority of Americans want more from religious groups rather than less. Some 52 percent of adults and 57 percent of teens think religious leaders and groups should be doing more to help prevent teen pregnancy.”

This leads me to a suggestion.  If any of you, among my readers, belong to a faith community, Amplify Development offers our program to you and you teens. We also do parent workshops.  Although the vast majority of our speaking engagements are in a secular forum–public schools–our message has broad appeal to teens in various settings.  From our website amplifyyouthdevelopment.com: “We work with both public and private institutions, ensuring that we teach our curricula in a manner consistent with the values of each of our partner organizations. Our program is based on current research about sexual health, bonding, and relationship formation. We are careful to teach in a sensitive manner that allows for multiple points of view while communicating the core message that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the safest and healthiest choice.”  If you want to bring our program to your youth group or community group, give Andrea Nelson a call at 630-493-1523.

I Can’t Trust My Child Anymore

I never thought I’d find myself quoting Lady Gaga, but I like this (edited for decency) saying:  “Trust is like a mirror:  You can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that reflection.”  I know what she means.  Once our child loses our trust, it’s VERY hard to get it back.  In a real way, the person I thought my son or daughter was, is no more.  My image of my happy family has perhaps even been shattered.  The betrayal (even when forgiveness has been asked and given) can color our every upcoming interaction with our child.  Do I really know her?  Is he telling the truth…today?  Or lying again?  I’ve even wondered (maybe you’ve been there too)…will this cloud ever lift?

Our children will let us down.  They will deeply disappoint us. They are our greatest joy, and the cause of our greatest pain.  But their future is not written yet.  They need us to believe they can change…and to give them the hope that they can and will be restored in their relationship with us.  But they have a job to do too…and it’s to work hard at regaining our trust.  I found a great article that answers a teen’s question “I Lost My Parent’s Trust. How Can I Get it Back?”  If your teen is frustrated because things aren’t “back to normal,” this can help them understand what they need to do…and why it takes time.  Talking over the article could help the healing, and set the family on the path back to trusting them again.

Lying, Cheating and Stealing…it’s What Teens Do

A recent study showing an uptick in honesty among American teens prompted the founder of the organization conducting the study, Michael Josephson, to say “I think we have turned the corner.”

From 2010 to 2012, the changes include:

  • Stealing, down to 20% from 27%
  • Lying to a teacher, down to 55% from 61%
  • Cheating on an exam, down to 51% from 59%
  • Lying to parents about something significant, down to 76% from 80%

The percent of teens still, shall we say, “deficient” in character, is troubling.  It makes you wonder what you don’t know, doesn’t it?  Indeed, Josephson commented, “It’s a small ray of sunshine shining through lots of dark clouds.”

Mom and Dad…let’s not grow weary in educating our children to be young men and women of integrity.  We’ve clearly got a lot of work to do!  We CAN have hope that we can make a difference–Josephson attributed some of this significant uptick in teen integrity to parents who are increasingly concerned with teaching their children that honesty is important.   

Bad Language in Books Fosters Teen Profanity

I’ve sometimes wondered about the profanity-laced conversations teens are having these days.  Where is it coming from?  Yes, I know that teens have always been tempted to add a little swagger to their social presence with a shocking word or two.  But why has it become so much more socially acceptable to youth?  Could it be their role models?  A study of adolescent bestsellers revealed that there were 38 swear words on average in the 40 top-selling adolescent novels.  This includes words coming out of the mouths of the some of the most popular characters in the Twilight and Harry Potter novels.  The article revealing this states: “While bad language has been studied in film and on TV extensively this is the first to document its use in books aged at teens – which unlike over media have no content warning or age restriction.”  It also points out that “From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in positive, desirable ways.”

The recommendation?  “Parents should talk with their children about the books they are reading.”

Teen Sex: Rethinking the Rewards

In an interesting Wall Street Journal article, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” the author referred to a study that suggests that adolescents “aren’t reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do.”  The reward centers of the adolescent brain are activated with an intensity greater than that of the adult brain.  Think of  first love, the forbidden fruit of sneaking a smoke, putting the pedal to the floor of Dad’s car, etc.

And what reward is the strongest?  The article says that “What teenagers want most of all are social rewards, especially the respect of their peers. In a recent study by the developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, teenagers did a simulated high-risk driving task while they were lying in an MRI brain-imaging machine. The reward system of their brains lighted up much more when they thought another teenager was watching what they did—and they took more risks.”

I just finished a week in a school where the boys were admitting that they biggest pressure they faced was from other boys urging them to become sexually active with their date or girlfriend.  This was no surprise to me, as “bragging rights” is almost always on top of the list of reasons teens give for having sex.

If it’s so rewarding to be able to brag about sexual exploits, getting the admiration and high-fives of one’s buddies, what can parents and other caring adults do to counteract that? Perhaps elevating the risks to front-of-mind more frequently might help.  But even better, help them think through the benefits of being abstinent.  Since keeping the conversation going is important, why not sit down together with your son or daughter and come up with a list of all the benefits (besides avoiding STDs and pregnancy) of being abstinent?  Setting an exciting picture of the future before them might just make the temporary kudos of peers pale in comparison.


Virginity: a Renewed Conversation

Pop culture seems to have a renewed obsession with talking about virginity, ranging from incredulity at Tim Tebow’s public commitment to wait until marriage, to a new TV show, Virgin Diaries, devoted to the subject.  In an age when it seems like “everybody’s doing it,” voices are being heard more and more, saying “I’m waiting.”  In fact, recent research indicates that a surprising number of young people have not been sexually active.  “A report issued last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics found from 2006-08, 29 percent of women and 27 percent of men ages 15-24 had had no sexual contact with another person, up from 22 percent in 2002.”  The article I read referencing that statistic has a couple of quotes from unashamed virgins…one of whom is a young man I met when he attended college with my daughter.  Kevin has become a good friend of mine, and I tell his story to students I speak with about the choice to be abstinent.  They need to know there really are  guys who choose to wait…decent guys…the kind of guy a girl would want to marry some day. In the same article, our program, Amplify Youth Development, even gets a mention, with a quote from our program director about her decision to wait until marriage.

Talking About Sex: How Parents Handle the Conversation (Part 2)

At the last parent presentation I did, a parent asked for advice on how to talk to a VERY reluctant teen.  It seemed that this teen stonewalled, disappeared…in short did anything possible to avoid having any talks about sex and dating.  I remembered an insight from the article,  referred to in past blogs, about parent-teen conversations about sex.  The authors pointed out that some teens may be “embarrassed, uncomfortable, are afraid of tarnishing their parent’s image of them, and do not want to be judged or looked down upon.”  With that in mind, and remembering the tactics of some parents in the study, I suggested this strategy:  Talk about someone else.  It is much easier to discuss “that poor girl who was drinking and driving and killed her best friend who was in the passenger seat” or to mention “Remember Danny, who you used to play with when you were in grade school?  I heard his girlfriend had to drop out of school because she’s pregnant.”  The conversation (and parental input) can then continue in the context of someone else’s poor choices, in a much less direct way.  It is assuredly best to be direct, but for those teens who just can’t bear the embarrassment of talking about such things with Mom or Dad…give the indirect route a shot.