I remember the first time my dad uttered the words, I was a freshman raging about something that was “so not fair” and he told me, “I understand how you feel.” What a joke I thought, how could he understand the pressures I was facing at 15, or the complete and utter fear I felt about losing my spot in the social circle, or the constant moral dilemmas that made my once strong faith stagger. He couldn’t possibly understand.
Then I grew up a bit, graduated high school, and stopped seeing my parents as parents and more as people with feelings (imagine that). I realized they knew a lot more than I thought. The more I learned of their story and their lives I saw that the longing for love and acceptance might have looked different when my dad was 16 but it was the same beast, just wearing different clothes.
I am a parent now, a mom of two girls and one boy. I have been doing high school ministry in some capacity since graduating college and as I sit in small groups and help girls through their high school years I realize I will never be able to tell my daughters that I fully understand. Things have changed too much.
I am of the last generation to graduate high school without the internet in my back pocket. I had one of those great Nokia phones that had snake and they didn’t add the camera into it until I was 18 and even then you couldn’t send pictures (praise the sweet lord above). I paid for my first cell phone at 15 and before that begged my parents unsuccessfully for a pager. It was different times. I was not exposed to pornography except through hear say from guy friends. My real internet life didn’t start until college because Facebook required a college email to join. Social media didn’t truly take off until I was graduated college and by then I was married and didn’t care as much about how cool I was.
We can’t truly understand what kids are facing because we never had to navigate the burden of social media which is like adding a 100lb weight to the “normal” pressures of past. Not only that, the true discipline it takes actually put the phone down and engage in real life is something most adults haven’t mastered (myself included).
As an adult you have an idea of how popular you were in high school but imagine if you now had a number that really gave you concrete evidence to how accepted you were? Imagine having to see images of all the parties you weren’t actually invited to, the first love who moved on much too quickly, or your best friend claiming someone else is now her best friend to the whole cyber sphere. Now add on the raging hormones that are the hallmark to every high school experience and you have pain and angst we really just can’t grasp.
How can we fully understand something we have never experienced? Love and acceptance are the same desires but the beasts have changed, shifted, and molded, into something so huge most parents are left grasping at straws to help their child navigate a world they themselves have not fully mastered. Because lets be real, we all still want to be loved an accepted, and we may not be on snap chat but it still hurts when all the neighborhood moms go out for a glass of wine and you weren’t invited but you saw the picture. Age doesn’t change our desires. It still stings when some social function happens you weren’t included but you feel like you should have been, no matter how old you are.
So what can we do? First we need to stop telling kids we understand. We don’t. Tell them you are so sorry they are facing unimaginable pressures, pain, and expectations in this new terrain of high school. Tell them you are willing to listen, and then actually do. Don’t tell them it’s silly because it’s not to them, remember how badly you wanted your first crush to ask you out? Now chuckle because you most likely didn’t end up with him or her but it doesn’t change how real the desire was. Pray for understanding and wisdom and ask questions and explore the real world they are in. This is not the time to look away and hope it turns out OK.
If we are going to help we must learn to control the beast in our own lives. In other words put your phone down. If you’re doing something with your kids, don’t put all of it on social media. Don’t send the message that to be special it has to be public. This has changed faith in truly shocking way, times alone with God have become about how perfect the setting is, how beautiful your journal is, and what wisdom you gleaned in ten minutes. I think most Christians would agree that real growth with God happens in the times you were hidden, quiet, and struggling with just God, not God and your 1k followers. The real world doesn’t shine a spotlight on most people. Real life is somewhat mundane, waking up, working hard, and finding bits and pieces of glory in the average. We aren’t setting kids up for success if the only joy they can feel is from outward praise. We must prepare them for the ordinary by not having to make every moment special.
Have hours of the day that are phone free, and enforce it throughout the house. That means everyone has to put the phone down. My kids don’t have phones yet but my husband and I have had to create lots of parameters around our phones because even in our 30’s we can’t handle the allure of it all. We must discipline ourselves if we are going to teach the generation below us to be disciplined. We must come to grips with the reality of the distraction in our hands instead of pretending we are old enough for it not to control us. I’ve spent enough countless hours on bored panda scrolling through funny dog pictures to know I’m not immune.
Finally, take their phone at night. I know I have no right to say this because I don’t have high schoolers but see I’ve sat in small group rooms for the better part of ten years with girls from all over and the common denominator for bad phone decisions was time. Nothing productive happens after 11pm, besides the occasional long study session a phone and a teenager and midnight is dangerous. The temptation and options are limitless. Satan will pray on isolation and darkness. We all know people make most decisions they regret at night, it’s just how it goes. Bars and clubs are closed during the day, they just aren’t as appealing until the sun goes down. A cell phone in the hand of a lonely, heartbroken, or hurting teenager is like a grenade with the plug pulled, it’s not a matter of if it’s a matter of when.
Trust me as someone who has been trusted by a lot of teenagers, they want the boundaries, they want the lines, they want to know you will fight them for what’s right. I’ve had girls actually tell me they wish their parents had more rules. I met with a girl last summer who had everything most kids want out of high school and she wanted out, she was tired of being a pawn in the party scene and she said to me, “I wish my parents gave me more rules so it was easier for me to not give into temptation.”
Their world is full of pain and people who want something from them. They are surrounded by tangible evidence of how liked they are by their peers and they are hurting for people to help them navigate it all. They don’t need us to understand they need us to love them and listen and provide them with truth when necessary.