Mirrors, Discourse, and Ambiguity: Raising Adolescents


Both educators and parents should be advocates for kids. Part of that is holding up a mirror to show both the beauty and the blemishes in order to help kids negotiate adolescence. We also need to show a blend of respect, understanding, and compassion.

Knowing better than to offer what one teacher calls “an owner’s manual for raising a good kid that parents only have to consult in order to press the right buttons, turn the right switches, and produce, at the other end, a perfect child who would roll out all the spanking fresh and new, the good kid of your dreams,” I would urge parents to trust their own instincts and moral code and to use their own resources to look realistically and calmly at kids and at raising them. This is especially true in this current tsunami of social media and the technology. As a friend of mine wrote in his book, Raising a Good Kid: “A good kid is not one who does nothing; a good kid is learning how to be trustworthy and respectful of people and perhaps stumbling along the way.”

Outside of the family life, school is the primary way our children grow. We have to think about the ambiguity of rewards such as grades, achievement, self-esteem, and the way in which our culture defines success, including winning and losing in athletics. From  countless dealings with kids, most educators will land on the side of discussion rather than prescription. It is the responsibility of teachers and parents to encourage young people to make their decisions through reasoned discourse and with clear messages from the adult world. The best decisions that kids make come from inside the kids themselves. Knowing that parents cannot ultimately protect kids from all damaging events, teachers and parents together can teach kids to think and to exercise some internal controls.

We have read much about the importance  of allowing kids to fail, knowing that failure as well as success is part of the landscape. Giving kids permission to fail can be liberating and restore a sense of control to a world that often seems beyond or out of their control. In addition, I believe that families and schools need to commit to a moral standard in this increasingly ambiguous world. Kids need the consistent and clear message that there are things that are right and things that are wrong. The hard work of engaging kids in moral discourse is the responsibility of parents and schools, and we need to help families maintain their standard in the face of cultural pressures.

A few suggestions for books on parenting and raising children:

How Children Succeed. Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

The Pressured Child; Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life, by Michael Thompson with Teresa Barker

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey



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