Why Do Adults Struggle Leading Teens Well?

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Dr. Tim Elmore addresses the most probable reason that adults struggle in leading kids well and offers some ideas on how to reverse this important issue.

May I share an observation with you? In my travels, I meet a variety of parents, educators, coaches and youth workers who lead kids differently. Often, one of two extremes occurs, depending on the students’ age. In their early years, it seems as if tens of thousands of parents and teachers “over-program” the children’s day, structuring it so tightly that kids don’t have much free time; there’s little chance for them to enjoy un-prescribed activities. We push them hard.

Ironically, as they become teens, it’s as if adults stall and become confused. We aren’t sure how to lead them in a relevant way. Parents fail to draw boundaries well; teachers become confused as to how to motivate high schoolers, and coaches are at a loss as to how to connect with athletes. These “screenagers” throw us a curve ball. In our confusion, many of us fail to lead them well.

But I don’t think it’s the kids alone who challenge us.

Let’s consider the life of an adult in our culture today. We are aging in a society that worships youth. We all want to “stay young.” Wrinkle free. Forever 21. To look and feel young is often a spoken goal. After all, Facebook allows everyone to see what we now look like, twenty years after graduation. Can we still fit into those skinny jeans? Do we still have a full head of hair?  If not, there’s cosmetic stuff you can do.

On top of that, we’re now relating to our children who’re fast entering their teen years. In fact, I believe kids often want to enter adolescence in about third grade, visiting teen websites, getting something tattooed or pierced on their body. The last thing we want to communicate is that we’re “over the hill.” We don’t want to send a message that we don’t get it, or that we’re not hip. And we definitely don’t want kids to see us the way we saw our parents when we were teens.

Further, nostalgia has become a big business, since the Baby Boomers began turning forty in the mid-1980s. Adults spend millions of dollars buying comic books, trading cards, sports jerseys, toys…you name it. Quietly and gently, culture pushes us to hold on to our younger days. Dozens of movies have come out the last twenty years about this very subject—from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Old School” to “Grown Ups.” Think Uncle Rico in the film, “Napoleon Dynamite.” Let’s face it—we loved those younger days and we don’t want to let go.

Maybe I’m making too big of a deal over it all, but this has me thinking. I believe many adults struggle to lead kids well because we don’t want to be seen as “uncool.” Being the “bad cop” transforms us into that uncool adult who’s a Narc; we become the one who’s enforcing the rules instead of breaking them and tweeting about it. We don’t want to admit we might be ancient. I call moms and dads who fit into this category: Karaoke Parents, because like karaoke, they want to sound like their child, dress like their child, act like their child—they want to be a pal more than a parent. I have seen teachers who do this too. It’s quite pitiful. Sadly, the real victim—is the student.

If this thought has crossed your mind, may I toss you some ideas?

1. Embrace who you are and the life station you’re now in.

If you’re forty-eight years old, then act like it. Don’t attempt to be twenty-one. This doesn’t mean you’re irrelevant. It simply means you’re comfortable in your identity and can offer teens a picture of what a well-adjusted, mid-life adult looks like.

2. Live with passion.

Don’t try to be a teenager again, but show them what an adult looks like who is happy, fulfilled and passionate about their work and family. Many kids never get a healthy role-model in their lives like this. Show them what it means to not merely grow older but to grow up…and like it.

3. Be genuine when you interact with teens.

They don’t need you to be a buddy all the time. They do need you to be real and predictable. Consistency is a vital ingredient many teens are missing in life. When adults connect with them in an authentic way—it’s a gift. Remember the words of one student who said, “The only thing worse than being uncool is being unreal.”

4. Play the veteran card.

Once in a while, they need you to not only be a “friend” but a “bad cop.” It’s not fun, but boundaries actually foster security in kids. They need someone to lead them and enforce principles that will guide them through life. Even more, they need to hear from your experience—the wisdom and life lessons you’ve picked up over time.

In a focus group a few years back, a female student said to me, “I guess the reason I don’t want to grow up is that I’ve not seen any adults who’ve done it well. Most of them are trying to be like us, kids.”

It’s time to give students what they need, not necessarily what they want.

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