About three decades ago, families of two teenagers filed lawsuits against heavy metal band Metallica and singer Ozzy Osbourne, claiming the musicians’ song lyrics led their children to suicide. The courts dismissed both cases for lack of proof (of causality). Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne were popular those days. There was wide media coverage. I recall having a discussion with a professor about the cases in my junior year at law school.
I was 19 back then. I did what I could to get ahead and become a sharp lawyer. Later on, I discovered practicing law was not what I wanted to do. I have done other things to become what I am now, which includes being a father of two.
I hadn’t thought about teen suicide again until coming across with the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. Now it is not a technical legal matter or news about a band. It is an alarm bell. I am looking at it as relevant and taking precautions. Song lyrics don’t have the power of leading to suicide. But I understand what those families, who sued the musicians, had to go through. Things change.
Netflix does a good job by bringing the matter into living rooms with 13 Reasons Why. Just by raising awareness, it will help parents and teenagers to equip better. The screenwriters don’t script the show in a way we can get to know the characters’ personalities through their dialogues and actions. They react to what happens around them. That makes the story a poor reference to the matter in the real world. I’ll take it from here, and put together a lifetime of experience of being a teenager, an adult, a parent, and an education professional to try to show school dramas are avoidable.
Here are thirteen reasons why teenagers should not worry about things they usually do.
One: Life at school has nothing to do with the real world
Common schooling was created to meet with demands of industrialization and urbanization. It helped tremendously to those who were a part of a massive demographic shift. It then became a part of the natural order. Now it is a product of the past in a world it doesn’t fit anymore. Nevertheless, it is an establishment of significant size. It won’t go away easily, and not anytime soon.
Education imprints a culture or civilization on the educated. Common schools are not the only way of education. But they are the dominant form of education in our times. The other function of schooling is test preparation. Standards of some scale govern the both aspects. Students spend significant time in this institution, in isolation, without taking part in true production or sensing material accomplishment. They contact the real world after high school or college. Until then, all they can do is to study and interact with peers. The interaction part always has some resemblance of Lord of the Flies, even though adult supervision makes the experience much lighter.
It is meaningless to try battling with or revolutionizing the school establishment for any parent or student. But it makes sense for parents to make their children aware that common schooling is an antic from the past, but is also something they must attend because, well, it is what it is. The alternative, homeschooling, can hardly be different in helping a teenager adapt to the real world. A great many institutions today have been built around the same time with common schools. A teenager has very little chance to live a different life than others just by avoiding the common school.
How to give this message in words meaningful to a teenager?
We don’t find perfect things in life. We make them work anyway. The school is what it is. You get together with hundreds of other kids every day simply because everybody goes to school. All the stuff you go through with them is not meant to be. Who you are is still your business. You can just walk through these years and have some fun whenever possible. We are here for you. Talk to us about the slightest problem. It is much easier when we fix it together. That’s a pleasant job for a parent.
Parents need to back up what they say. That part is mostly learning by doing.
Two: A teenager doesn’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex
The part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex makes adults function in complex situations by planning, focusing and organizing attention, managing social interaction, etc. Broadly speaking, it is where reason and problem solving happen. Everybody has it from childhood, but it doesn’t fully develop until around 25 years of age. That is, teenagers and young adults don’t think the way adults do. Their mastery of all emotional, social, and other complex matters will happen later. It is human nature.
Just like a four-year-old can’t play on the monkey bars, and a twelve-year-old can’t understand what a SAT score is about, a teenager can’t manage the social complexity of the isolated environment in a common school. Nothing is wrong with them. The common school environment is wrong for teenagers. The emotional chaos that falls upon them when they are in hundreds or thousands at school is not a part of natural growing up process. It is an accident.
How to transliterate it for a teenager?
Most of your life is about feelings. It will be so until you grow up. Then things will look different. Remember how it was when you were 9. How different are you now? It will be so much different when you grow up. All kids at the school are like you. The pressure that comes from people, classes, and other stuff is there because you are there without the brain wires to deal with them all at once. Your feelings jump up and down. They are false alarms. If you focus on things you like instead, you can rule your world.
Three: All people, young and old, have difficulty in being rational
We are all limited in our knowledge about what is going on in the world. No one can know all the facts at any given moment, but even if that were possible, a single change somewhere would make that perfect knowledge invalid. Change is constant and everywhere. We work on patterns to make better guesses about the world, and that is all about what we think is out there. To deal with our limited knowledge, we decide on what we want and build an assumption of reality around it. It often fails. Then we decide on the next thing we want, to build another assumed reality around it. If one’s livelihood was a farm and acquaintances people of a small village, this strategy could deliver more sustainable results. When one’s world expands to the entire globe through computer screens, the strategy becomes ineffective. But it is what we have, and many of us rely only on assumed realities around what they want. They defend an opinion or an action until the end, even if every bit of logic and evidence runs contrary.
Some adults, like physical scientists and chess players, can escape this problem by creating isolated environments. Where there are borders and rules, they can master the reality therein. A chess master might be a naïve individual in the pub but an unstoppable force over the chess board. Technology in our lives from the automobile to the so-called artificial intelligence are pieces of isolated environments. Their creators become ordinary people just the same as soon as they step out of their labs.
Considering an adult’s job to guess what is going on in the world, a teenager’s task of understanding the isolated and supervised school environment is easier. But even then, there are too many variables. Every time they attempt to make sense of their environment, something changes. They try repeatedly. After a while, it becomes pointless and depressing. The notion that the world is unknowable is very attractive at that point.
The world is both knowable and unknowable, depending on where and when one is. We all steer through a fog most of the time, but there are moments of clarity—like the eye of the storm. Those who keep it together until they come across a moment of clarity get their chance to rule their universe for that instance and change their lives for the better.
It can be difficult to explain these to a teenager unless she or he is exceptionally insightful. Here is a suggestion on how to do it in most cases:
A lot of things don’t make sense, and you are not the only one thinking so. It is the same for everybody with no exception. You’re not supposed to control what is happening around you. You’re not supposed to look “cool” to anybody as they don’t know much about what is cool either. We just keep it together and keep moving on. Sometimes good things happen, sometimes you make good things happen. But they don’t have to happen all the time. You don’t deserve good things in exchange for your effort. You make efforts to be ready and make the best of it when luck strikes. Whatever you want, don’t sweat it. Just see what happens next. You may change your mind about what you want until then anyway.
Four: Seeing adults around is a proof for a teenager that it will all pass
This one is probably the easiest. Whenever things look gloomy, all it should take is to look somewhere else and see adults getting by. We all went through the teenage years. Today’s teenagers will see it over just the same.
Five: In (almost) all cases, not being popular at school is a good thing
Because the school environment is not real regarding how the world works, popularity at school can do great damage to one’s future career. Assuming other people will always like her or him and just hand out what is needed because s/he rules the school (!) is the worst thought one could ever have. Popular figures excite others with their talent or features. When the school is over, everybody goes on their way and find a popular person to follow in media.
If a teenager is a popular one at school, that may be a risk for future. A parent must be cautious about a fallout after school years. If a teenager is not the popular one at school, or even the complete opposite somehow, that is easier to manage. Popular kids at school are like rock stars of a smaller degree. Others enjoy the excitement they radiate. All the teenager needs to do is to watch the campus rock star for fun.
Six: There is no collective
The school works by having students act as a group, which makes a wrong impression on the individual student that she or he is supposed to be a part of a group to exist; and worse, the group “knows” what to do. In fact, group work is just the practical way for the teacher to manage a classroom. We don’t pay teachers enough to treat each student individually or even look for teachers who can. Schooling is not a qualitative process. It is quantitative.
To my opinion, this is the most difficult of all factors. Starting school as late as possible helps children to form their sense of self. To that extent, avoiding preschool and two-year KG programs can do tremendous good to a child. But that can be wishful thinking, especially if both parents have office jobs and grandparents are not available. Whatever the degree of the gravity of group behavior may be, teenagers will have to manage it. To manage it, they must be aware of it.
A good way to remind a teenager there is no collective might be:
You do things altogether at school because it is cheaper that way. No one else can know what you need, what you think, or what you should do. No one can take care of you even if they want to. You do things as a part of a group because that’s the way it is. And that’s all. You are still you. Don’t expect others to look after you or tell you what is best. If you think something is going wrong at school, use the school rules to fix it. I will be there with you all the way. Don’t assume things are just going to work out by themselves. Sometimes you have to protect yourself. Don’t be shy about it. You know what is good for you. Others don’t.
Seven: Few things are common good
Things about security and safety are common good. National defense, public safety are such. We tend to live and operate together based on fairness, for which law and contract enforcement is necessary. Beyond these, it is hard to find something of everyone’s common interest. We do take care of each other voluntarily at times of distress, but on conditions and scopes we can afford. We do sacrifice, but for those we love.
For reasons beyond the purpose of this article, we are also called for caring about everybody else, aiming not only equal opportunities but also equal outcomes for all in many aspects of our lives. It is often politically incorrect to even ask why, or what should we expect from the rest of humanity in return.
This worldview can be confusing for teenagers. Caring for all implies all cares for one. When that doesn’t happen, disappointment may teach the truth. But sometimes the lesson may be too hard and can push one to depression. Healing follows most cases except in isolated groups, where someone labeled a loser remains as such. Remember Lord of the Flies.
Children learn a lot from their parents’ behavior. Most people know a thing or two about the common good matters, so their children learn implicitly. But sometimes things don’t work that way, and not necessarily because of a parent’s error.
It is better to stay safe and make teenagers aware:
Caring for others is a tit-for-tat business. Always meet with others halfway. The moment you sense you’re expected to reach too far, fall back. Don’t take risks by expecting others to cover for you. If you sense someone’s behavior as out of the line some way or outright abusive, stand up and put things straight. Make everybody aware of the situation.
Eight: One can take care of oneself
Except for those at a disadvantage of certain medical conditions, everybody can take care of self among others. We learn how from age seven onward unless shyness gets in the way because of social pressure. And there is a great deal of it at school.
Self-esteem is not a mood we can experience by simply wanting to. It comes with achievements we know we made happen. We can’t have self-esteem without getting some of the things we want with individual effort. Self-esteem can’t be built from others’ praise either. It is a genuine way of communication. We are all very good at detecting self-esteem in others. We give more credit to those who have it.
School instruction intentionally excludes activities that lead to winning and losing. The aim is producing the best possible average result from groups. The approach makes fitting in a group in classes, in the auditorium, in PE, and so forth, the only attainable function for a teenager. Groups are made of other teenagers with their individual thoughts and feelings. Consequently, registering as “cool” at a point doesn’t make a permanent status. One has to keep trying. There is much incentive for a teenager to fixate on a perpetual social contest and be happiest when idle in a group. Grades, on the other hand, keep flowing in semesters without meaning material or permanent achievement. Common schools don’t provide much for students to develop self-esteem. It is, after all, an individual matter.
Many difficulties teenagers experience occur for no reason other than not showing self-esteem. Bullies, who are monuments of inferiority in their minds, walk away at the slightest possibility of failure. Trolls know whom to attack and pick the vulnerable. Teachers without motivation ignore those students they know will not complain.
What to do about it?
There is no speech, praise or reward a parent can use to build self-esteem in a teenager. They must achieve it on their own. They won’t be conscious of why or how to do it. Forcing them to compete in swimming and the like will probably fire back for this matter as formal competition also means other-reliant achievement.
Somebody had to invent the copper wire for the idea of the light bulb to be possible. We are all informed by others before us or around us the same way. Teenagers should discover what they want to do by observation. When they pick an interest, be it a musical instrument or the skateboard, the best we can do is to support and steer the activity to a safe path, hopefully from a distance. The teenager will be good at some things and will fail in others just like the rest of us. Those activities they choose and become good at will be their pivotal points to self-esteem. That will help them to remain individuals and draw their borders when they need at school.
Nine: Any parent can help
Those who had to experience the “airline talk” can tell institutional procedures can be intimidating. Jobs come with job descriptions. If they are fulfilled, one counts as doing the job.
Welcome to the comfort zone of careers. Anyone can avoid political incorrectness or unwanted work by referring to some instruction. A parent may hit that wall when trying to solve a complex situation. If that happens, giving in causes multi-level damage at home and simultaneously makes things worse for the teenager at school.
We don’t have to be tactical experts to navigate complex matters with public utility organizations. Common schools are one. Keeping a healthy dialogue with people you see around at school from the start is the best investment for this potential matter. The school as an establishment may have its shortcomings. But but school employees are as good as the next person. Communicating with them like you do with neighbors deliver results: They know you and talk to you. That’s all one needs to solve complex matters if ever needed.
The matter at hand may be somehow inconvenient to handle for any one school employee. Then the solution is to make it procedural, in which case multiple stakeholders handle it, and find it easier to manage by keeping a distance.
And finally, if your child has any part in the problem, you must own it without leaving your child’s side. The other teenager’s parent may not be so forthcoming and try to drop the whole matter at your corner. Acknowledging responsibility must start with announcing what the other teenager did in the first place.
Ten: Cyber-bullying is real, and can be avoided
Without exception, every bully carries an inferiority complex. Bullying is not about an aggressive personality. Aggressive people don’t bully. They look for their matches. Bullying compensates some form of victimhood. All bullies shy away when they see firm stance instead of prey.
The cyber kind of bullying is different to that extent. A cyber-bully operates through a proxy. Because nobody sees them in action, they can’t be exposed. Even if they are identified, they switch to trolling and claim they just re-tweeted something by mistake.
But all that must start with a weakness on their target’s side. The weakness must be considered significant at school and must be true at least in some part. A bully would be afraid of being a joke even when posting anonymously.
An accident is not a weakness of that kind. The weakness is supposed to be a choice to be newsworthy.
Consequently, a cyber-bully doesn’t find victims on demand. They need insiders. And that’s how one can avoid cyber-bullying.
Social media can be that insider. Teenagers must learn to use it consciously, including what information they share and whom they add to their contact lists. The other insider is, of course, a friend. There is no such thing as a secret. If some information is worthy of attention at school, it will leak.
It all comes to one rule all should follow, including CEOs, politicians, and teenagers:
Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to be known by others!
Some things may not be wrong in the real world but may make one “uncool” or worse at school anyway simply because of the social code of the moment. It is what it is. Do it elsewhere and don’t put it on your Facebook.
Eleven: Sex doesn’t have to be a challenge
We become capable of reproduction at around 12 years of age. That meant a middle-aged person when the average lifespan was 25. We are descendants of early humans who survived nature. That is how they made it and why we are here.
Now life is about knowing things. Our lifespan is somewhere between 80 and 90 years and increasing. There are all sorts of variables in the game, from contraception to career and retirement plans, and of course, to taxes and cost of living. Having children and supporting them to early adulthood is a whole different ball game even in comparison to 50 years in the past.
Nevertheless, our subconscious drive for reproduction is there with all its might. We manage it in some smart and some not so smart ways. It might make some sense to take it like fingernails: They grow on our fingers; we rarely use them for their essential function; many of us make efforts to repurpose them. A woman scratches a lottery card by natural inclination only to meet with her annoyance of fixing the nail polish.
Sex, in its essence, is about reproduction. That happens by choosing a partner who meets with one’s expectations. Those expectations are based on values. Those values were firm chests or round hips in the stone age. Now character traits are values because we hope for decades of stability after reproduction.
Teenagers must learn and live with these facts so they can be aware how it can do good or bad to their lives. It can do good if they experiment sex after forming their values and expectations. Sex without values to choose a partner, or with a partner who doesn’t fit those values, is only misery at any age including teenage years.
There are plenty of potential disappointments and dangers for a teenager around this topic. The best way to avoid them is to know what to do with it. That is, by understanding sex is about choosing the right partner, and waiting until knowing how.
These are abstract matters and more likely to be difficult to explain. A better way should be starting with what it essentially is about:
Exploring sex for the fun of it, for experimentation, or for social competition doesn’t change this fundamental fact. Your brain is wired to choose a partner for the right biological outcome. Override it, and it will betray you every way. Manage it, and you will grow up to be a happy individual.
Twelve: Drugs are a conspiracy
There is anti-establishment thought in all cultures. Today’s kind has been formed in the mid-20th century and around the idea of escaping industrialism. There is a following intellectual branch that glorifies everything against productivity and self-esteem and for victimhood and dependence. A pretext of finding a “hidden truth” beyond what one sees prevails in significant portions of the media and the academia. Drugs have been a part of that story since the 1960s.
It is not a parent’s job to fix the world, but it is to keep drugs away. They are widely available, and a teenager’s path may cross with them in a million ways, including those that are against her or his will. It is not only about being conscious of the danger. It is also about keeping anyone who can be involved with drugs away.
It is relatively simple to avoid the problem. Being righteous about it does every good and no harm.
Thirteen: To be is a happy experience
A wise woman once said knowing a person is not by what he does against danger but by what he does for joy. We all find ways to make ourselves feel fulfilled. A teenager’s life is not different. There is an abundance of opportunities to find what one likes to do. Ancient Greeks saw music and athletics as tools of self-fulfillment, not professions. Today’s technology offers many more options.
Studying textbooks and socializing at school doesn’t help for that purpose. They both focus on someone else: The teacher or the other students. There are always more textbooks and more of other students in a loop of efforts. Making the time for self against those necessities is a good balance.
It is amazing to see what joy an electric circuit toy makes for a 10-year-old at the cost of 15 dollars. Not because the child learns about electricity, but because she or he does something to accomplish a task of own choice. That’s how the activity feels fun and makes happy. Take it from there and find thousands of choices from online retailers for all ages, mostly at a price less than 10 dollars.
We can make this a teenager-friendly message:
When you study, you’re supposed to prove it to the teacher. When you socialize, you’re supposed to make school mates tick. These are fine, but you need your own time to do things for yourself. Find stuff you think you’d enjoy at Amazon or the mall. I’ll make a budget and get them for you. If you want to try a new activity, name it! I’ll find a way to make it happen and give you your space.
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Plato spent a lifetime trying to fix others. In the end, and in his words of bitter resignation, he turned to the world he bore within himself. I don’t know how well that worked for him. But the lesson is there.