What’s (Self) Love Got to Do With It?: How to Raise a Happy Teen
Sometime around 1981, my parents met with the teachers I would see once a week in our school district’s Gifted and Talented program. Mom and Dad had enrolled me in after-school programs in ballet, soccer, baton twirling, ceramics, and French. I enjoyed them all (except for soccer), but stuck with none for more than a year or two. So, my father asked the teachers, “When is she going to outgrow this…this habit of trying all these different things and concentrate on just one?” According to my mom, the G&T teachers broke the news that this frustrating habit of mine might never go away. In fact, it might just be who I was. As I entered the teen years, my natural tendency toward experimentation extended to makeup and fashion. As they ate breakfast each morning, my parents wondered whether I would bound downstairs as a hippie, a punk rocker or like Kate from the B-52s. When my unique style occasioned jeers from peers, my dad, by now accustomed to my “difference,” helped me to better accept it myself. During one particularly rough period of bullying, he gave me his copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, that 1970 paean to coming to terms with one’s own differences. Jonathan, the seagull who dared to soar to great heights and refused to accept others’ limits, inspired one of the essays on my application to Harvard, where I eventually found my flock.
I share this anecdote because of its hopeful message of love – love of parent for child, and love of child for herself. Readers of Desk to Nest know that its columns correspond to annual holidays and rituals like Back-to-School Parents’ Night. So, as February 14 approached, I ruminated on the topic of how parents can develop their children’s own love of themselves. Just days before I began writing this column, a student who I tutor told me that a ninth grader had tried to commit suicide in school that week. Luckily, the boy survived, but he and his family face a difficult road ahead. Though I don't know this boy, the little that I did learn from my student – such as the fact that he is a “genius” taking calculus as a ninth grader – suggested that perhaps his academic choices haven't come from his own heart. What follows is a Valentine’s Day primer for parents who want to bolster their children’s love of themselves. In the process, you can raise your teens to become responsible for their own happiness into adulthood.
LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Before turning your gaze outward to your child, look inside your own heart. Are you happy with where you are and what you’re doing with your life? Yes? Great! Not so much…? Spend some time thinking and perhaps even journaling about how you might tweak your days to become a happier person. Whether it’s getting to the gym more often, taking a meditation class, going out with the guys once a month, or cutting back on your hours at work – figure out what’s standing in the way of your own happiness and resolve to fix it. If you need help in finding your way out of your own unhappiness, seek a trusted friend, clergyman or therapist to help you chart your course. The 1972 poem by Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children Learn What They Live,” does not contain a line about happiness, but if it did, it might go something like this: “If children live with happiness, they learn to cultivate lightheartedness.” You are your child’s most important role model: if you show him how to be happy every day by modeling love for and appreciation of yourself, you are modeling for your teen how to do that for himself.
CHECK YOUR MOTIVATIONS, THEN CHECK IN WITH YOUR TEEN.
Are you encouraging him to play the saxophone because you always wanted to master jazz? Do you ferry her to softball tournaments around the state because your own mom never signed you up for sports? Are you lobbying for Dartmouth because that’s where you went to college (or because that’s where you always wanted to go)? Even if the answer is “yes,” if your child genuinely loves the sax, softball or Dartmouth, there’s little harm done. But you might consider asking your child whether she really enjoys the activities you’ve steered her toward. If you’re afraid she might not give you an honest answer, enlist the support of a school counselor or favorite aunt or uncle to conduct the heart-to-heart for you. Just make sure that your teen loves – or, at least likes – how she’s spending the majority of her time. If you find that she doesn’t, allow her to abandon the sax, softball, or Dartmouth in favor of something she does love.
CELEBRATE PASSIONATE MEDIOCRITY
But what if she’s not good at what she loves, you worry? Your son loves singing and acting, for example, but only gets ensemble roles in the school plays. By contrast, he’s a star backstroker, but hates swimming. What’s a good parent to do? Though the costs of college are outrageous and swimming might score him a scholarship, you can’t put a price on mental health. Encourage him to continue auditioning, and who knows? With practice, he might improve his dramatic skills. And if he doesn’t, at least he’s learned that you love him for who he is rather than how he performs. (Added bonus: his tenacity might earn praise from teachers in college letters of recommendation. My own guidance counselor praised my willingness to stick with Theater Arts Club despite the fact that I never earned a lead role in any play.)
During the past fifteen years or so, the press has maligned current parents’ eagerness to give every kid a trophy. Critics point to Millennials’ inflated senses of self as a consequence of this “overindulgence.” That’s not what I mean by “celebrating passionate mediocrity.” Instead, I’m encouraging parents to discover, accept and revel in their children’s own individual joys, just as my own dad came to learn about and love my uniqueness. This unconditional support could be the greatest Valentine’s Day gift you’ll ever give your child, as it was my own parents’ to me.
For those of who would like to read more on a related topic, here’s a recent piece from the New York Times. Though the writer deals more with developing children’s creativity, many of his suggestions are helpful for parents who want to nurture their children’s self-love and acceptance.
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Dominique Padurano, Ph.D., is an author, educator and President of Crimson Coaching™, a boutique tutoring, test preparation and educational consulting firm. Crimson Coaching™ provides expert academic assistance in all subjects to teens and pre-teens.
Guiding students and parents through applications to independent schools, as well as to universities and colleges, we provide particular expertise to international families and individuals relocating to the United States.