I recently had the opportunity to meet with a group of teachers from
Then we changed the question: If we asked the teens the same thing—Are you adults or children—what would they answer. Amazingly, we found solidarity in that everyone thought the teens would say that they are adults. This is at the core of many of our difficulties with our teens. We treat them like kids but we expect them to act like adults. They feel like adults but they often still act like kids.
So how do we begin to bring the two worlds together? How do we sow the seeds of maturity into them when they are teens? How can we lead them in such a way that they grow up into adults who accept responsibility for themselves and for others?
Michael Abrashoff was captain of the naval ship USS Benfold. He utilized four elements with his young sailors that fostered cooperation and maturity. He records them in his book on leadership called It’s Your Ship. He implemented these four actions on a ship made up mostly of young sailors, many who were still in their teens. The following list is his but the comments are mine.
1) Respect—Often with our teens we still hover over them like they are little kids. We ignore their feelings and dismiss their ideas. Our first necessary change must be a change of posture. Instead of taking them head-on, let’s learn to stand beside them and look at life together. That’s how we look at problems with other adults; let’s take that posture with our teens. Don’t give away your authority, just change posture. One way that he demonstrated this was by encouraging his officers to eat with the men instead of eating separately. Think of one practical way that you can break down the dividing wall between us and our teens. A planned meal together may be a good start.
2) Impact—Give them an opportunity to make an impact. The powerful effect of making a real difference in the family, community, or world is almost addictive. We all like it; we all want it. Find ways to involve your family and especially your teens in projects that make a difference for real people. If you can do it together, the benefit is magnified. Abrashoff communicated to his sailors that the ship belonged to them; he gave them ownership. He allowed them to make decisions as long as they did not cost more money or endanger lives. Communication improved, performance improved, and relationships improved.
3) Listen aggressively—Teens often have hare-brained ideas that we cast off as soon we hear them. Instead of demonstrating our own wisdom, let’s learn to help them develop theirs. Listen and ask questions that aim at getting to the kernel of their ideas. We might get inspired. Abrashoff met with each man on his ship. He learned their names and the names of their wives. He kept a file on their families and showed personal interest in their endeavors. He asked each man how to improve the operations of the ship. He followed up with changes.
4) Reward with responsibility—Nothing communicates confidence to a teen more than saying, “You have done well enough to be trusted more.” When they have done well, acknowledge it by increased trust. This can be a broadening of their personal boundaries or perhaps another responsibility to take charge of. As the men on Abrashoff’s ship became experts in their responsibilities, he gave them opportunities to learn other positions. Like a football coach, he developed depth at each position. This kept his sailors challenged and focused their energies in a positive direction. In two years, his ship outperformed every other ship in the navy.
We parent children. We lead adults.
I am proposing to you as parents that you change your mindset regarding your teens from one of parenting to one of leading. When dealing with teens, leadership principles might be more appropriate than parenting ideas. The difference could be dramatic.