by Kathleen Cushman
When writing our book What We Can't Tell You: Teenagers Talk to the Adults in their Lives (Next Generation Press, May 2005), we learned what an important role adults who are not parents or teachers play in the lives of teens. As 16-year-old Dan reminds us, “If you can go to someone who isn’t required to talk about stuff with you, but who just likes you and your company, then you’re going to feel better about yourself. “
Stop for a moment and count up the teenagers you know who aren’t actually your own kids. When is the last time you spoke with one of them, and what did you talk about?
What we can’t tell you:
• We like it when you watch out for us, but don’t get us in trouble.
For teenagers, your answer to that question matters a lot. Adults who aren’t their parents, they say, often influence them just as strongly as their mother or father—or even more. You might have young relatives who come to you for advice about college or finding a job, because they don’t want their parent breathing down their neck as they figure out what to do.
Maybe you notice that your regular babysitter has red eyes when you get home, and you ask how things are going with her boyfriend. A neighbor’s kid seems to be alone a lot on weekends, and you stop to say hello on your way down the street. Or you hire a high school student to help you over the summer, and teach him a few things about the work that you do.
People like you can reinforce a parent’s contributions, without the tensions of the parent-child relationship. You can provide kids with alternative perspectives and experiences, too—a way to be different, a means to excel, an outlook that will get them through hard times.
You’re not quite a parent and not quite a teacher when you act as the “parent next door.” You may not always make a teenager’s list of favorite adults. But as kids navigate their adolescence, your interest and action can give a crucial boost to their growing maturity and independence.
AN EYE OUT
Having an extended family on call gives teenagers a sense that someone always is keeping an eye out for them. Irene’s large family, immigrants from Mexico, depended on its matriarch to watch the children while the parents worked.
I live with my mom, but all her brothers and sisters would leave their children with my grandma when they went to work. I was raised literally with thirty people—my grandma raised all the grandchildren. I have over eighty first cousins, and we’re all close! At my high school alone I have ten first cousins, four in the same grade as me! – Irene
If you live in a small town, you probably serve much the same function that the extended family does. At sixteen, Mac has close ties to many households in the tiny Appalachian town where he grew up.
I live up against the mountain, and the house in front of me is my uncle’s. The house to my right is one of my uncles’, and the next house, to my left, is my friend’s uncle’s. And right beside the uncle who’s to the right is my aunt. It’s like there’s a family member every hundred feet from the next one! We all kind of watch out for each other; if someone dies or gets sick, everybody knows about it. If something happens at three o’clock, everybody knows about it by three-thirty. – Mac
Such rural places typically have a dwindling younger population, and the teenagers say they spend more free time with adults than most urban and suburban kids do. Tabitha, who lives in the West Virginia countryside, has to get a ride twenty miles to the nearest town to have a social life with her peers.
We get to spend a lot more time with adults because there’s nothing for us to do. We don’t have any place to go and like hang out, like a football game or a basketball game or a dance. There’s not a movie theater or a mall or anything. The friend that lives closest to me is ten miles away from me, so it’s really hard to get together with your friends and stuff. So we get to talk to our parents and other people a lot more. – Tabitha
News of what kids are doing gets back quickly to their parents in the fishbowl of village life. Like any small town, rumors and stuff spread like wildfire.
I could drive down the highway—around here we all have ATVs—and I’ll come home and my mom will be like, “Such and such saw you going down the road!” Around here most people know my mom and dad, so it’s like, “You’re such and such’s boy, aren’t you? I know your mom and dad!” – Mac
If you’re staying at a friend’s house, and you’re sitting on the church steps with the town kids, like thirty people will call your mom and tell her that you were sitting on the church steps Friday night. It sucks! It’s like before you get home your mom’s already mad. – Tabitha
Rural or urban, many teenagers find an extended family within their church community, especially if the congregation is small enough that everyone knows each other. The elders in Cotnell’s District of Columbia church have watched him grow up, and he says their opinions and support matter a lot to him.
Their hopes are real high for me. They don’t influence all of my decisions, but I try not to do something to let them down, you know. Like, everyone’s expecting me to go to a real good college, so I want to get good grades—for them and for myself. Sometimes they’ll take up an offering to give you money, to help you for books and stuff like that. And they give you advice, and it’s just a real strong sense of community. – Cotnell
Kids do say that it can be hard to know that someone always has an eye on them. In another of Washington’s small church communities, D.J. is trying to live up to the expectations of the older people he respects while also finding his own way.
When I go to church there’s always a couple of elderly people who are looking out for me. They always ask, “What’s going on? How’s school? How are the grades?” They have faith in me, they see something in me, so they want to help me out. But now as I get older, I’m becoming more independent. What they think, it matters, but at the same time I’m trying to find my own self. – D.J.
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator