True to my hibernation inclination, I read four books in January and hardly wrote a word. This month I’ve been back to work, and I will say it feels so good to be serving my clients with photos and film again after a long, dark, and quiet few weeks; it’s inspired me to look around again and see the experiences just waiting to be written.
On a photo shoot recently I noted a commonality between my client, subject, and myself: we’re all the parents of fourteen year old girls! In light of this realization, while I set up my lighting we talked about the triumphs and traumas of parenting teenagers today.
As I snapped some test shots, my client shared vulnerably about the tough time she’d had over the weekend with her daughter who had crept out the front door at 1:30am with friends, hopping into a van driven by an older boy. By what I believe to be the grace of God, the girl’s aunt was in town and awake in the middle of the night to see it all go down.
How terrifying for any parent to wake up wondering where your kid has gone! My client/friend had doled out the appropriate consequences to her teen, but was still visibly weary over the ordeal. I began to sympathize, thinking I couldn’t imagine; only I totally could imagine, because that’s the exact kind of thing I did at fourteen years old.
I was always sneaking out of my parents’ house to smoke cigarettes in the driveway or walk to the 24 hour grocery store for snacks, but I remember one nighttime escapade in particular being the night a friend and I narrowly escaped the worst possible thing when I was fourteen-almost-fifteen, and she had just turned sixteen.
We were friends from attending the same church + school, and my friend had just gotten her license, aka the keys to our freedom from suburbia. She’d been working at a salon as a receptionist, and the stylists must not have known how young she was because they invited her to a party in Uptown one weekend, adding that she could “bring people”.
Eager to experience a night of partying in the city, we hatched a plan to tape down the sensor of my parent’s security system before they went to bed, so we could sneak out through the garage even after they’d set the alarm.
And that’s what we did.
I remember riding in the passenger seat with the windows down on a warm August night as we drove through the city, feeling a combination of wonderment-meets-dread. The adrenaline was a fresh thrill to my senses, but I knew if something happened to us my parents would have no idea where we’d gone – we had not left a note. I almost threw up thinking about how much trouble I’d be in if we got caught, or worse, but all of those feelings evaporated when we got to the party and I learned if I acted the part, people would assume I was much older – especially the guys. They welcomed us into a cloud of smoke where I caught a contact high for the first time in my life. We danced and talked about a lot of things I was way too young to understand, books I pretended I’d read, music I’d never heard of, world religions I couldn’t pronounce. I thought the girl who hosted the party was so cool, giving us beer in her cool city apartment and letting us hang with her cool city friends. It was all so cool to me. And when the party was over we walked to my friend’s car, the streetlights glowing orange like an aura, a warm assurance that we were as cool as the people who’d welcomed us into their world that night.
All illusions of coolness diminished when my friend later heard from the party’s host that someone had been raped right after we left the party that night, on a street only a block away from where we’d parked. And I knew in an instant – that could have been us.That so, completely could have been us.
Suddenly, everything about that night seemed decidedly uncool – how could these twentysomethings give alcohol to highschoolers? How could older guys get us high and look at us that way, as if we had anything to offer them at all? How could we have felt cool sneaking out, when it was actually totally wrong? Oh, the guilt! My parents had created the kind of environment where any of my friends were welcome at any time. How could I have abused their trust like that?
I recently asked my mom if she knew we’d left that night over twenty years ago. She had no idea, because we’d crept back in just as quietly as we’d left. And since this was before smartphones, if something had happened to us while we were out, our parents would have had no way of tracking us down to help.
I’m nauseous now with thoughts of “what IF????”
This is why I’ve been vigilant in telling Lola about how dangerous it is to sneak out. If no one knows where you are, no one can come looking for you – and that’s a peripheral worry compared to the big ones, like car accidents and kidnapping and sexual abuse. Nothing good happens after 10pm is what I’ve always said – though, that hasn’t spared me from my fair share of parental worry.
I sympathized with my client/friend on the photo shoot, and confided that we’d been through something similar with our fourteen year old recently, albeit less severe.
It was last summer, when I was leaving for a work trip and Christian was on a full day shoot. I was going over the basics of being home alone with Lola – “don’t sneak out” was a given, but I guess I should have covered “don’t invite boys over”, too – because that’s exactly what she and her friend did shortly after I left.
I thought they’d been a little too eager to wave at me from the window as I got into a Lyft for my flight, but I had no clue they could use a feature called SnapMap on Snapchat to invite a boy to come over who I had never met (honestly, frick that stupid app straight to hell – Snapchat is “artless and therefore purposeless”, as my husband Christian stated perfectly). And the only reason they got caught is that Christian forgot something at home (again, by God’s grace), and was startled to see a boy he didn’t recognize playing Nintendo Switch on our couch.
This kid was from school, and presumably safe – but we’d never met him, and had not given our permission for him to be there. How could my kid believe it was a good idea to invite a random boy over when we weren’t home?
How could I have thought it was a good idea to leave the security of my parents’ household at fourteen to go party in the city?!
These questions share an answer: teenagers have a squishy prefrontal cortex. They literally cannot make good choices on their own – and that’s why fourteen year olds do so many stupid things. I learned more about this by watching The Teenage Brain episode of The Mind Explained on Netflix, which my friend Katy recommended and I thoroughly enjoyed. Watch it if you’d like to better understand how the minds of teenagers function!
That their brains are still growing is why it’s so important to keep teenagers off reality-altering substances until they’re fully done developing – experts say that’s at age 25 – because it creates a lasting impact on the structure of their minds. It’s also why, when someone experiences trauma as a teenager, they can have a harder time functioning as adults. Through therapy, damage to the brain can be reversed; I know this from experience, and I encourage you to dive into the ample research around the topic if you’ve experienced trauma or have teens in your life (start here and here).
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m sharing all of this? Because even good kids like Lola and my client/friend’s kid are prone to making bad choices. It’s in their biological makeup. Teenagers need tons of guidance to do the right thing; the problem is, as they inch toward independence from us, we aren’t always with them to ensure they make good choices. This is the natural progression of things, though that knowledge is not very reassuring.
So how do we help our kids know the right thing to do when they feel like doing something stupid, careless, or downright dangerous?
We pray for discernment. For our kids, and for us as their parents.
What’s discernment? The definition says it all:
Our kids desperately need the ability to judge situations and circumstances well. In our digital world this skill is sorely lacking, which is especially alarming considering, “kids spend more time with media and technology than they do with their parents, time in school, or any other thing.” All of these hours on screens and messages received are not guaranteed to be full of wisdom; in some cases, they’re laden with downright lies. And, it’s increasingly harder for our kids to discern the truth from falsehoods on social media when it all seems entirely believable to their spongy, still-growing minds.
So how do we help our kids to know what’s right for themselves and make good decisions?
We need to pray for discernment.
I’ve heard a way of describing discernment as “the ability to perceive what is important from detail. To cut to the point. To see the big picture.”
This is what we all want for our kids, right? For them to be able to cut through the noise of our ultra-connected, highly-reactionary world to discern what is important, what is the point, what is true?
This wikipedia page has even more definitions on discernment and how it plays a major role in decision making. I consider it a critical life skill, one that needs honing, and we can lead by example in this department.
Christian and I have been praying for discernment in our own lives on a daily basis, as we run several businesses and a household together. We are renters saving up for a house, thirty-somethings praying about if/when to grow our family, and co-pilots on virtually every endeavor (shoutout to all my egalitarian friends!). When it comes to decision making, strong feelings can cloud our judgement, and this goes for both of us; it’s why we pray for discernment.
I like to think of discernment as a way of zooming out, to see all possible outcomes, envisioning future-me and weighing the consequences of my choices.
Discernment, I sense, is something like maturity.
Before I studied the word I probably used it only as a way to describe someone who really knows their wine – they have a discerning palate. Now I know discernment is an admirable quality to cultivate for everyday life situations, too; and our kids desperately need it.
We should teach our kids what discernment means, so they can be wise enough to decline invitations to get into cars with boys in the middle of the night or invite them over when the parents are out of town. We should teach them to strive to see the big picture, to weigh their actions against the possible consequences, and to not think they’re invincible enough to go partying in the city when they’re not even old enough to drive.
How do we achieve this? How can we help our kids practice discernment now, so they grow up to become wise adults?
And how do we become an example of wise adults who model discernment for our kids?
Thankfully, we can ask God for what we need.
Because of the bridge Jesus built for us to directly access God in prayer, we can boldly ask for what we need, and God is faithful to hear us and help. How amazing is that?
We don’t have to go at this parenting thing alone. We have a wonderful counselor in our corner who gives us everything we need. And, believe it or not – God is a father who loves our kids even more than we do.
I want our kids to be able to separate what is true and helpful from what’s false and harmful, like cutting the gristle off of steak, eating only what is nourishing and discarding the rest in the trash. Discernment that comes from God will help our kids (and us!) reject ideas that are trash.
Let’s pray for discernment, yeah? In this way we can partner with God to raise our kids into who they’re meant to be.
Thanks be to God, who equips us with every good thing.
This was the song I listened to as I wrote most of this blog; it reminds me so much of what it’s like to be young, getting only glimpses of who we will become as grownups. It’s playing on our Alexa all the time at home. Vibe out, my friends.
What was the stupidest thing you did as a teenager? Share in the comments, I would love to know – no judgement! This is a safe space to talk about the moronic choices we made when we still had squishy minds!