We have parent-teacher conferences later this week and it often strikes me that the parents and I know very different young people. This could be because I know them as students while their parents know them as children, or because I only see them for 80 structured minutes every other day. It might be because I see them around their friends in a different context than their parents do, or just because school and home are very different places. I enjoy sharing what I know with parents and, at the same time, learning about these young people from people who know them well.
An interesting thread of discussion I’ve heard from several grade 11 students recently, one that I don’t expect their parents are aware of, is that they wish their parents would pay more attention to them. This came up in several contexts, but there are two that stood out:
- Frustration from reasonably self-sufficient students with siblings who are not
- Frustration from students with siblings away at university
Both groups have said things like, “They’re constantly on top of him because he won’t do any of his work if they aren’t but I’m like, ‘Hello? Anyone interested in what I’m doing?'” and “I thought that once she went to college they’d stop focusing on her as much, but they still FaceTime her all the time and I’m like, ‘I’m here, too!'”
What strikes me here is not that students want attention – I know they do. They often come to class with an entirely unrelated question or something to share or just need a moment to complain. I have a feeling they appreciate a face-to-face encounter with someone who is not also holding a phone and scrolling through emails, messages, or Facebook while nodding and replying, “mhmm” at appropriate times, a phenomenon I often observe on the MRT, in restaurants, and walking down the street.
My students are pretty open about the negative impacts they feel that social media has had on their lives, as well as the pressure they experience to be within reach and involved at all times. They feel anxiety when they can’t be connected because so much rides on constant status updates, posts, and likes.
It worries me that much of the above counts as connection at all.
The teenagers I work with are also eager to talk about the importance of authentic personal connection and relationships over what exists in cyberspace. They readily admit to feeling lonely, isolated, and anxious whether they’re surrounded by people or not. I feel that, too, at times, and I didn’t have a smart phone until I was in my early 20s. I can’t imagine how it has been growing up with no quiet or boredom or permission to just ignore everyone and everything.
In all generations, teenagers often get a bad rap for just about anything they do (an ad recognizing this has been running in movie theatres lately). Instead of brushing them off as kids crying for attention, consider why they want to be noticed. Consider the incredible pressure on them to make something of themselves, do something worthwhile, and understand the world around them.
Young people have a lot to teach and offer the rest of us and just need a chance to do that. Listen to them. They have things to say, questions to ask, stories to share. They’re great people and I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about them through the conversations I’ll have with their parents later this week.