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Teens want engagement of adults, no matter what vibes they send

As the director of a small youth journalism program at the University of St. Thomas, I  spent most of my summer consorting with teenagers — teens with such curiosity and drive that they chose to attend our journalism camps instead of sleeping until noon, watching reruns of the "Tyra Banks Show" or perfecting their jump shots. Some came from tough neighborhoods, others from upscale addresses.

In indirect ways — teens would never be this bluntly needy — many of them made clear that they want more adults engaged in their lives. 

When students are years behind in grammar, spelling and other mechanics of language, they want teachers to take control of their classrooms and teach students what they desperately need.

When they put their heads down during class and claim they're still listening, they want someone to explain that the teacher assumes that they're bored to death. Or to hear why they didn't get to sleep until 2 a.m.

Not a warning, but action

When an argument between teens threatens to erupt into a fistfight, they don't want adults to stand by and warn them that they could be suspended. They want them to step in and calm things down.

When there's an argument on the street, they don't want cops to slow down, roll by and watch from the squad car. They want them to get out and talk to people — better yet, get out and talk to people when there isn't a fight brewing.

They want parents who won't book them hotel rooms or supply them with booze because, hey, at least they're drinking where it's safe.  

They want us to act like grown-ups and teach them the skills they need to succeed in work, love and life.

Over and over while working on a project on youth and violence, teens said they want more committed adults in their lives as mentors, teachers and parents. You can hear their voices on our website.

As parents, we're often embattled — over curfews, clothes, hair, homework, music, money, messy rooms — that it's hard to hear over the shouting.  As mentors, teachers, coaches, bosses, aunties and uncles, we have the chance to engage teens without the consuming anxiety. Trust me, it's far easier working with other people's teens.

Postwar France and Israel
Years ago, when I was a reporter, I interviewed a professor who had studied the institutions created in France and Israel after World War II to care for orphaned teens. While orphanages were a poor place for young children, he found that most teens came out of them pretty well. 

He cited two reasons: Adolescence is a time when teens are looking beyond the nuclear family for role models. In a well-run institution — orphanage or prep school — there are many.

Perhaps even more important, the French and Israelis viewed these orphans not as waifs or outcasts. They saw them as the seeds of a new generation that would lead their nations  to a more peaceful and prosperous future. 

So step out there. Tell a joke. Give a hug. Teach a skill. Listen.

Lynda McDonnell is the executive director of ThreeSixty, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.


Want to add your voice?

If you're interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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