Flight of the Fledgling: Adolescents and Risk

fledg·ling also fledge·ling (fl j l ng). n. 1. A young bird that has recently acquired its flight feathers.

One of the most common images of necessary risk is the baby bird, poised on the edge of its nest.  There comes a time when every strong and healthy little avian creature struggles up to take the plunge, and if it doesn’t figure it out on its own, it’s momma’s job to push it out, for its own good.

In our species, the teenage years are the human version of a period for taking necessary risk.  The necessity of the process does nothing to mitigate how nail-bitingly stressful it is to behold; but now and then considering risk-taking as a developmental task for adolescents can help adults be a little more patient and understanding as our baby birds flop their way into the world.

Young people don’t wake up one day as responsible, functioning, healthy adults.  They learn a lot by trial and error.  I’ll never forget my own introduction to smoking tobacco.  My decision was influenced strongly by adult behavior and by my general conviction that I needed to try on this behavior if I was going to ever move forward to become “grown up.”  I was thirteen years old on a student exchange trip to France, and I was the youngest student in our group.  My absolute idol was a high school senior on the trip from my school system who was tall, rail thin, totally sophisticated, and mysteriously beautiful.  For some unknown reason she let he hang out with her.  She smoked Dunhill cigarettes, which are made by British American Tobacco company and generally considered “luxury” cigs.

"Remember that fledgling birds are learning to fly and when you see them on the ground, leave them be and bring your pets inside. Courtesy of Wildlife Images."

Of course we all know that there is nothing luxurious about cancer, phlegm, and emphysema, but you can’t really convey that to a fledgling, not all the way when you are competing against a powerful if misguided instinct to develop into an adult.  Thankfully, smoking never really took off for me, and I believe one of the reasons is that my father gave me a story that “allowed” that to happen.  He told me once that he really tried to be a smoker (which to this day cracks me up).  He tried cigarettes, pipes, and various other techniques for consuming tobacco, but at the end of the day he “just didn’t like it.”  As simple as that is, I think it created a different paradigm for me than anything any other adult was selling.  I will always be grateful for dad showing me that putting down something you pick up is a choice that can be successfully implemented, and especially for admitting that he wanted to be cool but eventually decided someone else’s definition of cool was not going to run his life.

This to me is the ultimate risk in many ways for all of us, and maybe the last great wing pump before we can really soar.  Teens are going to try things, sometimes dangerous things.  They want to find out what happens, yes; but they also want to find out where certain behaviors and choices fit in the framework of the adult they are trying to become.  Of course this is rarely a conscious process, but if we watch kids taking risks and remember they are not necessarily permanent decisions but learning processes, it can help.

Some risks will be unacceptable, and should be explained as such.  Kids will still probably try them anyway, but as they make their final decisions about who they will be as adults they are likely to remember what we told them.  “I tried that.  I chose not to make it part of who I am today.”

That message can go a long way.

Image source: Salem-News.com

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