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

Good Relationships: Show Us What They Look Like

This week I’ll be writing a few posts about adolescents and adolescent health.  Yesterday’s post got me thinking about this group of people again in ways I haven’t for some time, and I miss working on behalf of those crazy kids.

Some people think teenagers are hard to love.  In spite of myself, I think they are wonderful.  Sure, they can be hard to communicate with at times.  They don’t like us grown ups much.  They live to test boundaries in ways both exhausting and aggravating.  And sometimes they endanger others and themselves.  Yet there is just something so charming about their delicate posture on the teeter-totter between childhood and adulthood that melts my heart.  Growing up is gut-wrenchingly difficult work, and at no time is that more obvious than the teen years.

It’s too easy to ask questions about why kids are they way they are, as if we adults have nothing to do with it.  We have almost everything to do with it.  In its publication “Talking Back: What Teens Want Adults to Know About Teen Pregnancy” the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy highlights 10 concerns young people have.  One of the most powerful is this:

Show us what good, responsible relationships look like.  We’re as influenced by what you do as by what you say.  Demonstrating a respectful relationship—one that is characterized by trust, love, communication, and responsibility—can go a long way in helping us understand why healthy relationships are so important and worthwhile.

No one can start an argument by saying relationships are difficult.  They are very difficult, and the added layer of being role models for the young in our relationships might be considered another layer of challenge.  It might, however, be considered an opportunity to break out of patterns of struggle for purposes above and beyond ourselves.

When I take the time to think about it, I feel empowered to be a better partner, daughter, sister, and friend when I think about what my life looks like to my child.  Most importantly in this context are the partner and friend relationships, because those relationships are voluntary.  All are important, but these relationships are choices young people I care about must make and carry out for themselves.  What do I show them every day?

Conflict resolution.  Communication.  Self-respect and respect for others.  Caring for the body.  Caring for the mind.  Caring for the spirit.  Knowing one’s own values and priorities and carrying them forward at home and at work.  Having the courtesy to honor the values and priorities of others when they differ from one’s own.  Young people look to us every day for answers to questions about these issues, even when they don’t explicitly ask or tell us they are curious and watching.

Let’s recommit to showing them what it these things look like.  Teens may make us crazy, but they deserve our best.

Image credit: Free Extras