Do you ever have those moments in life when you can feel yourself growing? An experience surprises us, a connection inspires us, and we get the sense that we will never be the same. And it’s a good thing.
I had one of those amazing moments, actually several of them recently, and I bet the place they occurred will surprise you: 4 days with 2000 teens.
When I shared with friends that I would be speaking to a large group of teenagers, a look of fear swept across most of their faces. Their first question was “aren’t you terrified?” That was followed by, “good luck grabbing their attention, I am sure they will be on their phones the whole time.” One would have thought I needed a suit of armor and a translator to connect with what many view as a foreign species. Luckily, I had some knowledge they did not have.
First, I know that teenagers are right where they need to be. In Daniel Siegel latest book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, I learned that the exact things adults view as negative traits in teens are actually developmentally necessary to help teens take a giant risk and leap out into the adult world. Yes, they can make decisions that seem to defy logic. Yet, it’s that ability to take a risk, to think outside of the box that has lead to some of the world’s greatest contributions to art, music, science, and technology. Thank goodness they are willing to take the risks that seem so hard for us grown ups to do.
Do they make mistakes? Absolutely. As do adults. If humans are not making mistakes, we are missing opportunities to challenge ourselves and grow. In fact, our ability to let teens have enough control to make the small mistakes in life without rescuing, shaming, or minimizing is what helps them learn which risks are worthwhile and which ones endanger themselves and others. More importantly, letting them make their own mistakes and handle the emotions that come along with them is the exact thing that builds resilience. Grit comes from believing you can get through something. You have to have the experience of getting through one challenge to bring grit to the next challenge.
The second thing I knew about these teens is what drew me across the country. This wasn’t just any group of teens, but a group that was near and dear to my heart. I leapt at the chance to speak at BBYO's 2014 International Convention because this organization gave me the opportunities to challenge myself when I was a teen. It was also the organization that supported me through my mistakes so that I was willing to rise to the next challenge. I spent four years building deep friendships that are still with me today. I spent 4 years in board positions on the chapter, city and regional level. I too had the amazing opportunity to attend BBYO International Convention when I was a teen.
BBYO builds leaders. So speaking to them about “Life Skills for Leaders” was a wonderful way to give back. Before the trip, I reflected on exactly what it felt like as a teen to be so empowered, inspired, and motivated to actively pursue my dreams and create change in the world. It was not just the concrete skills I learned that enabled me to do this. BBYO was a place where I felt valued and respected for what I could contribute to the world as a teen, not just for who I would be when I “grew up.”
We don’t just magically get where we are in life without experience. We can’t expect our teens to grow up and lead the world if they are not given the opportunity to do it at every age and stage of life. From slowing down and giving your preschooler the time and patience to put on their own shoes, to letting teens feel both the joy and pain that comes with dating and relationships, we can’t hold back. Yes, it’s scary. It’s hard to let go, and it’s painful to watch your child struggle. But the only way they know how to rise from that pain is from practice. And if you really want to impact their development of grit, manage your own anxiety and let them know in no uncertain terms that you believe in them!
This is what my time in BBYO did for me. The organization, from the top to the bottom, models its values. It did for my parents when they were teens, it did for me as a teen, it did for each of those 2000 teens at the convention, and for the tens of thousands of teens around the world who are a part of it. I know this is true because of what I saw in every teen I had the opportunity to interact with.
I saw this massive group able to listen respectfully to me, and all of the other speakers who presented. In the elevators they introduced themselves, they asked about me, what I did, and if I was in BBYO when I was a teen? They were engaged and highly interested in learning about how their brains work and how they can use that knowledge to deal with emotions before solving problems. Imagine the world if we all understood just that!
In breakout sessions, they asked inspiring questions about leadership and wanted to know if what they were learning would help them in their own careers. They asked deep, thoughtful questions about relationships with their parents, their friends, and their significant others. Many of these questions had no easy answers, and they appreciated that I didn’t pretend they did. I was modeling my values for them. If I want them to grow in to healthy adults, I knew I needed to treat them as such.
BBYO is just one example of what happens when we create the space for teens to thrive. There are many fantastic youth organizations that do this for our youth. Having a peer group with shared values and passion pushes us to our highest selves. This is true for all humans. Is there any time more valuable to have that than the teen years?
If we view teens in a negative light, that’s what we will see. If you are willing to let go of thinking you know more than they do, you just might learn something. I know I did. I learned that our future looks bright in the hands of these amazing people. I was reminded of what happens when large groups come together for a shared purpose. I also learned that when an organization is clear and constant in its values, and passes that on over multiple generations, the power to create change is never greater.
I returned to my family and work feeling rejuvenated and inspired from what I saw. I am so grateful to every teen there for welcoming me home to BBYO.