If you were to make a new mix tape today, what would be on it? What songs speak to you right now? Would you go back to the olden days and grab some of the songs from your mis-spent youth, or would you find something a little bit more modern? John Cusack had a bit about this in the movie High Fidelity, based on the book of the same name written by Nick Hornby. You have to time things out right, you want to lead the listener from one song to another to really make sure that they’re grasping your intent.
Giving a mixtape lets a person know you see them, you hear them, and you’re thinking thoughtfully about them. It demonstrates gifting them with your most precious commodity: Time.
I’m curious: what do today’s teenagers do? If you have teenagers, because I don’t quite yet, send me a message. Let me know how teens are sending one another messages that are not direct messages — and by “direct messages” I mean sending oblique messages, sending coded messages, because if I give you a mixtape, that’s a coded message. I’m coming at you from the side. For simplicity’s sake, when a boy wants to tell a girl he likes her, what does he do these days? What are the steps he takes? Because I don’t know if it’s the same as what we used to do or not, but I will tell this:
The feelings are the same.
This makes me so angry with adults who work with teens (or even those who don’t work with teens). What makes me so angry is adults who have completely and utterly forgotten what it was like to be 16, to be 18, or to be 13. It frustrates the shit out of me now, as an adult.
I understand frustration with kids. Yes, when your kid comes home and they’re all bent out of shape because somebody said something unkind to them, or they got a B instead of an A (or they got an F instead of a D, or whatever your standard is right now) and they’re all upset about that, and you’re over here thinking, “This is so not a big deal.” Maybe they got second place in the speech tournament (total gyp!!!) or the team didn’t make the playoffs, and you . . . a tax-paying, mortgage-holding adult or whatever you happen to be . . . is going, “FFS, this is not a big deal, please contain yourself, Young Person…”
I get it.
I absolutely feel the same way whenever one of my kids flips out (and they’re not even teenagers yet) and I’m over here going, “Oh, dude, this is so not the biggest worry you’re going to have in your life.”
But we have to do better, grownups.
We have to remember. We have to go back to those times when we felt that same way, because most of us did. (There were a handful of us who were born at age 30, like, “All right, how do I finish school? I got to finish school and go on with my life, how soon can I do that?” There were a couple of them at my high school who, from day one, were so beyond high school. They were so past dealing with high school trauma and bullshit, high school was just a speedbump for them.)
Most of us actually did go through adolescence. And we went through it hard, in the most dramatic possible fashion. Some of it was legit. I had friends who had no food, friends who were getting hit, friends who had real-fucking-life shit to deal with. And some of it was just . . . drama.
It doesn’t matter which it is when we deal with it as adults. Our response is the same.
We need to remember that, one: this is absolutely real to them. And two . . . they haven’t experienced everything we’ve experienced yet.
Sometimes we place our adult metrics or screens of life experience against theirs and they don’t match up. They can’t. They’re flipping out over this “little tiny thing,” like they got third place in this competition instead of second or first.
We know it’s not a big deal. Trust me, in the grand scheme of things, nobody gives a righteous royal fuck that I was “Best Masque & Gavel Member 1992.” Nobody cares! It doesn’t matter when you’re 47. But at the time? My God! If I hadn’t won that award, it would’ve been so traumatic and so scarring!
. . . And I would’ve gotten over it, because there’s a ton of shit I’ve gotten over, just like you have. But we need to remember this is the first time teens are going through this. The first time they lose the big game, the first time they lose the competition, the first time they get the awful grade, the first time the girl or the boy says “No thank you, I’m not interested.”
We need to remember that and we need to treat them accordingly, speaking to them with love and kindness.
I admit, as an adult, as an instructor, as a parent . . . I sometimes forget, because I have my own problems and I get stressed, and I get snappy, and I say things that I later have to go back and apologize for. But most of the time, my wife and I try very hard to remember that, for whatever it is they are upset about, it’s for real.
My son is 10 and in fourth grade. Recently he and some of his friends got in trouble on the playground for playing Red Light Green Light, and apparently it was a very physical game (because they are 10 year old boys!). The playground monitor said, “No! Stop! You’re not allowed to do that anymore because you’re playing Squid Game!”
To which my wife and I were like, “What is the hell is that?” We had to go look it up, after which, okay yeah, I could see why maybe they would be concerned about it. But it’s not as if that’s what they were really playing! As if this were a life-and-death saga playing out on the playground.
My son came home really upset for having gotten “yelled at” at school. Turns out he wasn’t really yelled at, but the playground monitor didn’t do a good job of expressing her concern, so yes, she was also in the wrong. But he happens to be a very sensitive kid and he was physically, legitimately upset.
What we did not say is, “Son, life’s going to get so much worse, calm down.” You cannot say that to a 10-year-old in the moment. You say, “Oh my God, dude, that really sucks. What happened? Tell me about it. Wow, man, I am so sorry that happened. I’m so sorry you’re upset. Yeah, that really sucks.”
You can come back to it later and have the discussion about how it’s not a big deal, and about how to deal with such a scenario in the future, but you don’t open with that. You don’t lead with that.
This is particularly important the first time your kid comes home with a broken heart.
Man, I am not looking forward to that, because it’s coming. I know it’s coming. You went through it, I went through it, some of us went through it multiple times . . . but the first time, or the first time it’s the big one . . . in my experience, everybody has that one breakup that just fucking crushes you.
The first time they come home with that broken heart, it’s just all the angst and drama that you can possibly imagine, it’s just this Dawson’s Creek and My So-Called Life all over the place, it’s going to be so tempting to say, “Get over it,” or “She isn’t worth it,” or, “You’re too good for him.” Let’s all remember that our first job is to hug them (and maybe get ice cream) and say, “I’m so sorry. I know. I know, and I’m here.”
In other words . . . you sort of make them a mix tape. I see you, I hear you, I’m thinking of you.
Acknowledge that the pain is real. Acknowledge that it is true in this moment and the hurt is fucking real. Remember what it was like that first time, and give your kid or your students that same benefit of understanding.
Don’t worry, the day will come when you can talk about it and have a calm and reasonable discussion about the relationship or about what went wrong or what they can do differently next time, etc. etc. But right then in that moment, man . . . just let them be young people. Remember they are still children, and let them be children. Your brain isn’t even done developing until around age 25; let’s show a little grace.
Don’t dismiss them. Please, I beg you, do not dismiss them.
And maybe, I don’t know . . . make them a mixtape.
If you have not yet read Mercy Rule, it's quite possibly my best novel, and it's all about the risks of dismissal. If you have a hard time differentiating your characters' voices, this is an excellent book to study. Notice how the POV characters choose words and rhythms differently from one another. Take a look at it here. (This is an affiliate link. Because royalties amount to squat.)