Working with Teens: Pairing patience with persistence

by Mark Dixon

Originally published on February 24, 2015

My son, Sam, is 8 years old. As anyone would say of his own child, he’s quite remarkable (no, really. . . he is). To meet Sam is to know Sam, as he is often quick to share his thoughts as they surface, with whoever is present. Due to his gift of engaging loquaciousness, speaking with Sam can sometimes feel like speaking to a “little adult”, as he goes on and on about topics of interest to him.

Consequently, I find at times that, if I’m not careful, I can be quick to expect more from him than is reasonable for an 8-year-old. My wife and I don’t consider ourselves to be exacting or over-demanding parents, but we do hope to create a context of faithful accountability for our children, both nurturing their unique gifts, and also challenging them to grow in their areas of strength and weakness.

At Stony Brook, we have similar desires. Our mission states that the School “exists to challenge young men and women to know Jesus Christ as Lord, to love others as themselves, and to grow in knowledge and skill, in order that they may serve the world through their character and leadership.” These aspirations are noble, not grandiose or lofty. However, the means employed to achieve these outcomes require frequent honing and reassessment, especially as we observe adolescent development in the “Information Age”.

You see, much like precocious children, adolescents present like “little adults”. I am daily astonished by the brilliance and profundity that I encounter each day at Stony Brook, whether in classroom discussions, corporate performances, even hallway conversations. Our students are amazing! As a result, both as parents and educators in their lives, there may be times when we expect more of them than is developmentally reasonable.

In January, The Guardian ran an article entitled, “Secrets of the teenage brain”, highlighting insights from Dr. Frances Jensen, neurologist at The University of Pennsylvania. In the article, she explains that “adolescents’ brains are more malleable than they’ll ever be . . . teen years are crucial for learning and establishing lifelong habits . . . however, we also tend to expect a little bit more out of adolescents than we should.”

So how do adults working with teens strike the perfect balance between nurture and challenge, especially when adolescence is such a vital, habit-forming stage of development? Jensen goes on to explain that “people might think their capacity for academic achievement is set in stone from a very young age, but [even] this can change quite dramatically over adolescence.” Acknowledging adolescence as an optimal time for personal, intellectual, and spiritual formation, we must also be careful not to expect too little of our students.

Stony Brook provides students with an abundance of opportunities for true leadership. We rely on adolescents each day to carry out real responsibilities which significantly shape our day-to-day lives as a community. Many would agree that this is a unique strength of our educational program. From time to time, though, this can be a stretch for some students, and this is where the patience of adults in their lives is so important.

Our standards for our adolescents (at home, at work, at school, on the playing field, in the studio, etc.) should certainly be reasonable, but they should also stretch their capacities. Our persistence in challenging and holding students accountable is faithful stewardship of the magnificent creations that they are. But even more important than our persistence, our students need to experience our patience and our grace. Standards without persistent accountability are ineffective, but persistent accountability without patience is discouraging, even potentially damaging.

To be patient is not to lower one’s standards. Patience considers the other, displays empathy and understanding, and graciously waits as the other tries again. Our students need us to challenge them, but they need to know that they aren’t adults yet – and that’s okay.

Proverbs 19:11 states, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” As teens deal with a vast range of emotions throughout adolescence, may they witness and one day proclaim the wisdom and glory of our patient persistence in their lives.

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