Talking to teens

Young people are often the target of negative bias, but many of them want to make a difference and, despite appearances, some of what their parents say can have a positive influence.

Group of teenagers looking at their phones


There has been quite a bit in the news about teenagers in the election campaign, from forcing them to do National Service to lowering the age at which they can vote to 16. In part, the two are linked. Shouldn’t 16 year olds be allowed a vote on National Service, given it is their lives that will be affected? It seems kind of anti-democratic to enforce a policy which is essentially about citizenship on a group of citizens who are not even allowed a say in it. In our house, the National Service policy is not going down well at all.

That is not to say that the teens don’t want to contribute to society. My eldest daughter did community service as part of her International Baccalaureate course – she helped out in old people’s homes and in a primary school. Daughters two and three didn’t do IB so missed out on that component – which could easily be adopted more broadly in schools, but have campaigned on climate change and veganism, taken part in model UNs and been involved in arts projects. They have a strong investment in society; they just don’t think society is particularly invested in them. It’s got to be a two-way thing.

I work a lot with young international scholars and a lot of them are absolutely committed to improving the lives of others, including in their local community in the UK, but the rhetoric that they increasingly see around them is very toxic with international students being scapegoated for societal ills which have much deeper, domestic roots. Instead of dividing everyone against each other, the old against the young, for instance, or people from abroad against people born in the UK, we should be pulling together. Many of the problems all generations face are not confined to the UK, after all. Why not try to motivate people to make a difference?

Aren’t we all tired of division now? As parents we surely want young people to thrive. Contrived intergenerational divisions get in the way of us all pulling together. And while it can sometimes seem that young people of any generation think their parents have nothing relevant to say to them, the truth is often less clear cut than that.

A new US study suggests young people are listening to their parents’ advice and learning even when they appear not to be. The study focused on 100 mother-child pairs where the child was in the fifth grade (10-11 years old). The mums gave advice involving strategies to solve academic issues, such as reconsidering the problem, strategising and seeking help. Although the advice was often met with dismissal or vague responses, the study found that it still had longer-term benefits. The study emphasised the importance of providing young people with a wide range of suggestions they can apply in different situations, especially when dealing with academic challenges.

This will gladden the hearts of many parents Sometimes you do tend to think your advice is dismissed as a matter of course. There is often eye-rolling involved and jokes about things being different to back in the day, but maybe it all does go in at some level and is part of the mix. What it shows is that we should never give up on communication and we shouldn’t underestimate both ourselves and young people.

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