My favorite moments of each school day take place in the doorways of Gaebelein Hall before and after classes. Handshakes and fist bumps afford me opportunities to learn names and faces, and check in with students along their daily paths. “What’s new?” and “How are you doing?” are standard questions included in my regular doorway repartee.
The garden variety teenage replies include: “Good”, “Fine”, and “Okay” . . . but one reply which echoes clamorously in my ears with each new utterance is . . . “Tired” . . .
Why are teens tired?
In his 2004 book entitled Hurt, Chap Clark explains:
Midadolescents today seem to want to be incredibly busy. They do not know any different. And they are turned off by anyone’s attempt to put limits on them or to suggest priorities and boundaries. Midadolescents live in the midst of the only reality they know. They are afraid of the unknown but are also exhausted in the present.
If we’re honest . . . all of us – students, educators, parents – we often feel exhausted in the present, stretched and pulled in countless directions by an unrelenting mass of good things.
We know this is not exactly what we really want; we desire something more . . . or less. Ultimately, we desire for teens to acquire and develop skills that will stick, that will serve them throughout their lives, for much longer than their taxed short-term memories will allow. We desire that they obtain virtues, disciplines, habits that will bring joy and fulfillment to their lives, both in the present as well as in the distant future.
And yet, we just can’t shake the feeling that we, our family calendars, and our family culture, are the “dog” being wagged by a “tail” that is beyond our control. That “tail” is comprised of several components: professional pressures on parents, expectations from extended family, demanding athletics’ schedules, to name a few. However, for households with teenagers, the “tail” of college admissions can tend to “wag the dog” with greatest force.
It feels unnatural; our priorities seem disordered, but we don’t know what to do about it. We want to promote not only sanity, but holistic flourishing for our kids; at the same time, we don’t want them to miss out on opportunities for remarkable educations at prestigious institutions of higher education.
For parents and educators, our students’ college acceptance can subconsciously function as a tangible, culminating measurement of our own “success”, indicating how well we raised and educated them. We would never say that, of course, but it’s certainly very easy to internalize this belief without ever recognizing we have done so.
What if prestigious college admission isn’t the ONLY and ULTIMATE “end game”?
What if the quality and meaning of our lives was not dictated primarily by the institutions we or our children attend? Understandably, we encourage our kids to prioritize their school work, to make friends, to get involved in activities – all critical areas of personal development. These endeavors undoubtedly require our kids’ time and energy, and they experience a normal layer of fatigue created by investment in these good things.
As a college preparatory school, Stony Brook is committed to enhancing students’ opportunities to attend the finest colleges and universities in the land, to “have a seat” around tables of influence, to learn from the most esteemed professors in their fields of study.
But we also want to show students HOW and WHEN to find rest in the process. It is evident that a deeper level of exhaustion and fatigue is affecting today’s students in increasingly burdening ways.
“At the core,” Clark asserts, “. . . [teens] long for the safety and freedom of childhood and have no clear vision concerning what adulthood will be like. . . they are tired, and many are angry.”
Our kids are intelligent. They are keen observers of the world around them, and specifically of the adults in their lives, who are a few developmental stages ahead of them on life’s journey. They look to us as exemplars – parents, teachers, coaches – seeking for templates to follow in adulthood, templates of “the good life”.
Eventually our kids will graduate from college; maybe they’ll attend graduate school, med school, or law school after that. “What then?” they might ask. “Will our present toil and weariness be worth it in the long run?”
How can adults model deep rest for teens?
As adults, we must understand that our suggestions to teens about boundaries and priorities and rest will never take root until we have heeded our own advice. Teens need to see adults whose lives are structured intentionally around the things in life that matter most, things like faith, family, friends, vocation. They need to see us lead full, abundant lives – lives which shrewdly balance hard work and enjoyable rest, selfless lives which put others first – and we need to help them begin to practice this balance now.
Without a doubt, hard-working teens can always benefit from a few more hours of sleep, and we, at Stony Brook, are actively developing creative ways to afford our students better opportunities for physical rest. However, the deep, soul-level rest which students ultimately seek, needs to be our primary concern and focus.
Christ said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” May we as adults introduce our kids to a new reality, show them what it looks like to lay down our burdens, to create healthy boundaries, to prioritize laughter, to say ‘no’ every once in a while, and to look to the future with joy and hope, even as “old people” whose teen years are now a distant memory. Our example is crucial for our kids . . . though they won’t likely say so anytime soon.