I have some information that might interest you.
Your teenage sons have raging hormones – so do your teenage daughters. So, for that matter, do your trans* and queer teenagers. So let’s start this letter by leaving off the gender-specific nature of some of these conversations, shall we? Adolescence is tricky enough without resorting to classifying people into a binary gender box that only works sometimes. Moving on.
The teenagers you are supporting as they walk through adolescence are facing massive amounts of information, are being forced to make decisions about social interactions that none of us are really ready for, and and they’re doing it under the weight of crushing hormonal change.
So what should you tell your young people about the degree and nature of the visual stimulation – the innundation of selfies – the sexualization of young people, both by themselves and by others? How do you help your young people navigate these treacherous waters and arrive at a place of self respect and respect of their peers?
You do not, Parents of Teenagers, do this by deleting your teenagers’ Internet connections with a one-strike-you’re-out policy. You do not do it by scrutinizing (or teaching your teenager to scrutinize) whether someone is wearing a bra in a picture. You do not do it by teaching them that calling out another person’s sexuality is ever appropriate. You do not do it by invading your young people’s privacy, online or off.
You do it through conversation – hours and hours of conversation that start with children before they turn five about what it means to be a boy or a girl. These early childhood conversations turn into adolescent conversations that openly discuss what someone might be trying to say with a selfy. Approach these images – all of them – as though they’re art hanging in a museum. Talk about composition, about lighting, about message. Respect what your young people have to say on the matter – they have opinions too, and those opinions are probably more important right now than your own.
See, the thing is, your teenagers spend more time in their own head than in yours. You cannot control what is inside their heads. Instead, you should try and get into your teenagers’ heads along with them. Hang out with them there. Understand what makes them tick without making them feel guilty about ticking in the first place. You’ll eventually learn the levers, the moments, the small openings, when an opinion or a thought from you can slide in and fit just right.
Sometimes raising teenagers is talked about as this time in your life where you have to have iron clad approaches to things, particularly to controlling your children. But that ignores so much of the potential joy of the experience. Jump on that train of joy and hilarity and absurdity. Have those conversations, have them in depth, and listen to the passion your teenager brings to them. Both of you will be better for it.
This post was inspired by a letter titled FYI (if you’re a teenage girl) going around right now from a mother to all teenage girls who is threatening to cut Facebook and other Internet ties between her sons and girls who post pictures of themselves without bras on. I call bullshit. I also call slut shaming, a shallow thought process, and a disappointing lack of commitment to conversation with her sons.
There’s another recent blog post, Seeing a Woman: A conversation between a father and son, that I really love. Some favorite quotes include, “It is a woman’s responsibility to dress herself in the morning. It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing.” and “A woman, or any human being, should not have to dress to get your attention. You should give them the full attention they deserve simply because they are a fellow human being. On the other side, a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you. You need to be in control of you.” This is, of course, the case regardless of the gender of the people involved, but the strength of the words is notable.