When I tell people I spent twelve years teaching twelve-year-olds, most people make a face and offer me sympathy. But I miss them. Twelve-year-olds are awesome. If you can take their awkwardness in stride, they are that perfect blend of child and grown up. On the one hand they are becoming great abstract thinkers and are ready to take on the world. On the other hand they still have a childlike appreciation for silly.
What I love most about twelve-year-olds, however, is that while they might not talk to their parents, they are very interested in talking to other adults. No, they won't admit it, but really they are busy trying to figure out the adult world, gathering information in every interaction they have. That is why I believe that as a caring adult in a young person's life, you can have a greater influence on twelve-year-olds than any other age group.
Mrs. Alexander, the librarian at my middle school, was my savior. Talking to her was the one place I felt safe and known at school. For my daughter it was the band teacher who became her friend and inspiration. One of my clients was reminiscing about her neighbors down the street who made her feel welcome and special every time she walked through the door in a way that her parents never did.
Imagine the impact you can have on a young person. True, it takes time to make the connection strong enough to support a high-quality relationship, but any adult can lay the groundwork for teens trusting and looking to adults. Teens are everywhere. What you can do is notice them, reach out to them, show them you value them.
Sometimes the way you will connect will be unexpected. I recently saw three boys playing outside around the grocery store. It was Friday afternoon and they were emitting that school-is-out-for-the-week euphoria that we still remember as adults. I smiled at them as I went into shop, admiring their attempts to flick their skateboards. Later, I was hanging out at the front of the store waiting for my mother-in-law. The boys were in the store, and I had a strong suspicion from their body language that they had shoplifted the candy they were walking out with, but I wasn't sure enough to get the store management.
As I was driving out of the shopping center parking lot, I saw the boys had moved around the corner outside the drug store. So I stopped the car and opened the window. I told them everything I has seen and what I suspected. I looked at them and said, "Obviously I can't prove it, but if it is true, I want you to know that I understand you didn't do it because you are bad boys. But you are only thinking of yourselves, your own pleasure and your own power, and I expect more of you. I expect you to find ways to have fun and enjoy Friday afternoon that are not illegal and that don't hurt anyone else." They didn't deny my accusation but hung their heads and listened. When I was done and asked, okay? They nodded their heads and mumbled okay back.
What do I hope that they got from this interaction? Certainly they know that people are keeping an eye on them, but I hope they also could feel that I approved of them. I didn't approve of their behavior if indeed they were shop lifting, but I approved of them. And I trust in the adults they are going to become. Growing up is a process, and even adults are not always at their best. Our young people need our smiles, our positive comments, our questions, our curiosity. So, the next time you are standing at the crossing light with a teen or are served your coffee or have your grocery bag filled by some adolescent, look past the acne, the bad hair day, the piercings, the perpetual sneer and reach out to them. Make it a mission to be the caring adult in your community.
I'd love to hear who the caring adults were in your community. Was it a relative? A neighbor? A Coach? A teacher? Maybe it was the crossing guard or the bus driver. Take a moment to honor that person by telling us about him or her by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.