The rise of three new cultural norms came into being at the start of my high school ‘adventure.’
In the fall of my eighth-grade year, US News and World Reports starting publishing their ‘Top College’ rankings. Seemingly overnight one could actually say ‘School A’ was better than ‘School B’ or ‘School C.’ It was no longer a matter conjecture or opinion or fit… you could find out which was the 'best.'
We poured over the results. We also started comparing the grads coming out of our small school on where they were accepted. Then, we started fretting about it ourselves.
It didn't take long for the guys to realize something: the girls were kicking our tails in the academic area – it just seemed easier to them. Yes, there were a few guys who were rock stars at the academic side and they gave us hope. (V and Maddawg, I’m thinking of you).
But most of us? It was a daily struggle. We literally feared the rankings – our own amongst the class and of the schools to which we wanted to apply.
Speaking of Looks…
At the same time, our high school’s football team adopted the ‘Bigger, Faster, Stronger’ weight program. Improving ourselves physically became all the rage. We worked out like crazy, watched videos, thought about our food intake… and still got 'it' handed to us on the football field.
Coach Mattox and Coach Presnell did their best to get us ready. And, though we didn’t succeed on the football field, they both showed us what it meant to be good men.
While the guys were pumping iron and drinking protein shakes, our girl-friends were suddenly dealing with new competition – the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
Every year, the boys were excited to see the new shots of Elle and Kathy while the girls were beginning to compare themselves more and more to an airburshed, idealized woman.
Sunday Night Centering
At the time, this confluence of events didn’t feel like a big deal. Heck, we liked getting stronger and loved looking at the pinups. Looking back on it now, though, these three new ‘cultural norms’ had enormous ripples. Their waves were slowly but surely causing a lot of anxiety.
I was lucky, though. Many of my friends and I spent almost every Sunday evening together at 'youth group' - two hours of building a relationship with God that masqueraded as a party. We laughed, we flirted, and we talked while surrounded by adults who volunteered their time and accepted and loved us for who we were.
Every kid in the room was different. There were jocks and party people. There were book worms and wall flowers.
But, when we were together on those evenings surrounded by Mamma Martee, Carl, Ken, and Mike, we knew we were something else, too: God’s beloved children. This knowledge saved a lot of us from choices and experiences with which others had to deal.
Have things changed much? Based on the young people with whom I work professionally, those I raise, and the kids who come through our home, I believe things have changed… for the worse.
The power of the iPhone, Instagram and Snapchat have allowed our teens to compare themselves to anyone they want, at any time, from anywhere in the world.
And these kids online have it going on! Everyone seems to have perfect skin, tight abs, fantastic hair and hundreds of ‘likes.’
How are ‘normal kids’ to compare with that? Of course, they can't. But, even though it's not healthy and out of reach, our teens try to match up and the effort eats them up, one picture at a time.
Then there is the school drama. Our teens are performing more hours of community service, studying longer at harder classes, and taking more tests all in the hopes of getting in to 'School A.' And, if they haven’t mastered 'it' yet, there awaits an army of tutors and pill pushers who can help them focus and perform so they can fulfill their near-term dream that will make everything work out.
The results? We have an under-slept, over-medicated, anxious generation of young adults.
We are missing a big piece to the puzzle and it’s the key to helping our teens turn things around.
Mind + Body + Soul = Whole
Our teens are distracted. With so much going on in their lives, how could they not be? School, activities, homework, social media, screens…. There is a firehouse of information coming at them and it is always on.
They are focused on their minds and their bodies (and their 'likes.')
The result? All of this comparison makes them anxious - there is precious little time when everything in their lives is 'synced up.'
Our teen sons and daughters are missing that feeling of ‘whole-ness’ or ‘purpose.’ Instead, they are ‘doing’ to try to get ahead, feeling themselves ‘behind’, and either working to do more or simply giving up.
Instead, I suggest our teens add the missing piece to their life puzzle: filling their soul with a relationship with Jesus.
In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus addresses anxiety. He draws our attention to the beauty of the natural world, assures us of our Father’s love, and reminds us of our value.
Paul echoes these statements and gives us that wonderful 'rejoice' in Philippians 4:4-9.
When our teens know they are loved by an all-accepting, all-knowing, and all-forgiving Father, it’ll change them by filling their souls.
This knowledge will help to keep the ambition of ‘doing’ in check. It will give them perspective, one which reminds them a) they are not alone and b) it’s not all about them.
It won’t make everything better all the time. Remember, there are a LOT of lamentations to be found in Pslams. However, a closer relationship with Jesus will help our teens in the struggle against sin. And, as David Brooks said in the Road to Character, it’s not about beating sin but getting better in the struggle against it.
A Simple Plan Ahead
Our teens have to pursue the improvement of their minds for it makes the world larger and more interesting.
They need to push their bodies for it creates a cascade of benefits.
And, they have to develop a relationship with their Heavenly Father to fill their soul… and make them whole. If you want some help, here's a workbook that can help start the process.
Have a great week!