Mistakes Shape Us, NOT Define Us

All of us make mistakes.  We are not defined by them but rather shaped by them.  Teens are at a time in their lives when they will make lots of mistakes.  Science has shown that the brain chemistry and barin structure of teens is going through a major shakeup particularly in the frontal lobe.  The frontal lobe is the primary decision-making center.  No wonder they make their fair share of mistakes!  On top of that, they are starting to get a taste of independence.  They are now  making more decisions which naturally means there will be more mistakes.

What we do to rectify the mistakes we make is what defines us.  Let’s say our teen fails a math test miserably because he decides to play video games rather than study.  Instead of blaming the teacher or making excuses, he can own up to his poor choice.  From there, he can talk to his teacher, apologize, and ask if there is any way to retake the test or get extra credit.  Now he has gone from a seemingly irresponsible teen to a teen who cares about his academics and takes charge.  A more serious example is a teen who decides to have relations with a boy before she is ready.  She might then feel ashamed and maybe helpless.  She might even feel like she no longer has the right to say no to future sexual advances.  She must realize that she still has the power of choice.  She can say to herself “I made the wrong choice and I will not do it again until I am ready.”

Owning up to mistakes and making sure our next decision is a good one is not always easy. We all make mistakes, but we all have the power and the right to move past them.  The next time a teen in your life makes a major mistake, sit down with her and figure out what she has learned from her mistake and what she will do to avoid it in the future.  There is a beautiful song called “You are More” by Tenth Avenue North.  When you have a chance, listen to it [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3J3M7uVjwI8].  For now, here is a taste of the lyrics.  This is a religious song, but everyone can appreciate the underlying theme of forgiveness and moving past mistakes.

There’s a girl in the corner,

With tear stains in her eyes,

From the places she’s wandered,

And the shame she can’t hide,

She says, “How did I get here?”,

I’m not who I once was. 

And I’m crippled by the fear

that I’ve fallen too far to love.

You are more than the choices that you’ve made.

You are more than the sum of your mistakes.

You are more than the problems you create.

You’ve been remade.

         -Tenth Avenue North

Teaching Teens to Speak Up For Themselves

Schools, parents, and counselors all drill it in to teens to speak up when someone is bullying them.  However, we as parents and as a society forget to teach our teens when to speak up to authority figures.  In fact, until the teen years, some often-used phrases are “listen to your teacher”,” don’t interrupt”, “do what they say”, “you have no choice”, and many more phrases that remind kids that authority figures are not to be questioned.  The most famous phrase would be “Because I said so!”.  For the most part, excluding dangerous or harmful situations, we tell our kids that they must listen to and not question authority figures.  When big issues come up, parents do get involved and speak up against the authority figure.  But at some point, the transition must be made so that the teens are able to speak up for themselves.

There are a few situations that I encountered as a teen that I still think about to this day. For example, I had a male band director that would walk by my chair in the morning and whisper in my ear “You look nice today” or “Your hair looks beautiful”.  It was very inappropriate and made me feel uncomfortable.  That same man would lecture during band about “lazy welfare recipients” (about 75% of the class had parents on welfare).  No one in our band of 240 kids said a thing about it.  This man was a major authority figure that was looked up to in the community.  Once in a while this situation pops into my head, and I visualize myself giving this man a few choice words.

Here are some common situations in which teens should speak out:

  • An authority figure is acting inappropriately
  • Rules do not make sense
  • An authority figure says something that is offensive or that goes against their core beliefs
  • You have a true need that seems to be overlooked or authority refuses to handle
  • Something was handled unfairly

Here are some examples of when not to speak out:

  • You make a bad grade because you didn’t study
  • You don’t like the rule just because you want things your way
  • You are currently angry and not in control of your emotions

Let’s take my own personal example of the band director and come up with an action plan.  It could have looked something like this…

  • Think about why it bothers her so much
  • Talk to her parents about it
  • Come up with a well thought out statement regarding why his actions are inappropriate
  • Submit a complaint in writing to his supervisor (This is when the persuasive writing skills taught in English class become helpful.)
  • A meeting request should be included in the letter and a parent and perhaps other students (in the case of the welfare comments) should plan to be a part of the meeting

If I had taken these action steps, who knows what would have transpired.  He could have been fired or given the proverbial slap on the wrist.  Either way, it would have given me a  feeling of empowerment rather than a feeling of helplessness.  It would have also taught me the importance of taking action about something that bothered me rather than just complaining.  Luckily I did learn these skills as an adult.  My suggestion to parents is to sit down with your teen and go over the common situations in which to speak out.  They may have a few examples that are currently happening in their life or you can come up with one.  Brainstorm with them the appropriate steps for that particular situation.  And, most importantly, let them know that you are there for them every step of the way as they learn this important new life skill.  If you have made a true impact, you might even expect a few of these written complaints handed to you by your teen.  In fact, one of my daughters recently wrote one regarding her bed time!