The Character Movement

andrew on retreat

The Mind of a Teenager

By Andrew Zhao, Youth Frontiers Retreat Director

As a high school senior, most of my evenings were spent fully living up my youth with friends. One Saturday, I was sitting at Baker’s Square in my hometown of Palatine, Illinois enjoying some pie with a couple of buddies when my friend Jonathan called.

“Hey, man.”
“Hey, buddy.”
“Whatcha doing?”
“Enjoying some French silk pie like a champion.”
“At Baker’s Square?”
“DUDE! I’m about to drive by Baker’s Square in like 10 seconds! I’m on Hicks Road!
Dude… I’m coming!”

Without skipping a beat, I threw down my fork and jumped out of the booth. Ignoring the families enjoying their meals and the wait staff who probably thought I was “dining and dashing,” I sprinted out of the restaurant and headed straight for the busy street known as Hicks.

And there he was – driving towards me in his teal Suzuki Vitara. But he was on the other side of the road! I glanced at oncoming traffic and made a split-second decision that sprinting in front of the cars wouldn’t make road kill out of me. I was victorious and I giddily held up my hand high as Jonathan leaned out his driver-side window and… SLAP. The most epic of high fives! Jonathan sped down the road and I walked back to my slice of pie with a giant grin on my face.

A month ago, my coworker Tony and I had a conversation about how, when we were teenagers, we lacked a “yellow light” or the ability to recognize when to slow down and rethink a choice. It makes sense. Neurological studies suggest that our brains do not fully mature until we’re 25 years old. I worked as a high school camp counselor for many summers and this seemingly dissonant decision-making by teenagers was all too common. I could be having the most profound conversation with a 16-year-old one minute about living out our values and not giving in to peer pressure, but then find that same boy minutes later climbing the rafters in a cabin and defiling the wood with a Sharpie.

That 16-year-old is not a liar. He wasn’t pulling a fast one on me. The reality is that he is able to have a meaningful conversation with an adult, but still be thrilled at the thought of airborne graffitiing. He’s still figuring out the intersection of professed values and praxis.

I think anyone who has been around teenagers knows this firsthand. I mean – we’ve all been teenagers!

My story of running into a busy street to retrieve a high five is a mild one. We’ve all been more foolish than I was that day, but it remains a vivid memory in my mind. On the one hand, I’m a bit ashamed of my impulsivity. I could have been run over! It was so rude of me to do that in front of those other restaurant patrons! And for what reward? A stinking high-five? But at the same time, a part of me looks at that former self with envy. That guy lived freely with few inhibitions.

As a youth worker, I need to remind myself constantly of this beautifully frustrating process. The teenagers I interact with are not finished products. They are learning what it means to be individuals of character who embody traits of generosity, perseverance, bravery, earnestness and more. And learning takes a while. They will make mistakes along the way, do things that confuse adults, but not from a lack of trying. They are still waiting for that yellow light within their brains to formalize and throw them a warning every now and then. In the meantime, it’s our job to remain patient, to understand and to continue to guide these young folks who are in process. After all, aren’t we all people in process?

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