12 Years: A Reflection on What Teens Have Taught Me

I have spent the past 12 years serving youth through various roles with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. And tomorrow, Friday December 12th, 2014 is my last day.

199231_1929851528981_4483310_nDuring the weeks leading up to this day I have caught myself reminiscing about my experiences over the past 12 years. I reflect on how I started at a local Club in Holland, hired as a part-time summer program assistant. I reflected on the over 500 hours of training I have facilitated for youth workers across the country. I think about all the amazing teens I have had the privilege to get to know and connect with. I look at my kids, and hope they grow up to resemble the many qualities, passions and talents that David, Miguel, Allie, Kiana, Yousif, Jessie and DeQuan embody.

Most of all, I think about the passion that has grown inside of me for teens today. I have come to be fascinated by teens, encouraged by teens and at times confused by teens. But most of all I have come to have a great respect for them today.

Here are just a few things I have learned about teens over the last 12 years.

Teens are at a point in their life where they are trying to find themselves. They are searching for identity and to be known. If you, as a caring adult in their life, offer praise and recognition towards the positive choices they are making, you can help them find a sense of self.

Teens most often go with the crowd, no matter how much they want to be their own person. I have seen this time and time again both for positive and negative. Help the teens in your life find a group of peers with common interests that are making good choices.

540060_10101917500530384_1451115576_nTeens will remember you. They will remember how you treated them, what you talked about, and most importantly how you made them feel. Treat teens with respect and like they are the greatest person in the world. I will never forget an experience I had in 2012 at our National teen leadership conference. There were over 1,500 teens in attendance, and I had only interacted with a few of them prior to that weekend. There was one group of teens from Oakland County Michigan, with whom I had the privilege to interact with a few times when I had visited their Club and met them at a previous conference. I will never forget the first time I saw them at this National event. I came around a corner and the whole group of teens ran to me and surrounded me with a huge group hug. I did not expect them to remember who I was, let alone embrace me in this fashion.

Teens can take a while to realize they are making the wrong choices. Over my 12 years as a youth worker I have heard it often said that we are like farmers planting the seed. We may not see the fruits of our labor at first. I can still remember teens I worked with at the Local Boys & Girls Clubs. I spent countless hours each week for years trying to guide them to make positive choices. Only to be left disappointed time and time again. But years later I have seen fruits of my labor. I have heard stories and seen glimpses of the seeds that we had planted years before through teens growing up and making positive choices for their lives.

Teens do not experience fear the same way adults do. I am not saying they are absent of fear, but often the lack of life experiences is a blessing that allows them to excel. I have met countless teens who have seen a justice issue and taken steps to stop it. I have met teens who have started their own non-profits, businesses, engaged with national leaders and raised thousands of dollars to help others when they themselves have had little. I think we as adults often second guess ourselves or have been told “no” too many times. It hinders us from even trying at times. I think we can learn a lot from teens.

There are a lot of GREAT adults who truly CARE about teens. In recent years I have 381353_327985800548032_1383409725_nfound my passion to be training and building up youth workers to help guide teens to realize the potential they have to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. At every corner I turn I find adults who are committed, focused and having huge impact on the teens they serve. Staff like Hashira, Laurie, Ray, Liza, LaKetta, Mike, Lori, Gabe, Molly, Kristin and Johnny just to name a few.

These are just a few of the many things I have learned about teens over the last 12 years and I cannot wait to see where my journey takes me next and what I will learn about teens next.

What have you learned about teens as a youth worker, parent, teacher, coach or youth minister?

YouTube’s Growing Influence on Teens

I want you to think back to when you were a teen. What celebrities were most influential on your life?

My guess is that it would be an actor/actress from your favorite TV show or movie, a player on your favorite sports team or a musician in a band. Personally I was a huge fan of Sylvester Stallone and Dennis Rodman. Let me clarify that I was a fan of pre-freak-show Rodman when he was with the Detroit Pistons and they won back-to-back championships.

Looking back, my infatuation with these celebrities was wrapped up in the character they rockyplayed or the effort they displayed and less about who they were. I idolized Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky. I was drawn in by the dedication, determination and will he displayed. I mirrored my style of play on the basketball court after Rodman’s. Diving for loose balls and recklessly going up for rebounds against bigger guys. That was the sum of what I knew of them, yet they were powerfully influential on my life.

Teens today want more. For someone to have influence on them they want to know their story, know they have things in common and feel that that person, in-part, represents their own aspirations in life. I believe this is true for two reasons.

One, teens have greater access to information than I did when I was a teen. They have the ability like never before to find out more about a celebrity beyond what they see on stage or the big screen. Finding out more can make the teen more or less interested in that person. If I would have known some things about Rodman back when I was a teen I may not have held him in such high regard.

Two, teens today have a strong desire for authenticity and affinity. To truly know someone else and feel connected to others. If they learn that they have similar interests and passions of a celebrity they like, the more they will feel connected to that  person. And ultimately that celebrity will begin to be influential on them.

With today’s teens desires to connect with others and the rise of the internet, it comes as no surprise then that YouTube personalities (A person or group that gains widespread recognition on the internet and beyond for videos they post on YouTube) are rising in the ranks of celebrities who are influential to teens today.

youtube-stars-shine-brightestIf you are not familiar with YouTube channels, here is a quick snapshot. Individuals and or groups create videos of varying lengths (sometimes multiple videos each day) on all sorts of topics from their daily life, dance, music, beauty/fashion tips, complete randomness,  or their own mini-shows. My kids personally love Kid Snippets videos where kids do the voice-overs for adults acting out situations. They are pretty funny. Some channels build a solid following with millions of subscribers and views on their videos.

Personally I have stumbled upon entertaining channels myself and before I knew it I had viewed a dozen videos by the same creator. I even found myself checking back for new content days later. Teens are digital natives and big users of YouTube and they are doing the same thing. For instance, a recent survey by Variety magazine “found the five most influential figures among Americans ages 13-18 are all YouTube celebrities,” not your traditional movie actors or actresses.

I asked Leo, a teen from southern California, to give me his thoughts on YouTube Celebrities being influential on teens today. Here are his thoughts:

In my opinion, I believe that they are influential and popular because they are associated with comedy, youth and consistency. YouTube stars tend to post content frequently, therefore gaining a much greater audience than say a mainstream actor who only comes out in a movie once or twice a year.

Most of the mainstream media actors do not have the interaction that the YouTube stars have due to the fact that they have no form of communication with their fans other than their social media. Even then they’re very limited towards what they can say. On the other hand, YouTube stars have the option of interacting with their audience through the form of a video which they can post at any time they wish. They have the liberty of voicing their opinion on their channel.

If you compare Felix Kjellberg (a Swedish video game commentator on YouTube known as PewDiePie) to Jennifer Lawrence, Felix posts content every single day. About two videos and each ranging about 7-10 minutes long. That has led to his HUGE success now with over 31 Million subscribers. Therefore he has a better interaction with his fan base community. Jennifer Lawrence on the other hand comes out in a hit movie every couple of months for about 2 hours. This amount of content and interaction plays big role because unlike Jennifer, Felix has public exposure everyday which keeps him very relevant in the media. What big celebrities struggle with is the fact that they cannot stay very relevant in the media. Right after a big movie or TV show is released, they just gradually lose the interests of the public.

If you still do not think teens are being influenced by YouTube stars, look at the fact the bethany-mota-at-teen-choice-awards-2014-in-los-angeles_21Teen Choice awards now have a category to recognize Web Stars. Bethany Mota and Tyler Oakley took home the 2014 honors for Web Star Female and Male by the way. Side Note: Bethany is also on the current season of Dancing with the Stars. Which leads to a whole other conversation around brands using YouTube Celebrities to influence teens for their brand. We will save that for another time.

Youth Worker and Parent Tips:

  • Learn who some of the popular YouTube celebrities are. Common Sense Media has an article titled 10 YouTube Stars Your Kids Love that i recommend you start with.
  • Use YouTube to create a common connection with your teen(s). Find a YouTube channel that you and your teen(s) both enjoy and is appropriate for their age and watch the videos together. Like I mentioned earlier my kids, who are not teens yet, enjoy Kid Snippets and we occasionally watch them together.
  • Have a discussion with your teen(s) about their favorite YouTube channels, why they like those channels and what is it about the videos that connects with them. You might learn something about your teen that you did not know or identify opportunities for you to connect better with them.

Finish this Sentence. Teens Today Are…..

Lazy, selfish, narcissistic, entitled. These words have angered me in recent years. Why? Because adults have used these words to describe teens today and I don’t feel they are accurate.

I will admit that teens can and do have these traits. But I have also met and interacted with hundreds of teens that are passionate, care for others, are focused and are having positive impacts on the world around them.

I decided to compare what adults thought about teens today with what teens think about their generation. I asked each group to share with me words or phrases that they thought described teens today. Here is what they told me.

How adults described teens today: 

adults describe teensThe five most common words used by adults to describe teens were: Lazy, Creative, Entitled, Disrespectful and Connected.

I was not surprised that the majority of the words were negative, but was pleased to see some adults responded with positive words such as creative and bright.

How Teens described their generation:



The most common words teens used to describe themselves and their peers were: Confused, Technology Dependent, Socially Connected, Open Minded and Creative.

One interesting note was how teens felt the need to expand and explain their descriptive words. Almost like they were in a defensive posture just from me asking them the question.

Here is one example. One teen used the word focused to describe teens today. Then they went on by saying that if there is something a teen really wants or a goal they have, they are focused on achieving that goal.

Several teens were also quick to point out that it is hard to describe all teens with just a few words or phrases. They seemed to recognize that their were some negative stereotypes of teens today but they felt strong that those should not define all teen. I found it interesting that no adults made the same point.

My point.

My intent was to do this as a fun experiment to see the differences between how adults and teens describe teens today. I am sure we could do this with previous and future generations and get similar results of positive and negative descriptions.

I do want to challenge those adults that work and interact with teens today to not assume that all teens fit into one category or description. Imagine if an adult did that to you when you were a teen? I am guessing we all had moments we are not so proud of when we were teens that could have caused us to be labeled disrespectful, lazy, or a troublemaker.

In my experience, the more we approach teens as if they are lazy or disrespectful, the more likely they are going to act that way.

I want to encourage you to treat them as if they are amazing, talented, creative teens with something to offer. You might be surprised that they fulfill those expectations.