1. Be a Student of What They are Learning
We often overlook people that we don’t think are that interesting, that cool, or that much like us. Sometimes it is someone we see every day at school and sometimes it is someone we only see once a year. But when we take the time to stop and listen, we are reminded of how powerful someone’s story can be. We see that our preconceived notions and judgments weren’t just wrong, they were harmful. And not just to the person we have left out. To us as well. Because when we judge and label, we miss out. But when we sit and open our ears to the deep message of someone else’s life, we allow ourselves to see what God has done, learning something new about them and ourselves.
2. Be a Student of Your Student
Think back to your days in high school. Do you remember your class and the students who were a part of your school being referred to as the “student community” or the “student body?” When the principal or a teacher addressed you and your peers at a school-wide event, do you remember them addressing you as a whole or as a unit--everyone was part of the same group—where freshman through seniors, even though into different things and obviously varying in age, were all grouped together as a community of students? This may have been the norm 20, maybe even 10, years ago, but student groups have changed dramatically in the last couple of decades.
Maybe when you were in high school there were “cliques,” or groups of students who paired up and hung out. Even though there may have been different types of cliques (the popular kids, the jocks, the nerds), there was still an idea of crossing lines and possibly being a part of more than one group. But today’s kids are in a very different friendship culture. For today’s students, friends aren’t just the people you hang out with, friends are a way of life—for many students, friends are as important as family, if not more important. These “clusters” of students serve as a supposed protection as students navigate the difficult terrain of middle school and high school. As Chap Clark mentions in Hurt 2.0:
Today, the cluster is a family with a set of respected and controlled expectations, loyalties and values. Sometimes the flag for a cluster is a similar interest, but what gives a cluster its power is a common, almost tribalistic bond and unifying social narrative (a grand story that gives meaning and cohesiveness to the cluster and defines who is in and who is out). This bond is the hallmark of the social group that nearly all midadolescents (ages 14-20) will rely on through out their high school life.
The inability during midadolescence to balance disappointment over specific events, people, or institutions by separating the good from the bad drives the intense need for a safe place. Midadolescents gather in like-minded groups to protect themselves from the forces they perceive as alien to them. This is the main reason clusters have replaced cliques in today’s adolescent social economy: adolescents believe they have no alternative (61).
See, what used to be a cohesive unit known as the “student body” or “student community” is now a divided array of clusters in which students feel that they live, move, and find their identity. The assumed protection of the cluster not only serves to lock students into a particular group, but can also hinder their ability and courage to branch out and meet people who might be different than they are for fear of rejection—both from the intended friend as well as from the cluster group they are associated with. As parents, we can encourage students to put themselves in social situations that expand their experience and give them opportunities to meet different types of people, such as service-oriented projects, church groups, extracurricular activities, etc. But remember, things aren’t the way they used to be, so we need to be understanding and gentle in our nudging, recognizing the loyalty that our students have to their friends and the unspoken tension that stepping outside of that cluster can present.
3. Action Point
It can be hard for all of us, teens and adults, to branch out and take the time to get to know someone we wouldn’t normally give a second thought to. Sometimes these opportunities come because we have intentionally sought out someone outside of our normal routine who caught our attention. Sometimes people are put in our path with no planning on our part and we have a life-changing encounter. For this Parent Cue, talk to your son or daughter about a time you had an unlikely encounter with someone who changed you—maybe because of who they were or maybe because of the story you heard. Encourage your teen that sometimes when we take the time to get to know people who are different, we often learn more about ourselves in the process. Ask your teenager if they have ever had a similar experience. If so, how did it change them?