While on vacation, my extended family and I went boating, something I have fond memories of from childhood vacations.
As is often the case when extended family gathers, as we sat around the beach, people started telling stories. One story was told about me: How as a kid I never wanted to water ski because I only swam in pools, not in nasty rivers.
My family’s explanation for why I wouldn’t water ski is different than mine. I remember not wanting to water ski because it was terrifying and painful, not because it took place in a river, which actually doesn’t bother me at all.
After, I told my husband how much my family’s false image of me bothered me.
When the same story was brought up again later, my husband jumped to my defense. Multiple family members quickly assured him their version of things – not mine – was correct.
What’s frustrating to me about this isn’t that my family and I remember it differently. It’s that my family’s image of me is based on something I don’t even remember saying. Twenty-five years later, that saying still shapes my family’s perception of me – even though it’s not an accurate reflection of who I am today.
How often, I wonder, do we do the same thing with students?
How often do we pigeonhole teens into an identity, even as their interests, passions, and personalities change?
How often do we allow what a teen says once to shape our understanding of who they are forever?
One of the things that happens during adolescence is identity formation. As part of identity formation, teens try on different personalities.
One minute they dress like a jock, the next, like a preppie. They also try out different activities in order to discover their gifts and passions and figure out what they’re good at. One minute, they’re into sports, the next, it’s theater. Their friend groups change constantly. They say things – sometimes things they don’t even mean – simply because talking helps them process their thoughts and emotions.
All of these changes are a natural part of adolescence.
If that’s the case, then one of the greatest gifts we can give teens is the space to be themselves – even if that self is someone different each and every day.
As teens try on new personalities and experiment with different activities, remind them of who is constant: Jesus. Also remind them of what is constant: Their God-given characteristics and traits. Call out love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control whenever you see them in teens. Help them develop these traits. Remind them to show a consistent character regardless of what activities they’re participating in or which friends they’re with. As teens form their identity, identify how you see them growing and changing; how you see them becoming the person God created them to be.
In Christianity, we believe God transforms people. If that’s true, then people – especially teenagers – will change.
We just have to let them.