I’ve worked with teenagers for over 13 years now, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that whenever something happens to one of their own, teens take it very hard. There is an internalization of tragedy that the teenage years magnifies by a thousand, and the need to explore that internal struggle is vast and immediate.
So that’s why my phone blew up yesterday afternoon. Lots of people needing someone to talk to. Or, more accurately, someone to listen.
Really, in a situation like this – when a classmate is murdered, perhaps over something as trivial as shoes – the best thing any adult can do is listen. And not just the way we sometimes do, where we nod our head and say “Uh-huh” a lot while waiting for a break in the monologue during which we will impart our vast, adult wisdom. I mean really listening. Because when you listen, you hear some amazing things.
The uncertainty of life. The tenderness of hearts. The capacity to ask the big questions of life. The idea of mortality.
When you are really listening, you hear that our students aren’t asking for us to make the world perfect; they’re asking us to help it make sense. They want to know that there is comfort to be found inside the madness, to know that the big, bad world won’t swallow them whole. Profundity – even when genuine and truly insightful – isn’t as helpful to them as sincerity. And when you sincerely listen, you earn the right to share the profound thoughts later on down the road, when they can really absorb them.
Last week, the tragedy in Newtown opened up all sorts of conversations to be had with our kids about everything from guns to mental illness to safety to death. Yesterday, those same questions came home to Grayson, and were magnified in the death of Paul Sampleton.
I won’t presume to tell anyone how to parent, because you know your kids far better than I do, but if I may offer one suggestion to those who are uncertain about what to do, it would be this:
Give your kids a chance to talk, and listen to what they have to say. You’ll know where to go from there.
Good luck with the conversation.