This post: My Teen, You Are Who You Are, Not What You Do
Written By: Jessica Manning
“You are who are, not what you do.” My dad used to say this to me all the time when I was a teenager. I honestly don’t think I understood what it actually meant until I was a young adult.
Maybe it was wrapping up my golf ‘career,’ or no longer receiving the accolades of the “A’s” I loved so very much as a student. Perhaps it was being surrounded by neighbors who couldn’t have cared less about my high school and college accomplishments. And I’m certain the loss of my sweet mother helped me understand the true meaning of the phrase I had heard so many times.
Unfortunately, for teens, doesn’t life seem to be all about what you do?
My Teen, Your Worth is Defined By Who You Are, Not What You Do
Remember wanting so desperately to be known for something as a teenager? Being the best football player on the team. The one who scored the highest on that hard test. The one who landed the lead role in the school play. Or, maybe the kid who dressed the best and was always “on trend.”
When I was in high school, I wanted to be recognized as smart and for being a good golfer. I craved academic prestige, and I put my love for the sport on display, which is embarrassing to reflect on now. Did I really love golf that much?
But I can cut myself some slack, because I see it all too often in the teenagers with whom I work, and truly, with many adults, as well. It’s human nature to desire to be known for something, and our society feeds into it in every imaginable way.
Sadly, that “Look at me shine, look at my kid shine,” mentality leaves our teens feeling like they need to have a “thing” to be considered important, valued, or worthy.
Is it any surprise that they’re devastated when they don’t get the choir solo or first chair in their band ensemble? Should we be shocked when they want to quit the team because they’re not starting? Or how about kids who get frustrated and want to give up because they struggle more than their classmates in school?
Think of the messages our society sends our teenagers about what makes them matter. We better believe they’re receiving those messages loud and clear. To truly matter, you have to be the “est” – the smartest, the fastest, the strongest…the best.
Where does this leave kids who don’t necessarily have a thing? For many teens, it leaves them feeling “less than” when they compare themselves to their peers who are being celebrated for their abilities. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it’s just how our world works. Many of the kids being celebrated have worked very hard, and not everyone can be the best.
It’s disheartening, however, that some teens feel devalued because another teen’s abilities outshine theirs in some way. EVERY child has their own inherent strengths… but tell that to a teen who’s scrolling through social media comparing themselves to everyone else.
So, if society places more emphasis on what we do rather than who we are, how can we, as parents, speak truth into our teens’ hearts about what actually matters?
Talk to Your Kids About Their Characteristics That Matter
When my kids were little, and to this day, I have repeated to them, “You have so much goodness inside of you.” Our kids are inundated with lies about who they should be. As parents, we need to be the ones they turn to if/when they are questioning their identity or somehow feel as though they’re not measuring up. Speak truth to them about their characteristics that matter – you’re so kind and compassionate, you’re a wonderful friend, you have contagious energy, etc.
So much emphasis and time is put into developing our kids’ talents. Sometimes I wonder what our world would be like if all parents put the same energy into developing their kids’ hearts. What if instead of hour-long voice lessons twice a week, we sent our kids to an empathy teacher? Or maybe instead of hiring a trainer for speed and agility, we pair them with a diversity-acceptance mentor. I’m being facetious, of course, (just so you know, my own kids currently spend hours at basketball practice nightly).
Help Them Understand Their Value
Many students with whom I work don’t have a sense of who they are and what they believe. For kids who are trying to find their identity, this can leave them subject to allowing someone else to define it. Talk to your kids about morality – what they believe to be right or wrong.
It’s one thing to teach our kids to ‘do the right thing,’ but do they have a sense of why something is right or wrong, and do they believe it themselves? There will come a day when we cannot police their decisions. Doing the right thing is a condition of the heart – our kids are going to face many moments when they will have to make a split-second decision and adhere to their values OR not.
My students who make decisions that are incongruent with their values often end up not liking themselves. And disliking yourself can lead to a host of problems for anyone. Even if you’re an amazing dancer, musician, basketball player, or whatever it may be, if you don’t feel good about yourself at your core, those talents will not lead to joy.
Don’t Crave Recognition for Them
We all love our kids. It’s natural to want the world to see them the way we do. But it’s also impossible for everyone to know our kids’ hearts the way we do. When we crave and/or try to create moments for our kids to be acknowledged, it tells them that they should be recognized for the things they do.
I’ve worked with parents who get upset because they feel their kids are not celebrated enough for certain accomplishments. I’d be lying if I said I can’t relate. That “Look at my kid shine,” mentality lingers in the back of my mind, too. But what I’ve learned through the years is that I don’t need to prove my kids’ worth to anyone.
At my school, hundreds of students consistently do the right thing. They are kind day in and day out, they are responsible and caring, and they put forth so much effort in everything they do. And, they’re rarely (if ever) acknowledged for it. More than likely, there will be a day when our kids are no longer known for whatever thing they might be known for now (or want to be known for). Like the majority of us, they will wake up every day and do the tasks adults do without ever really being fully recognized, and that’s OK.
If your child doesn’t receive many accolades outside the home for who they are and what they do, normalize it for them – it’s one of the many realities of life. If your child does receive attention and recognition for a specific talent, prepare them for the probable day when they no longer won’t. Emphasize their identity and worth beyond what society celebrates.
Because, just as my dad used to say, when it’s all said and done, their worth in this world will be far more about who they are than what they do. What a beautiful equalizer.
About Jessica Manning
Jessica is a high school counselor with over 20 years of experience working with teenagers. She earned an M.A. in school counseling and a B.A. in English and secondary education. Jessica is married to a high school principal and has three teenage boys; her current life revolves around all things teen. When not working or following her sons’ sporting events, Jessica appreciates any opportunity she gets to veg at home with her family and her dog, Phyllis.