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In April of 2006, my son awoke, ecstatic. He was turning 5. But it wasn't the presents, fancy birthday party or special attention at preschool that had him so excited. He couldn't wait to finally chew gum. Some cultures take a boy hunting or have him scale a mountain. In the Smithouser home we hand him a stick of Juicy Fruit. After all, there's responsibility involved with chewing gum: a) knowing not to swallow it, and b) being able to dispose of it properly. Colin popped a piece into his mouth before breakfast and proceeded to refresh the flavor all day, one stick at a time. It was a glorious milestone.

Families may celebrate rites of passage differently, but the important thing is that we do celebrate them. I didn't realize just how important until I spoke with Stephen Wallace, a school psychologist and national chairman of Students Against Destructive Decisions. It turns out that, in addition to creating family memories, they can also keep our kids—teenagers in particular—out of trouble.

As much as adolescents need to detach from parents more as they move toward independence, you've noticed a disturbing trend, haven't you?
Almost half of high schoolers say their parents aren't paying attention to the important transitions in their lives. Things like puberty, school change, important birthdays, first job, getting a driver's license, a first girlfriend or boyfriend. Those are key events that kids focus on. At the end of the day, it's about parents slowing down long enough to listen carefully and see their significance through adolescent eyes. If we're not paying enough attention to these rites of passage, kids go out and make up their own.

Which can be dangerous.
They're so eager to say, "Hey, look at me!" They're jumping up and down, waving their arms in an attempt to show the world that they're older, responsible and more mature. When we deprive them of that recognition, what do they do? They turn to adult-like behavior that we don't want them participating in. They start smoking or drinking or using drugs or having sex as a way to say, "I'm older. I can do these things that adults are doing."

And then they watch movies or television shows that depict characters playing at being grown up, but without the responsibilities and commitments that go along with that.
Yes. I had one kid tell me, "If you watch television, you just assume everyone's having sex." That opens up so many doors about the influence of media on young people and the decisions they make. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that, if you're constantly exposing young people to violence, they may become more violent. If you're bombarding them with images of people having sex, they're more likely to have sex. I wrote a column called "Hooking Up, Losing Out: The New Culture of Teen Sex," where I speculate about the long-term ramifications of the earlier and earlier initiation of intimate sexual behavior that's so often casual, anonymous or even exploitative. We don't yet know the long-term consequences for kids, but there are going to be some.

You use the term "ritualistic celebrations" when you talk about our need to reinforce teens' coming-of-age moments. Why, as a culture, do we seem to be moving away from those celebrations?
To a large extent, we've abandoned our teens by creating a sort of netherworld of human development—an extended adolescence where kids tend to enter puberty earlier and, on the other end, take longer to leave the nest. There aren't the same universal transitions we used to have, and what one young person might consider a significant rite of passage may not be for another. The question becomes, "What does recognizing them and celebrating them mean?"

And even if you ask teens outright, many aren't able to articulate what is going to be important to them.
That's right. These are discoveries made during normal conversations that happen over time. As a parent, you've got to keep talking and keep listening.

Stephen, we talked about the importance of recognizing key transitions in teens' lives, in part to keep them from making foolish grabs for attention just to show that they're not little kids anymore. I can almost hear parents saying, "We already do that in our home." And maybe they do. But can they do it more effectively?
Sure. Take drivers licenses, for example. I talk to teens all the time who are so excited about getting one. Their parents are, too, to the extent that it means they can shuttle a little brother or sister around or run an errand at the last minute. Parents often look at this rite of passage with a sense of relief, because it takes pressure off of Mom and Dad. Well, when they send that message to their teen, they're really missing the boat. Teens are excited because it means they are more independent and society views them as more responsible, not because they can go to the corner store or pick up Billy after soccer practice.

So even when we acknowledge a milestone, we can be focused on the wrong aspect of it.
I remember talking to a woman about my research. She told me, "When I got my first job and brought home my first paycheck I was thrilled, because to me it represented the fact that I was making my own money and didn't have to ask my parents for everything." She proudly showed it to Mom and Dad. The first thing they said was, "That's great, honey. That's going right into your college fund." They missed the real significance of that rite of passage.

How could her parents have responded better?
They should have tried to look at it from her point of view [and] maybe thought back to how it felt when they got their first paychecks. Focus on the feelings behind it and the symbolism of it, not the practicality of it: "Gee, honey, it must make you feel so proud and independent to earn your own money and have the freedom to decide what to do with it." Transitioning from middle school to high school is another big one. Parents see the accomplishment but may not be dialed in to the fact that it's also a time of great anxiety. And as I've said, if we don't find ways to affirm children at times like these, they'll come up with their own ways to feel grown-up, some of which are unhealthy.

What about parents trying to play catch-up? Maybe they didn't validate their children in a meaningful way and they've witnessed poor decisions.
It's never too late to try. When we talk about risky decision-making, it's not an either/or proposition for a lot of kids. In studies, we separate adolescents into three categories: avoiders, experimenters and repeaters. For example, you probably know "avoider" kids who resist drinking. They've made a deliberate decision that alcohol is just not what they're about. They are hard to drag over the fence. At the other extreme, "repeaters" who are out drinking three or four nights a week are very tough to drag back. The battle is really fought in that middle category. Like Independents in a political system, everyone fights for the swing vote.

In other words, if there's an "experimenter" in your home, you can keep her from becoming a repeater.
Right. Even for kids who may have used alcohol, tried drugs or compromised themselves sexually, for the majority there's ample space for parents to give it another try, even if they haven't necessarily done all the right things before.

I'm grateful that we serve a God of second chances, though I pray your family doesn't need them when it comes to young people and destructive decisions. Don't breeze past important transitions. Look for things to celebrate. Try to appreciate those mile-markers of maturity from your child's perspective. More than just making memories, you'll be insulating children from poor choices that can become dangerous habits.

Published January 2011