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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Why Do Adults Struggle Leading Teens Well?

May I share an observation with you? In my travels, I meet a variety of parents, educators, coaches and youth workers who lead kids differently. Often, one of two extremes occurs, depending on the students’ age. In their early years, it seems as if tens of thousands of parents and teachers “over-program” the children’s day, structuring it so tightly that kids don’t have much free time; there’s little chance for them to enjoy un-prescribed activities. We push them hard.


Ironically, as they become teens, it’s as if adults stall and become confused. We aren’t sure how to lead them in a relevant way. Parents fail to draw boundaries well; teachers become confused as to how to motivate high schoolers, and coaches are at a loss as to how to connect with athletes. These “screenagers” throw us a curve ball. In our confusion, many of us fail to lead them well.

But I don’t think it’s the kids alone who challenge us.

Let’s consider the life of an adult in our culture today. We are aging in a society that worships youth. We all want to “stay young.” Wrinkle free. Forever 21. To look and feel young is often a spoken goal. After all, Facebook allows everyone to see what we now look like, twenty years after graduation. Can we still fit into those skinny jeans? Do we still have a full head of hair?  If not, there’s cosmetic stuff you can do.

On top of that, we’re now relating to our children who’re fast entering their teen years. In fact, I believe kids often want to enter adolescence in about third grade, visiting teen websites, getting something tattooed or pierced on their body. The last thing we want to communicate is that we’re “over the hill.” We don’t want to send a message that we don’t get it, or that we’re not hip. And we definitely don’t want kids to see us the way we saw our parents when we were teens.

Further, nostalgia has become a big business, since the Baby Boomers began turning forty in the mid-1980s. Adults spend millions of dollars buying comic books, trading cards, sports jerseys, toys…you name it. Quietly and gently, culture pushes us to hold on to our younger days. Dozens of movies have come out the last twenty years about this very subject—from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Old School” to “Grown Ups.” Think Uncle Rico in the film, “Napoleon Dynamite.” Let’s face it—we loved those younger days and we don’t want to let go.

Maybe I’m making too big of a deal over it all, but this has me thinking. I believe many adults struggle to lead kids well because we don’t want to be seen as “uncool.” Being the “bad cop” transforms us into that uncool adult who’s a Narc; we become the one who’s enforcing the rules instead of breaking them and tweeting about it. We don’t want to admit we might be ancient. I call moms and dads who fit into this category: Karaoke Parents, because like karaoke, they want to sound like their child, dress like their child, act like their child—they want to be a pal more than a parent. I have seen teachers who do this too. It’s quite pitiful. Sadly, the real victim—is the student.

If this thought has crossed your mind, may I toss you some ideas?

1. Embrace who you are and the life station you’re now in.

If you’re forty-eight years old, then act like it. Don’t attempt to be twenty-one. This doesn’t mean you’re irrelevant. It simply means you’re comfortable in your identity and can offer teens a picture of what a well-adjusted, mid-life adult looks like.

2. Live with passion.

Don’t try to be a teenager again, but show them what an adult looks like who is happy, fulfilled and passionate about their work and family. Many kids never get a healthy role-model in their lives like this. Show them what it means to not merely grow older but to grow up…and like it.

3. Be genuine when you interact with teens.

They don’t need you to be a buddy all the time. They do need you to be real and predictable. Consistency is a vital ingredient many teens are missing in life. When adults connect with them in an authentic way—it’s a gift. Remember the words of one student who said, “The only thing worse than being uncool is being unreal.”

4. Play the veteran card.

Once in a while, they need you to not only be a “friend” but a “bad cop.” It’s not fun, but boundaries actually foster security in kids. They need someone to lead them and enforce principles that will guide them through life. Even more, they need to hear from your experience—the wisdom and life lessons you’ve picked up over time.

In a focus group a few years back, a female student said to me, “I guess the reason I don’t want to grow up is that I’ve not seen any adults who’ve done it well. Most of them are trying to be like us, kids.”

It’s time to give students what they need, not necessarily what they want.


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photo credit: maebmij via photopin cc


  1. Arby on November 15, 2013 at 4:00 am

    Hi Tim,

    I feel like I have a foot in Generation iY (we got our first home computer when I was about 9 and I first used the internet at school when I was 15) and whatever the generation before that was called. It seems like each generation has its quirks that are a reaction against what they see in the generation leading them.

    For example we’ve seen our parents and our grandparents work really, really hard but talk about the regret that they didn’t take opportunities, enjoy life and spend more money when they were young – they waited until they were to old to either enjoy or be interested in the things they were when they were younger.

    We want more out of life and work is a means to an end, hence the popularity of books like “The 4 Hour Working Week” which purport to explain how to be rich, pursue all your dreams and only work 4 hours a week. Our attitudes to money, relationships, religion politics etc.are very different to that of our parents and the upcoming iY generation I’m seeing are different again.

    The narratives of each generation are so unique according to what happened for that generation. The depression and the two world wars were real events that shaped my grandparents’ outlook on life. The world was a vastly changed place by the time my parents grew up. And the same is true for my generation. My question is … how do we find the middle ground? How do we even decide what to value?

    • Tim Elmore on November 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Arby. Thank you for commenting. That is a great question. Each of us must choose our own values and live with our decisions. I recommend speaking with a mentor on the topic of personal values.
      Ask the mentor what values shape his or her life and helps them make decisions.
      Then discuss with the mentor what you truly are convicted about and what you simply just have an opinion on.
      Come up with a list of values that you feel 100% assured will help guide and lead your life for the better.

  2. Daniel R. on November 18, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Thanks for this post. As a young adult, I can say you are right on target. When I need help, counsel or stability; I do not look for adults that are trying to be cool and look like teens. I look for genuine, passionate, well adjusted adults who will encourage me but also are willing to be tough and honest with me.

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Why Do Adults Struggle Leading Teens Well?