Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

RevolTeens Need Freedom to Decide for Themselves, by Christine Lively

Working with teens in the library means I read a lot of Young Adult books. Reading them in graduate school made me certain that I wanted to work with teens, not younger kids. What great Young Adult books do for me is take me instantly back to my own adolescence – the frustrations, the pressure, the uncertainty, and the thrills that are unique to that time in my life. I firmly believe that reading YA books make me a better teacher, librarian, and parent.

So many well meaning adults: parents, teachers, and coaches think they know what is best for teens. We look back at our own adolescence and think, “If I had just _____ my life would have turned out differently. I know I have thought that many times looking back. When we look at the opportunities and decisions that teens have in front of them, we think we know “what’s best” for them. We want to spare them from the mistakes we think they might be making or help them to find the best opportunities. That’s the problem.

You cannot “program” teens. As they have made their way through adolescence and into early adulthood, I see so clearly now that my own kids never did anything because I suggested it, or thought it was a good idea. They did things when they decided it was a good idea. Even if their chosen course was the very idea I told them about or suggested, they never made a decision based on my suggestions – they had to decide themselves.

Adults working with teens need to remember this. It has to be their decision and in a lot of cases, it has to be their idea. If we force them to do things “our way” or because we know best, they will not enjoy it, and they probably won’t even do it. They may even decide to do the opposite because they’re so frustrated.

In other words, they may become RevolTeens who use all their energy fighting off the pressure of the well meaning adults in their lives instead of changing the world in their own way.

In this column, I have highlighted some incredible teens who have challenged rules, prejudices, and defied expectations. I celebrate them for not “doing what they’re told.” Many, if not most of these teens have the support of adults in their lives who have honored their decisions and supported their ideas. We need to be those adults. Here are some ideas for supporting teens’ decisions instead of trying to “program” them.

Offer as many forms of participation as possible. One thing that we learned from the lockdown is that different forms of participation are really helpful. Make sure when you offer events, challenges or other programs that you give teens different ways to participate. Generating ideas, writing responses, virtual attendance, and other options will serve more teens. The teens who love to attend events in person will still enjoy the experience. Ask teens how they might like to participate for more ideas.

Gather ideas and support initiatives. Ask them what they want. Fun polls, interest forms, casual conversations, and advisory boards are all great ways to find out what teens want. When teens come to you with ideas, support their ideas. Often, the most successful programs are the ones that are their idea. An enthusiastic peer will generate more excitement and participation than anything an adult could ever design or advertise.

Provide materials and collections that support the huge range of interests and ideas that teens have. Every week, a student will come into the library and ask me if we have a book or other materials about a subject that surprises me. I ask, “You want to read about that?” or “You’re interested in that?” like a dope. I am always so grateful when they do. I couldn’t possibly anticipate what they’re going to be into. My best hope is to try to be as open to diverse topics, stories, games, and information to have something that will engage them, help them make decisions, and keep their curiosity going.

Encourage exploration. Connections come in some mysterious ways, and teens are great at following a web. They’re adept at google searching, and at connecting music to books to movies to video games. Help teens to see the connections between themselves and the world. Help them see that what they’re interested in is important just because they like it. Not everything has to be an academic endeavor, some things are just cool. I love that about the library, and I want teens to know it too.

Respect diversity in everything. If you make a mistake, or overlook something you didn’t consider, apologize and fix it. Teens respect good intentions, but only when there is action behind it. If they don’t see their own experiences or the experiences they want to have reflected in the library, they’ll stop coming. If they know that everyone is welcome and that their identities, personalities, talents, forms of expression, and interests are valued, they’ll stay and find themselves.

When we stop programming teens or thinking we know what’s best, we can step back and let them decide what they want to do, how they want to do it, and we can stand back in awe.

About Christine Lively

Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. I am a Certified Life Coach for Kids 14-24 and my website is christinelively.com. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively.

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