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Christa Santangelo Ph.D.
Christa Santangelo Ph.D.

Help Teens Find Authentic Satisfaction

Trust them.

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”

- Galileo Galilei

How can we trust our young adults when we never learned to trust ourselves?


Most of us were raised to believe that parents are meant to guide young adults based on our beliefs. School and other values we hold dear are an extension of this externally imposed system of knowledge and experience. For many self-motivated teens who know their passions and learn experientially, rather than from what we or others tell them to be true, self-education in its various forms may be a better fit. What worked for us (law school, saying no to body art or that exercise regimen) may not work for them.

Allowing our teens and young adults to experiment is scary for parents; we know what worked for us so it’s safe to say it will work for them. But maybe not. Teens are capable: Louis Braille invented his language for the blind when he was 15. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was 18. Teens can accomplish remarkable feats when given freedom and opportunity. Can we be curious and have the courage to let them discover ways to learn that might be exquisitely aligned with their inner design – even if it’s not fully formed or scares the heck out of us?

Kyle Glen/Unsplash
Source: Kyle Glen/Unsplash

“Curiosity has its own reason for existing…Never lose a holy curiosity.”

– Albert Einstein


Authenticity, that sense of self that comes from deep inside and is uniquely ours, relies on curiosity. I see teens’ curiosity being increasingly stifled by curricula tailored to tests, competition between students (rather than the cultivation of trust within each student) and a stress-ridden system in which trial and error, essential for resilience and authentic success, is rare. Teens who know themselves and trust themselves have a greater chance of turning into adults with an authentic sense of self.

For many teens, traditional education engenders a sense of separation from their true selves as they learn material in which they have little interest, for which they are not motivated because it feels irrelevant. I see older teens burdened with a do-or-die narrative that reduces their ability to experiment with life and manage disappointment and failure which are essential for resilience and grit. CEO’s collectively agreed that first-generation immigrants who have had to navigate their own path are far more desirable hires than Ivy League grads who are terrified of failure and often paralyzed by their need to be perfect in the workplace.

Most school experience if not explicitly then implicitly teaches us to compete, to compare and to worry about the future, in place of enjoying the present. The focus on measuring outcomes in education has practically supplanted the emphasis on what is being taught. Where are the lessons on knowing one’s unique interests, the ability to trust one’s gut and the skills to weather the meandering path characteristic of most people’s lives?

Jeremy Stuart’s recent film “Self-Taught” chronicles the lives of self-driven learners who have chosen to embrace the world as their classroom. The film sketches a new learning paradigm that provides alternative paths for young adults who are not motivated in traditional school settings.

Of course, the current educational system works well for many; and they should be encouraged to succeed within its parameters. But for an increasing number, it is not a match. And for these youth, home or world schooling, internships, jobs, apprenticeships, and travel may be legitimate ways to gain skills for a satisfying life.

Adli Wahid/Unsplash
Source: Adli Wahid/Unsplash

"Children are not empty fields to be planted and sowed with seeds of knowledge. They are living ecosystems unto themselves. Some savannas, some deserts, some woodlands, some oceans.”

- Laura Grace Weldon, Author, Free Range Learning


One Mom with whom I consulted about her teen was particularly concerned – afraid and angry- -that her 18-year-old daughter, after being admitted to college had concluded, decisively, that she did not wish to go. In my office her daughter said “I’m burned out from all the competition and stress. Plus, I want to discover and learn from the world around me, unfiltered, in the way and in the time I wish to learn it.” While she wasn’t exactly sure what this looked like, she had a few ideas and her conviction that the current college experience was not her path appeared to resonate from deep within. The sprouts of authenticity.

“She’s going to lounge on the couch and start smoking pot.” Mom boomed from the other end of the couch, effectively stomping on the new life blossoming beside her. “She needs direction and opportunities,. That’s what college is for.”

In fact, most young adults who do not have a psychiatric disorder if trusted with their lives, will demonstrate competence, learn and succeed; they will not choose to waste time given support and an empathic ear from adults- friends, family, folks they meet in job or travel. It might not be on the timeline we envision. But so what? “Rewards, bribes and grades cannot provide the soil of motivation that children find in their own increasing competence driven by their own passions and interests,” Weldon writes.

Parents are devoted, worried and want the best for their teens; I get it. And our desire to control teens into early adulthood because we want the best for them may not allow the necessary space and time for them to determine what is best for them.

Christa Santangelo
Source: Christa Santangelo

How can I let my twenty-year-old know that I don’t approve of her tattoo?” one concerned Dad asked. A tough question. When we hold certain values dear, (no tattoos, get a steady job, no drugs) it’s difficult to see them challenged. When making a decision about whether to give older teens, over whom we have little control, our opinion, I invite parents to ask themselves “Is telling them what I think worth straining the connection?” Perhaps Code BLU, Better Left Unsaid, would preserve the relationship so you can continue to communicate about issues that have an even greater consequence than that tattoo. Parental advice about what they should be doing, unless it comports with their budding vision of themselves, will usually be taken as a criticism. This will fray the connection.

So as our young adults challenge us, our institutions and our values take a moment to notice what’s going on inside. What are we afraid of? Maybe our young adults will learn unimagined lessons if we have the courage to step outside what we believe is right for them, because it was right for us, and let them teach us what they’re here for.

About the Author
Christa Santangelo Ph.D.

Christa Santangelo, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of California at San Francisco.

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