Wednesday, February 5, 2020

You’re a great manager, but with your teen you’re pretty lame

Middle-aged parents who self-identify as highly-educated are a pretty monotonous bunch. Get one pregnant, and she’ll overhaul her diet. Deliver a baby and they’ll obsess over neurological development. Grow a toddler and they’ll research five-figure preschools.

It was among this group that I once thought I could find kindred spirits to help teens renounce high school and blaze their own complex pathways. I tried economic arguments about debt and future markets. I tried philosophical arguments about agency and individualism. I tried forming a learning coop in our building, rallying carpools to local expert talks, mobilizing friends’ kids to foreign language chat groups, maker-spaces, and robotics labs. (To be clear, I was talking about extended hours, weekdays--real time--that comes from heart-and-soul commitment, not here-and-there visits after school). Maybe that was the kicker. Or maybe folks don’t like so many moving parts--set-ups, fee agreements, transport, logistics. I would have thought that the big guys I work around, who consider themselves pretty competent, who manage multiple projects with large budgets, who adapt to dozens of complications each day, have the skills to manage this kind of project, too.
But over years of attempted conversations, their replies have dimmed my hopes. Seems like when the age of aspirational breastfeeding and transcendental preschooling passes, parents of teens become more conformist than ever, content with the state-validated Velveeta cheese glob served up by zip-code with free transportation. Get the GPA, keep up the sports, record the so-called leadership. It’s the kind of scorecard only a blockhead-manager would apply. This leaves me scratching my head, because the same parents seem pretty well put-together as leaders and risk-takers. 

Between rejections, I have given some thought to what makes my friends and peers so lame when it comes to managing their teens:
  • An if-it-aint-broke decision-making model: I have enough on my plate as it is!
  • A lazy approach to complexity: I just don’t have the mental space for that!
  • A nano-manager’s approach to task ownership: I don’t want to be wondering what she’s doing!
  • A padded playground approach to risk: What if this doesn’t work out? 
  • A Victorian view of class-ambiguity: She’d be cut off from the system! ...Then she’ll be paying the price one day…
  • And an arranged-marriage approach to teen agency: She still has to get into college!

You see what I’m up against? From the looks of things, these folks ought to have the greatest resources to throw at teenagers, if only they weren’t such blockheads. No wait, I shouldn’t say that. These guys are my best chance for allies, after all. 

OK, I’ve written about how we get addicted to school as childcare solution and then hang on too long, how middle and high-school brainwash teens into seeing the future too narrowly, how high school’s college-obsession drives perilous debt-taking, and how by unbundling learning teens can invest intensively in what interests them most. But teens are still stuck behind parents. And it is this class-anxious, risk-averse, nano-manager parenting that stifles teens from discovering their voices. Can I offer some advice?

Decouple learning from childcare. When young people self-select into opportunities to chat with experts, hack with friends, build, break and design with mentors for hours on end, they are operating at a level that cannot be achieved in an everybody-together, requirement-driven, behavior management system. When parents assume their teenagers need heavy-handed behavior-management, they may be inhibiting the growth of self-motivation and self-discipline. And as our culture trends toward zero-risk/tolerance, we’re missing important developmental opportunities to fool around, slack-off, mess up, and learn. Good managers know that task ownership and empowerment enable productivity; second-guessing micro-management demoralizes teams.
Take deliberate steps to welcome uncertainty and risk. I know it sounds like horrible parenting to not know where your 16-year old is, but that was the norm when we were kids. How did we get here? Find day-to-day opportunities for your teenager to speak for herself with strangers, navigate your city, manage payments, and find her way home from new places.
Ask her what’s interesting. And be prepared to listen. It’s a challenge not to frame this question around traditional education subjects, and teens just escaping from the conveyor belt will think that’s what you’re asking for. It takes time and patience and many iterations to start hearing things like I wonder why old people are so lonely? or What goes into my shampoo? or Do you think we’re being spied on? And rather than reverting these ideas to the boxes of traditional school subjects, think with her about the trajectories these concepts could launch. I wonder about that, too. What happens to our minds as we get older? Does talking and meeting people make us healthier? Which part of the brain gets engaged? Is it a good idea that older people often live so far from their families? How could they maintain feelings of independence but benefit from more interactions? Every one of these questions is a legitimate springboard to so many more articles, books, lectures, and business case studies. And if her room starts to look like a mess of clipped articles and diagrams, she is chatting with different people and visiting places around town, then you’re making her comfortable to explore.
Get comfortable with dropping “foundational” content. This is how we hobble teens’ emerging interests and re-allocate all their potential energy. It’s based on some visual of building-blocks, cornerstones, and other bricklayer metaphors. Chronological history. Transcripts. The relentless sequence of math textbooks. In our own lives, we would never approach problems this way, but we’re remarkably stubborn with our teens. Get outside the bricklayer metaphors, and think about ideas as complex webs. The threads will grow where there is intrinsic curiosity, and stay strong where knowledge loops to emotion and experience. Maybe that polynomial equation will loop in, or maybe it won’t. There will be millions of unexpected threads, and you don’t have to put them there by force. She will find them when her curiosity and motivation are authentic.
Encourage her to write goals and make graphic representations of her progress. This will be good practice for managing herself, and then mobilizing and managing others. What is her vision? How does she communicate it? What is she aiming for? How can she document what she’s doing? Remember, this is a work in progress. She’s learning management skills by doing them, and she’s implementing a project that changes as she goes.
We can get comfortable with uncertainty and moving parts. Teens in pajamas all day. Or commuting around town til late. Great books read with no reports. Discussions on WhatsApp. Half-completed Courseras. Showing up at places where cool people are doing cool things… hoping one day they’ll pay her. Shoeboxes of circuits and wires, shoeboxes of leotards, shoeboxes of tempera paints. Facebook and Skype networks of tutors and mentors. Pencilled schedules, constant changes. Dozens of micro-payments.
Comfortable, right?
You’re squirming, I know. This sounds messy. And you’re going to give me one of the replies I told you about, because somehow your manager-brain isn’t working with your teenager.
Squint your eyes. Try to see your 15-year-old as a 25-year-old. You’re smart and take risks and manage people. Help her to start doing the same.

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