Just last night, I saw my neighbor, Seth, through the fence. He looks like a scary teenage boy with baggy pants and tough-looking body language. But last night I took a risk and said hello. To my surprise, Seth greeted me warmly (although I don’t think he remembers my name). Emboldened, I asked Seth about school and any activities he was planning. We ended up talking for several minutes about baseball, the difficulty of hitting a fastball, and the challenge of entering high school. We both went back to our houses with smiles on our faces. My smile was especially broad because of what I know about teens and what they need to succeed.
Seth notwithstanding, teens in America are in crisis. One third are growing up without their biological dad. Half report being disengaged in school. And the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to rise. The suicide statistics particularly bother me.
Why are kids struggling? It would be easy to put the blame on families or schools. It is true that more and more kids are growing up in single parent homes and receive less parenting. It is true that schools are underfunded and that class sizes are growing. These trends do indeed, put stress on kids and may cause them to disconnect or drop out. Unfortunately, a single adult’s ability to affect these trends is limited. We cannot intercede in individual families nor can we provide a quick fix to the schools.
However, it turns out is actually easy for an individual to positively affect a kid’s life. It doesn’t take a budget resolution or a parenting intervention. Sometimes it just means saying, “Hello!” over the fence. That “hello” means a lot to a teen who might feel isolated or disconnected. If a community member has time, he or she can provide an even bigger impact by becoming a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boys to Men. We can come together as individuals and a community in support of our kids, our future. We can provide them with the assets that might make a difference between success and failure. We can reclaim our responsibility and effectiveness as neighbors and as potential role models. Even just smiling at teenager makes the community stronger. Try it out this week, won’t you?