The Teenager at Your Thanksgiving Table

46503992_918579165008420_2801454627122315264_nThe area of my life that I am good at–the best skill I possess–is a non-monetized sector of our economy. I am good with teenagers. I get them, and they appreciate the fact that I do. We actually enjoy our time together, mostly–they will say things like, “I mean, if I have to be in this school building, I guess I would rather be here then anywhere else . . . but I wish I didn’t have to be in this school building.”

Tomorrow, they are going to have to be somewhere else that they do not want to be: at your Thanksgiving table. And the reasons that they do not want to be there are many:

  1. It all feels fake: they are wearing clothes they don’t normally wear. Yes, we parents would like our children to always look Christmas-card worthy, but, after all, we aren’t parading around our prized show goats–we are just taking our kids to Aunt Helen’s. If your son wants to wear a UGA hoodie, ask yourself–are you more concerned about what Great Aunt Mabel thinks than what your son feels? Your son needs to have his autonomy respected at Thanksgiving among his relatives so that he can maintain it down by the river with his buddies on a moonlit Friday night. For teenagers, clothes are personhood. Trust your teen to be a person.
  2. It all feels fake: your nuclear family is (perhaps) pretending to be happier than you truly are. If Mom hasn’t spoken a kind word to Dad in two weeks; if elder brother Bobby Joe got arrested last week for breaking and entering; if Sis just told everyone she is pregnant–if there is any sort of ongoing family crisis at all and you are all in a tacit agreement to pretend otherwise, then you are asking your teen to participate in “finessing” everyone at dinner. And teenagers generally prefer authenticity.
  3. It all feels fake: distant relatives are acting elated to see them. I’m a fairly terrible long-distance aunt. So, when I am around my nieces and nephews on holidays, I do my best not to act as if I am World’s Best Aunt material. I am genuine and warm with them, sure, but I do not gush over them because that would be patronizing. If you see your nephew only twice a year, to pretend that you are devastated that you don’t is just wrong. As an adult, you either need to do better and see him more or tell both of you the truth: you are happy to see him when you do. He will appreciate your honesty and attention.
  4. Relatives keep asking the wrong questions–and putting teens on the spot. In one of my favorite speeches, Paul Graham tells teens, “People are always asking you [what you want to do with your life] . . . adults ask this mainly as a conversation starter . . . They ask it the way you might poke a hermit crab in a tide pool, to see what it does.” Resist the urge to poke the teenager at your Thanksgiving table–because the last thing any fifteen-year-old wants is five adults waving their forks at her while offering friendly advice. Ask her instead about books she is reading, movies she has seen–anything the two of you could talk about quietly together. Because . . .
  5. Teenagers are generally embarrassed to be alive. When my students enter my classroom on the first day of school, I herd them in while hollering, “It’s okay, I know you are embarrassed to be alive,” and they always chuckle–because they are, they really are. This is why the same kid who wins a public speaking contest can’t give his order to the waiter or talk to the cashier at Wal-Mart. It’s all just too much sometimes. And for some teens, Thanksgiving is one of those times. So, let it be. On the ride over to Aunt Helen’s, ask if there’s anything they would rather not talk about, and then don’t talk about it. While you may be ecstatic that Johnny won third place in the hog show at the fair, if he doesn’t want to mention it, just don’t–even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
  6. Some relatives play favorites, and teenagers have begun to realize this. If Grandma calls Cousin Sally “honeybunch,” buys her Dr. Pepper, and only invites her for sleepovers, then Cousin Sally has it a lot better than your teen–and you should acknowledge that. If Pop-Pop bought your brother’s son a Bobcat ATV last  Christmas and only gave your son a Carhartt beanie, well, there’s a problem–and you shouldn’t pretend otherwise. (Our family is unique in that our older daughter, who is adopted from foster care, was taken back to her birth family when she was eighteen months old–and when DFCS returned her to us four months later, we all spoiled her. Her younger sister has had to recognize and live with that: “She was given a car on her birthday, but you weren’t” is much more difficult to process if no one tells you why.) Acknowledge the why; remind your teen that Cousin Dale had three heart surgeries at birth and that’s the reason everyone dotes on him. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere; help your kid to find it.
  7. Some relatives are awful. If you have a sister who calls your child “fat,” do something about it. If there is a drunk uncle who hugs your teenage daughter for a millisecond too long, deal with him. Confront, confront, confront. Don’t put your sister’s self-worth before your child’s. Don’t dismiss your daughter, saying, “Uncle Fred is just that way, he didn’t mean anything by it.” When you make excuses for an adult’s behavior, your teen learns that other people are more important than he is: and no one else should be more important to you than your child.
  8. Some relatives are racist or sexist or homophobic. (Some parents are too.) My elder daughter dated an African-American man in college, and they were not always treated well by outsiders–watching their struggle was difficult. My younger daughter is a member of PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement at her university. Providing menstrual products to less fortunate women is something she has done for three years–but bringing that up at Thanksgiving in the South might be “too liberal”–it would definitely be too something. If your child can’t talk about her boyfriend, her interests, or her friends, why should she be excited about lunch? She is eating with people who are supposed to love her–but they can’t even accept the things and people she loves.
  9. They are made fun of for their dietary choices. If they are vegan or gluten-free or Ovo-vegetarian, please don’t mock them. Just let them eat in peace. There are toddlers in the kitchen eating only macaroni; there are adults who are just gorging on pigs in a blanket and swilling their beer. Leave Grace alone if she doesn’t want turkey. Or bread. Or milk. It’s called autonomy.
  10. Their maturation can go unacknowledged. They are seated at the kids’ table or put in charge of meaningless chores. After lunch, they are sent out of the room or even told to go outside. This wholesale dismissal badly hurts teens. If they aren’t worthy of time and attention, why should they come to dinner at all? After you eat, invite your niece or nephew to sit and talk to you. Look them in the eyes and really talk. Tell them stories they have never heard before–mistakes you made, adventures you went on, how things were when you were fifteen–and then listen, really listen, when they respond. Resist the urge to check your cell phone or to check the score on the TV: focus instead on the teenager talking to you: he’s a person, and he just wants someone to see that. Make sure you do.

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