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What “Quaranteengers” Can Teach Us

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

Many tweens and teens are responding to shelter-in-place with creativity, resilience, and optimism for the future.

Photo by Mentatdgt from Pexels

Teenagers are social creatures, so the “new normal” of shelter-in-place orders to control the spread of coronavirus can be incredibly challenging.

At the same time, it turns out that their drive to socialize, to help others, and to connect with their communities— despite the rap on teens as insatiable consumers of screentime, YouTube, and social media — is more powerful than many of us realized.

Lisa Otsuka, head of the English department at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, Calif., reports that she is seeing an amazing upsurge of caring and creativity in her students. With her permission, here are some of Ms. Otsuka’s comments from a recent Facebook post:

“I am receiving emails from students who are trying something new or returning to an activity they love. Yes. They are lonely and bored, but one student is playing guitar again, using Skype to create a band. Another young woman is helping her grandparents at home, buying groceries and cooking. One young man just sent me his first screenplay. They are teaching me. Perhaps our compulsory solitude right now can be the birthplace of some creativity.”

Photo: Menlo-Atherton High School, Atherton, CA

In her New York Times article, “Quaranteenagers: Strategies for Parenting in Close Quarters,” psychologist Lisa Damour, PhD, suggests that teens deserves our empathy and understanding for the many rite-of-passage events they are missing. Prom? Cancelled. Musical performances? Cancelled. Spring sports? Cancelled. Graduation? Probably not going to happen.

“Though we can’t replace what’s been lost, adults should not underestimate the power of offering outright empathy to disheartened adolescents,” observes Dr. Damour. Teenagers, she says, have the right to feel sad, angry, frustrated, and disheartened by how quickly their world has changed.

As Damour advises, adults can help by saying things like, “I hate that you have lost so much so fast and I am sorry it has happened. You’ll get through this, but that doesn’t make it any less miserable right now.”

Madeline Levine, PhD, is a psychologist, educator, and bestselling author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her clinical practice, she began to see affluent teens who expressed feeling “empty,” suffering from epidemic rates of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders.

Dr. Levine’s first book, The Price of Privilege, shed light on the physical, mental, and emotional damage to students determined to achieve “success” at any cost. In her prescient new book, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World (published before the coronavirus crisis), Levine describes how “learned helplessness” (parents doing for kids what they’re capable of doing themselves) can limit children’s ability to be resilient in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Instead, Dr. Levine advises parents and educators to focus on what she calls “foundational skills” — sometimes referred to as “soft” or “character” skills — that children and teens will need in the future: critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, flexibility, educated risk-taking, collaboration, perseverance, self-regulation, and the “ultimate life skills: hope and optimism.”

While Madeline Levine could not have foreseen the coronavirus pandemic, her words resonate with parents, students, and educators now facing a challenge no one saw coming: large-scale, mandated distance learning.

Lexy Keller is an 8th grade history and math teacher at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park, Calif. She is also the mom of two children, a 3rd grader and a 5th grader, so her life has changed dramatically since the San Francisco Bay Area became one of the first communities ordered to shelter-in-place.

While she is “hanging in,” Lexy describes the pressure of trying to keep her middle school students engaged while managing the schoolwork for her own two children. The Menlo Park City School District is a high-achieving public school district, preschool through 8th grade, so parents and administrators set the bar high. This can be challenging, given the rapid and unexpected transition from regular school to “distance learning” at home.

Photo credit: UNICEF/UN0140097/Humphries

Early in the coronavirus school shutdown, Ms. Keller and her husband made the decision to divide and conquer. Her husband, Alan Eaton, a Latin teacher at Woodside High School in the Sequoia Union High School District, is responsible for their kids’ enrichment and extracurricular activities (art, music, etc.), while Lexy is in charge of their academics, overseeing home-based school activities, projects, homework, etc.

I asked Ms. Keller what she most wanted parents to know during this unprecedented experiment with distance-learning. She appreciates that parents are frustrated and under a lot of stress, especially in locked-down communities, but she hopes they understand that classroom teachers are managing a lot. “If it’s not an emergency, let it go,” she advises, “I know you’re struggling, so do as much as you can, and let the rest go.”

“I didn’t get into teaching because I love to stare at a screen all day,” adds Lexy. “We became teachers because we love the engagement and fun of being in a classroom with students every day.”

In the end, the coronavirus pandemic too shall pass, but not without significant loss for parents, students, and educators. In the Bay Area, we knew things had gotten serious when Stanford University announced it was cancelling all of spring quarter. Students, many of them from countries around the globe, had to scramble to store their belongings, arrange for transportation home, and deal with a truncated winter quarter.

In a recent communication, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne sent an emotional letter to the student body: “All of us are incredibly proud of you, and of the resilience and ingenuity of our entire student body, which has been so evident in the midst of this crisis.”

Admit Weekend, Family Day, and graduation had already been cancelled, along with similar events at many colleges and universities across the nation. The loss and associated grief at missing these rite-of-passage ceremonies will be felt by students long into the future.

So take a moment to thank your tweens and teens — them know that you understand we’re living through an incredibly difficult, anxious, and uncertain moment in our history.

Let them know that we appreciate their efforts to be kind, caring, and helpful. We are grateful for their patience, for their understanding, and for their investment in our future.

Tell them that we empathize with the sacrifices they’re being forced to make, giving up highly-anticipated events like prom, spring sports, school plays, musicals, and graduation.

And (hopefully) you will observe bright moments like Ms. Keller’s son teaching himself the ukelele, or Ms. Otsuka’s students forming Skype bands, caring for elderly grandparents, and analyzing the poem she sends out each day via Facebook:

Pour yourself out like a fountain. Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

Every happiness is the child of a separation it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, becoming a laurel, dares you to become the wind.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

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Written by Charlene Margot, M.A., Founder and CEO, The Parent Venture. Palo Alto native, mom of two young adults, lifelong advocate of kids, schools, and families.

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