When I was in junior high there was a small local restaurant my friends and I liked to go to. It served good sandwiches and it was a place we all went with our families. The thing was, when we were at the restaurant with our families, we received great service. When we went as a group of friends, the service wasn’t so great. We knew without a doubt that the adult employees didn’t like us at all. Eventually we stopped going.

I’ve been thinking about this experience as I’ve recently been reminded how sometimes adults don’t treat teens very well. I think, in many instances, adults don’t do this on purpose, they don’t intentionally treat teens badly. (I do think the waiters and waitresses at the restaurant I used to go to as a teen did know what they were doing.)

If behaviors of adults are unintentional, then, as adults, we need to be extra aware of our day-to-day, face-to-face, and virtual interactions with teens. We need to think very carefully about the impact of our conversations and behaviors. We need to make sure that we don’t send a message that as adults we don’t respect teens. (Think about it, I still remember many decades later how badly I was treated in a restaurant when I was a teenager.) We need to make sure to use every teen interaction as an opportunity to be a mentor.

For example:

  • A teen librarian I once knew was supportive of youth participation. However, once she and “her” teens came up with a project idea, teens would agree to complete specific tasks, and the librarian would say “go.” She did not check in with the teens along the way. Nor did she mentor them in order to help them get their specific tasks accomplished. Instead, she expected the teens would do what they had to do. In many instances the teens didn’t come through as expected. The librarian would then lament to her colleagues how disappointed she was with the teens and wonder why, by simply giving teens a chance to plan and implement, that they didn’t succeed.

    Expectation isn’t a bad thing, however, teens can’t be expected to simply know how to achieve a goal without some back-up and support from adults. If we only give teens a set of tasks, and then let them have at it, we aren’t, mentoring or supporting them. Without that what really is a teen supposed to do? Should she automatically know how to plan and implement a library program? I don’t think so. Think about what it took for you as a librarian to learn how to do that.

  • Because teens are so good at web content creation, adults sometimes forget that teen digital content creators need to be mentored. When a teen posts something on the web, that teen is actually taking a big chance. That teen is letting others around the world in on his thoughts, beliefs, and abilities. For many teens that’s an incredibly big step. It’s also a step that can have major implications for successful teen development. Teens who create content, and receive positive feedback on that content, develop assets of empowerment, constructive use of time, and positive identity.

    Adults need to recognize that teen bloggers and content creators should be supported through positive commenting and critiquing. That doesn’t mean that adults should always say to teens (even when they don’t mean it), “great work.” But, adults need to be smart about how critiquing and commenting is successfully accomplished. This is particularly important in a digital environment when comments can, unintentionally, take on an extra edge.

    If adults are aware of this they can temper their critiques and comments. For example, a comment on a teen created blog post might be phrased as a question such as, “That’s really interesting. Did you ever think about it this way…” Or, an adult might present a point of view by writing something like, “You know I never thought of it that way, I always thought that…”

If you use every opportunity you have to interact with a teen as an opportunity to be a mentor, you’ll help guarantee that a teen won’t grow up to tell a story about how terribly she was treated by adults when in junior high. Instead she’ll talk positively about the adults who mentored her so she could successfully plan activities, publish content, and generally succeed in life.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.

2 Thoughts on “Mentoring Teens All The Time

  1. I think we all have our stories. It’s true–these experiences stay with us. (I vividly remember the toy store employee who seemed to watch everyone under the age of 30 as if we were just waiting for the chance to slip something into our pockets. Really? You really think I’m going to walk out with this gigantic Lego set?)

    I try to be really conscious of my language and tone when I’m talking to teens. I’ve noticed that many of the students in my library react really poorly to certain phrases and attitudes from other adults, so I’ve been trying to come up with alternative approaches. I don’t want to turn it into a good cop/bad cop thing, but it’s important to me that teens know I’m not trying to bust them or humiliate them–I want them to understand how their behavior affects other people.

    Just this afternoon, a group of girls was being pretty rowdy as they played and replayed a video one of them had taken. I didn’t really care about the noise, but I started getting really curious about what was so interesting–and ended up giving them all fliers for the library video contest.

  2. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. Respectfully mentoring teens is something we *think* we all engage in, but it’s important to take a step back and examine our actions. Everyone has bad days, bad moments, and interactions we later regret. If we can truthfully examine our less-than-proud moments, we can learn from them.

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