Occasionally, a teenager will label one or another adult as being “cool.” While the criteria for “coolness” may be questionable, what is highly evident is trying to be “cool” does not work. Teenagers do find a variety of adults to be cool. Most often teens recognize when such adults are genuine as well as caring and respectful of teenage turmoils and willing to engage- particularly offer appropriate wisdom in appropriate ways. Blue-haired grandmothers, an eccentric street person, the nerdy teacher, the hard-ass cop, the inmate, and many others who may not fit some demographic of “adolescent cool” or modern hipness (or hip-hopness!) are cool by being open, honest, and worldly. Often the criteria for being cool is outright in-your-face honesty when the teen is acting like an idiot. Teens often can accept that feedback (properly articulated) because they know they are acting like idiots! And an adult who does not call it must be too busy trying to be cool, been intimidated, having abdicated the leadership role, and has just been gamed. Or, the adult has not him or herself yet grown up or matured.
Zach is cool… NOT!
A teenager Samuel had to come to mandated therapy as a part of his probation. He had been given probation including forty hours of community service and a year of psychotherapy instead of being sent to juvenile hall. It was coming up to a year and he had NOT done his community service hours- not even set up a situation to accumulate hours, and only just initiated therapy under duress from his parents, so that he could go to his court hearing in two weeks able to say he had started therapy. Where was the leadership that could have and should have called Samuel on his BS? In the first session, the therapist asked about what trouble he had gotten into in the first place. At his high school, there was “cool” instructional aide/security dean Zach who supervised a drop-in activity room. In his mid-twenties, this “cool” dean would hang out with him and his fellas. They would sometimes cut class to hang out and Zach would write them excuses or permission slips so they would not get into trouble. Sometimes they, including Zach would go out back of the bleachers to smoke- cigarettes usually and occasionally, pot. Samuel declared empathically to the therapist that Zach was cool.
Since they knew they could get an excuse slip anytime they wanted from Zach, Samuel and his friends sometimes take off during lunch and not come back for a couple of hours. They never got into trouble with the classroom teachers since Zach would sign off that they were doing something for him for the drop-in room. Eventually, Samuel and his friends took advantage of their unsupervised time in the middle of the day to break into houses near the high school and steal whatever they could grab. Samuel and his friends kept pushing their luck and one day, it ran out on them. They were observed coming out of a house by a neighbor, traced to the school, identified, and arrested. Fortunately for Samuel, it was a first offense and he was able to get probation on the conditions of doing community service and therapy. However, not surprisingly Samuel lacking a sense of responsibility had blown off the weeks and months of the calendar passing without fulfilling his obligations. What had he been doing for almost a year instead? Hanging out with “cool” Zach.
Samuel was more than a little shocked when the therapist told him that Zach rather than being “cool,” had really screwed him up. “Zach ain’t cool! Zach really screwed you up. He kept on letting you… hell, helping you get away with crap! He didn’t do nothing to help you deal with the real world. You think that getting away with crap is how to be successful? The more crap you get away with, the more successful you are? Zach indulged you. You know what ‘indulged’ means? It meant doing crap for you so you’d think he’s cool… so you think avoiding class and crap is cool. It means you didn’t have to be responsible for your blowing off your classes. Zach was so ‘cool’ that he didn’t act like a damn adult, and tell you about how it works in the real world. And you started being ‘cool’ too… figuring stealing crap out of people’s houses was fun and games.
No accountability! You know what ‘accountability’ means? That means ‘What goes around, comes around.’ So you blew off going to classes, blew off people’s property, blew off the sanctity of their homes… stole crap, and then after getting cut slack with probation, you blew off community service and therapy. Well, chances are the judge is going throw you in juvenile hall… or if he or she gives you slack again, you’ll blow it off again. Worse-case scenario is that you’ll find another way to dodge the bullet, and continue to push your luck being ‘cool’ and eventually, get into some situation where you will be truly screwed. You’ll be too old for juvenile hall and the county jail or worse will be where you’ll end up. Or, too far behind academically to want to continue school. Or, too unskilled- except at being ‘cool’ to get a decent job or career going. Or, screw the wrong person who will really f—k you up! All along, you’ll find other ‘cool’ characters like Zach who will reinforce your stupid-ass ‘coolness!'”
Style vs. Strategy and Theory
A quick note about style, craft/techniques, strategy, and theory. The language directed at Samuel by the therapist is perhaps at the 80% rank of intensity and profanity, but can be significantly more intense AND profane. It can also be significantly more “adult” or “proper.” It depends on the relationship (which is partly determined by the style of language!) and the personality and style of the adult communicator. Sometimes, using another language (Mexican Spanish, for example), slang, colloquialisms… or profanity is a way to join with another person who is used to such communication- it’s an entry into his/her cultural world. Profanity was part of Samuel’s normal adolescent communication style- not around adults such as teacher usually, but definite with his peers. Each person has to use language that he/she is comfortable with. The underlying theory is not about profanity, but about people recognizing and appreciating others who are genuine. If one swears well and articulately, it may be very appropriate with certain teens and others. If one does not swear (and therefore, not very articulate in profanity!), then one should find other ways to communicate. However, remember that another key theoretical principle is that communication starts only after getting the other person’s attention! Until and unless, you get the teenager’s attention it won’t matter how much wisdom you have to share- it won’t be heard, considered, and therefore possibly activated. You can see kids, teens, and adults go blank or otherwise shut down reception or feign attention as you go, “blah, blah, blah, blah…”
Aggressive, intense, confrontational, and sometimes profane language can be a viable strategy to get the other person’s attention- in particular, with certain teenagers and other demographic groups (for example, construction workers or cops!). At the same time, anger OR profanity can distract the recipient’s attention from the message being conveyed. Anger can be so intimidating and terrifying depending on prior experiences with adult and other anger that the recipient basically forgets whatever else may have been the issue at hand and focus only on getting away from the anger to be safe. Profanity can be very off-putting depending on one’s cultural (including religious, social, or family morals), OR distracting as it may not fit the persona otherwise of the speaker (don’t swear if you can’t do it well!). Each person needs to be self-aware and cognizant of the recipient to adapt communication to be effective. While the style described speaking to Samuel above may not work for some adults, the craft and techniques one chooses should adhere to sound strategies and relevant theories.
Zach, more or less followed a theory of unconditional support and peer-bonding with Samuel and the other teenagers. He acted like a peer, bonding with them by agreeing with, colluding with, and facilitating immature adolescent behaviors rather than offering adult leadership with perspective, boundaries, and consequences- “What are you doing!? You keep cutting classes, you’ll get into all kinds of trouble. The more you get away with crap, the more you’ll keep taking risks and eventually, the more the real world going to come down hard on you! You can get away with bad stuff, but you won’t get away with it forever.” Real adult leadership is not indulgent and perhaps, not desired by teenagers wishing to live their fantasy lives. Another young teen, fourteen-year-old Antonio described another “cool” guy, Cody who hung out with Antonio’s crew at the skateboard park. Cody would chill with them- sometimes, sharing a blunt and scoring them a six-pack of beer since he was twenty-two and could legally buy alcohol that the rest of them could not buy. The half-dozen members of the crew were from thirteen to sixteen years old. Antonio was shocked to be challenged about his fantasy of not just Cody being cool, but Antonio and his crew being cool enough for a twenty-two year old to find worthy of association. “What’s so damn cool about a twenty-two year old guy who is cool because he hangs out with kids who are 6-9 years younger than him? If he’s any kind of cool, he’d be hanging out with people around his age! Yeah, right… he’s a big man at the skatepark. That’s immature… if not pathetic!” Once the immediate benefits of an older guy who could buy beer were placed in perspective, Antonio had to admit that Cody must have been pretty socially inept not to hang out and bond with his age-group peers but slum with him and his friends. After all, Antonio knew his crew wasn’t particularly cool in the first place!
Best Friends… YECH!
While Zach and Cody are examples of young adults chronologically who have not matured significantly from dysfunctional adolescent perspectives, they have something of an excuse- they’re not that far removed from their teenage years. However, as a parent, teacher, therapist, and other important adult leaders, you are usually well removed by age from adolescence. So, what’s YOUR excuse trying to be cool?! Not to leave this with two developmentally arrested male examples, there is the highly common and even prideful declaration by some mothers, “Me and my teenage daughter- we’re best friends!” Yech! Cringe!! Later when the daughter has firmly established herself in adult womanhood- at least later twenties, thirties, forties, etc. an intimate peer friendship layered upon the mother-daughter relationship can be very appropriate and quite wonderful. However, during her adolescence- a monumental transitional developmental period full of confusing turmoil, struggle, hormones, social, cultural, and identity issues, the daughter usually has plenty of other wonderful caring but immature teenage options for best friends. She usually has at most one option for the intimate female adult mentor-leader called her mom. Through adolescence and probably into her twenties, so much is happening and changing that a peer relationship with her mother is really not the priority… nor desirable.
If being more of a peer with your child or with a teenager is desirable, be cool later! Children and teenagers (whether they admit it or not) need and want adult leadership. You can be goofy, old-fashioned, technologically-challenged, and musically-out-of-tune, but you can be still cool if you can be honest, open, and genuine… and especially, in tune with your teenager. And remember, what is really really NOT cool for adults is to fail their teenagers AND for teenagers desperate for absent leadership!