Here's To All The Seemingly 'Ordinary' Teens

by Gloria Marks

I think we all can agree that, as parents, we want the best for our kids. And we want them to be happy. Sometimes, though, it seems like those things are at odds with each other.

I want my kids to be kind and hard-working, joyful and determined. I want them to know the satisfaction that comes from working hard at something you love. I want them to be creative and unique. I want them to find “their thing” and work hard at it. If it were up to my teen, however, his life would consist of video games, Office re-runs, and joking around with his friends. He would find his happiness playing Xbox for days on end, a mini-fridge by his side for late night snacking. His joys don’t include things like playing the guitar or reading YA books or computer coding or mastering how to pitch a good curveball.

Sometimes I worry that “his thing” might be figuring out how to just get by with the bare minimum, that he doesn’t know the joy that comes from working hard at something you love. His passion is basically laughing and shooting the shit with his friend and playing video games. By his own account, he’s not even all that good at the video games he plays; he just likes playing them.

Because I want what’s best for him, I worry.

I wonder if we should be nudging him a bit more. Should we be putting more parameters on Xbox time, which in the pandemic has basically been his only outlet with friends? Should we be forcing him to read before bed? Should we be getting him on more sports teams, finding a coach that will push him harder? Should we dangle the prize of a new phone if he gets all As or shoots hoops for an hour each day?

I know plenty of parents who ascribe to this philosophy. Truth be told, as a child of the ’80s, I was raised on a steady diet of high expectations and a strong work ethic. An athlete growing up, I was definitely pushed along the way – both by internal and external motivators. Sometimes I wonder if I should be pushing my son a bit more until he finds his “passion” and the intrinsic motivators take hold?

Maybe. But my gut tells me no.

My gut tells me to just let him be. My head tells me that society’s obsession with “finding our passion” is really just another way to tie our worth to productivity, to make us feel like we constantly need to be striving for more. My heart tells me that my seemingly “ordinary” teen is really quite extraordinary in all the ways that really matter.

Because let me tell you, despite my teen’s lack of extraordinariness in things like academics or sports or music, he has the market cornered on happiness. He is truly one of the happiest teens I know. He (and his pre-teen brother too) often declares, unprompted, “I love my life.” And he means it. He oozes joy. Truly. In fact, earlier today he was literally jumping with joy.

He doesn’t just love his life either; he shares that love with others too. He is empathetic and caring. He says, “I love you” to me and my husband all the time, unprompted, in front of his friends. Last week, when we were talking about work I had to do, his response was, “Wow, you really work hard, and you take care of us, and you volunteer too…wow.” To be seen and acknowledged by your teen… well, let me tell you, they should definitely give out an award for that.

It’s hard not to look back on my own teen years as I witness my son’s. I was a good student. I studied hard. I was a dedicated athlete, sometimes training 2-3 hours a day. I was a good kid and considered myself to be a relatively content teen. But never was I so happy that I declared how much I loved my life. I had (and have) a great relationship with my parents and appreciate all that they did for me (which was a lot), but as a teen, I kept my feelings for them fairly well guarded. I never hugged them out of the blue to thank them for taking care of me. I didn’t tell them I was proud of them or how amazing they were. So yeah, I do think my son is extraordinary in this way.

I see Facebook posts of friends sharing the excitement of their kid winning a swim meet. I hear friends talk about their child getting into advanced math. I see videos on Instagram of kids playing a guitar solo or singing a song they wrote. I don’t begrudge these parents their pride or their kids’ joy in finding their passion. It’s just that these experiences are so different from my teen’s.

I can’t help but wonder: Have we gotten so trained into thinking that grades, musical talent, and athletic success is the only way to excel? What about those teens don’t have a passion, the teens who are fine with “just getting by”? Do we push them a little so they can reach their full potential? Or do we rest peacefully in the knowledge that they are happy?

Personally, I’m focusing on that inner spark of joy in my teen that the world hasn’t snuffed out yet. I want to nurture that as long as possible. And if that means letting him spend more time laughing with his friends or binging The Office with me, so be it.

That doesn’t mean we let him shirk all responsibility. Not in the slightest. He needs to stay on top of school work, get a little physical activity in most days, and clean up after himself. But it does mean that if he doesn’t want to do the extra work it takes to be better than ordinary at something… oh well.

Because even though, by most traditional measures, my kids are rather ordinary, they are absolutely extraordinary in all the ways that really matter.