Understanding Teenagers

The psychology of teenagers is not something to be easily reckoned with, but I do have a fair amount of experience with them. In fact, I was one in the 1950s and raised two of them in the 1980s. Over the past few decades I have hired, trained, advised, counseled, rewarded, and disciplined them by the hundreds, and what I have learned about them – and from them – could fill more chapters than I care to write but here are just a few anecdotes that seem important to me at the moment.

At Patchen, Bonnie[i]not her real name of course could not work independently. She seemed to not be able to assist customers without her best friend from high school at her side. They both exhibited the same failing and neither was able to follow my simple reasoning regarding how we had been conducting business over the decades, so it was finally necessary for me to operate without either.

I learned later that the connection between the two girls was a romantic one, which made the situation somewhat easier to understand, but nonetheless not any more tolerable in this situation. Inserting myself between a teenager and his or her hormones is not something I would care to attempt so I am happy to have left that situation for someone more skilled.

Debbie had a misunderstanding about “breaks”. She had been told by her mother who was a paralegal in a very prestigious law firm, that periodic breaks were required in California, so she announced that she would start her shift by taking her mandated 30-minute break. Workers come back year after year and refer their friends for jobs at Patchen because they’re paid handsomely and it is fun. I thought about explaining this and explaining how Temporary Farm Workers are distinguished from Employees in California but I chose not to waste time on this one.

Her career in Christmas trees began and ended with the same “break”.

My sense is that for kids up to the age of 8 or 10 years, everything seems like entitlement, but parents usually teach even toddlers to say “Thank-You” when appropriate. That might not have any meaning in their young minds, but it initiates a spontaneous reaction that takes on meaning a few years later.

I probably didn’t learn to just spontaneously say Thank-You when someone gave me something of value. I have a vague recollection of my mother “suggesting it”[ii]I would not go so far as to say, “demanding it” but she did have a way of making herself clear when circumstances called for it.. Being gracious and expressing one’s gratefulness was definitely her department in the family. Note in the exchange shown below with Symon, my four consecutive hints that a “Thank-You” might be in order, and that one never came.

If a sincere Thank-You response is not evident by age 15 there is something important missing in the teenager’s awareness. Not being a psychologist, I would not casually prescribe a cause or a cure, but it is clearly problematic.

I didn’t hear from this teenager again for several months but still without anything like a “Thank-You”, even though I had sent another very generous gift card in the interim.

For now, I reluctantly conclude that to continue to send gift cards would be encouraging the problem so I have temporarily discontinued the gifting.

Bob wore really baggy pants – to the point where the slightest misstep could have caused a wardrobe failure . I explained that off-the-job, he could wear his long-stringy hair, nose ring, and dress as he pleased. He could have “Jesus Saves” tattooed on his forehead if he chose to do so, but his appearance options were limited at work. Thankfully he chose to temporarily forgo his passion in favor of the job.

I see him occasionally now, several years later. The baggy pants and all the other teenage rebellious accouterments are gone. He magically became a responsible and productive member of society.

I made sure Symon understood the rules, I would have him recite them back to me each time, but something in his spirit told him he just didn’t want to follow them. What he lacked in discipline, he seemed to make up for in tenacity. Our first attempt was at age 13 and that proved to be too early in his development. His interests were more about playing than working, which was to be expected at that age, but the following-the-rules part was already evident. It was a serious enough distraction that we had to cut his involvement short because I had never encountered this kind of problem and was not sure how to deal with it.

The second attempt was at age 16 and predictably the play vs work problem was no longer an issue. Unfortunately, the “rules” part was still there, and even more pronounced. Sadly it was now accompanied by an even more serious problem – one of honesty. .

Christopher was simply unable to tie knots. I worked with him relentlessly for several days – went through the process slowly with him, drew pictures for him, and gave him samples to keep in his pocket. He just could not do it, but making things worse, he would not let the other kids help him. When a tree he had tied down flew off on the freeway, I had to let him go but not before talking it over with his parents, who were very understanding and appreciated my efforts. They still come back every year for their Christmas tree.

Christopher and I have never discussed the problem since, but I am confident he will prosper at something that does not require tieing knots and I am content that I handled the situation as best as I knew how at the time.

As I was building a fire in the fire pit, one afternoon I noticed a young fellow watching my every move. He said, “that’s the second-best way to build a campfire”. I responded by asking, “really; what is the best way?”. “The log cabin method”, he quickly responded. It seems that I was using the TeePee method and his idea was that the Log Cabin method was better. When I inquired about his reasoning, he quite correctly replied, “because it allows air to flow better to help the fire get going”“So why is the air so flow important and why does the hot air rise anyway?”, I asked. This time he scowled a little and didn’t answer right away, so I said, “the heat expands the gaps between molecules, making the air lighter, kinda related to Boyle’s Law, right”. That brought a big smile to his face and it was clear that he was really enjoying this.

We went on to talk about sundials, the earth’s glaciation periods, the extinction of the Wooly Manouth, and everything else that popped into his head. Then he said that humans are going to destroy the world in 100 years by Global Warming.

That prompted a pause, and I explained that anytime his teacher said something that didn’t sound logical, he should find a book on the subject, then research the author before reading the book. I offered up a couple of suggestions to keep on his shelf – Carl Sagan’s, “The Demon-Haunted World” and “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Bjorn Lomborg.[iii]His mother was hastily taking notes in the background.

I left him with a question to think about until I see him again next Christmas tree season. I explained that I had recently told a friend that there was no fire on the sun and I asked him what he thought of such a silly-sounding statement. I have no doubt that he will come back with “Nuclear Fusion” – you can’t have fire without Oxygen. He will be an official teenager by that time, after turning 13 years old.

Third-year veteran Elaina introduced us to her younger sister Megan this year. Elaina is barely 100 pounds but she throws trees on top of cars with the best of the guys. Megan was so shy and quiet, had it not been for the insistence of the other ladies, I might not have hired her.

She sat through the training videos without uttering a word or showing a single hint of enthusiasm. I could see that she was very nervous as the first customers started appearing, but after a few customer thank-yous and even a tip or two, she quickly went from shy-little-girl to a confident-young-woman. Even Elaina said she had never seen her blossom like that.

By: Jim
Written: December 2020
Published: January 2021
Revised: February 2022
Reader feedback always appreciated[iv]thoughtful commentary perhaps more so than shallow thoughts
i not her real name of course
ii I would not go so far as to say, “demanding it” but she did have a way of making herself clear when circumstances called for it.
iii His mother was hastily taking notes in the background.
iv thoughtful commentary perhaps more so than shallow thoughts