I have a scar on the side of my face that extends from my cheekbone to my jawbone. It’s from a surgery to remove skin cancer. Since the surgery I have been religious about sun block. We live at the beach and my kids spend their entire summer in the sun. Naturally, I plead with them to wear sun block, but often they don’t listen.
Reason doesn’t convince them. “Skin cancer is partially hereditary,” I remind them. “You are more likely to get it when your mother has it.” They still skip the sun block on occasion. Fear doesn’t convince them. “Do you want scars all over your face when you grow up?” I ask them, “Do you want to look like me?” They still skip sun block on occasion.
Finally, the summer before leaving on a mission, one of my children got sun poisoning. Sun poisoning is really nasty. It induces headaches and nausea. This child’s upper arms and chest were bright red with intermittent patches of white, where it looked like somebody was pressing with a thumb. Eventually the patches turned to scabs, and all the burned skin died. It looked like the scum on the bottom of a frying pan when you over-cook an omelet. The skin did not flake off like a normal sunburn. Almost an entire layer of skin, as brown as a paper bag, and just as wrinkled, came off in sheets. Underneath the sheets appeared soft, moist skin, healthy and new.
The teen has used sunblock religiously ever since.
Undoubtedly there are parents who believe in forcing a teenager to wear sun block, protecting them from their own poor choices. But the question that haunts me is, “Why would you have to force them? Why don’t they listen and choose to obey?” Why would a good kid, obedient to the gospel, active in the church, in love with the scriptures, entirely worthy to serve a mission, not take the advice of a parent who clearly knows what she is talking about? Why do teenagers so often refuse to learn from your experience and insist on learning from their own?
Parenting expert, David Elkind, described a characteristic of adolescence he called the “personal fable.” One component of the personal fable is a teenager’s belief that they are unique, special, that what typically happens to others won’t necessarily happen to them. In my book, Unsteady Dating: What Every Parent Absolutely Must Know About Teenage Romance, I discuss how the personal fable contributes to a young man’s belief that he can have a girlfriend before a mission without it effecting his ability to serve or a young woman’s belief that she can have unprotected sex and not get pregnant.
The personal fable explains why teenagers will sail through the air on bicycles, skis and wake boards. It explains why they will hang a bungee cord and jump from a bridge, or catapult one another off a giant water trampoline. The personal fable explains why teenagers drive too fast or consume illegal drugs, habits they often abandon as adults. The personal fable convinces teenagers that bad things will never happen to them.
The reason young people believe bad things won’t ever happen to them is because they haven’t. I most cases, bad things have not happened to them. They have NOT learned from their own experience because they haven’t had experience. Those of us who have lived a few years know that bad things can happen. We wear helmets when we ski. We wear seat belts when we drive. We are cautious because we have experienced life and we know it is dangerous.
Apparently, as often as I warned my teenagers about the dangers of skin cancer, because they had not had personal experience, they were convinced they were special, exempt, and what happened to others wouldn’t happen to them.
Learning From their Own Experience
Certainly we can protect our youth from personal experience by taking away their agency. We could force them to wear sun block, for instance. But the more useful task is to show teenagers, who think they are exempt from natural laws, that they aren’t. Ideally, our preaching will convince them, but if it doesn’t they may have to learn from their own experience.
Learning from their own experience is often a very hard way to learn. And it’s particularly hard when the lessons aren’t learned until adulthood. Therefore, if a child insists on learning from his own experience, it’s best to let them gain experience as young as possible.
For example, we warn our children against all kinds of dangers: “Wear a coat or you’ll get cold.” “Wear your shoes or you’ll stub your toe.” “Don’t eat too much candy or you’ll get a tummy ache.” “You better study if you want to pass that test.”
If we counsel the child to wear a coat, but allow him child to walk into the cold without a coat, he gains experience. He learns that Mom was right. He learns, “I better wear a coat to avoid getting cold.” If we counsel the child to wear shoes outside, but he ignores the counsel and stubs his toe, he gains experience. Although he experiences small consequences, such as being cold, or stubbing a toe, he also learns that Mom gives good advice. Then when he is older, he is more inclined to listen to good advice.
Allowing a child to make his own choices when he is young may teach him that Mom is often right. But not always. Every parent knows our prophecies don’t always come true. If we were right every time we proffered a warning, our children would doubtless listen to us without fail.
The fact is, sometimes our prophecies come true and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes our children get lucky and ace a test they didn’t even study for. Such lucky breaks may prompt our children to ignore our warnings. They choose to gamble that nothing bad will happen. Often it is only after experiencing something bad that they will stop their gambling.
Does this mean we stop providing warnings? Because we’re not always right, and teens know it, and will take the chance that our prophecy won’t come true, does that mean we cease to prophecy? Obviously not. When we cease to warn we cease parenting.
However, because consequences are not always immediate, and are not inevitable, when we warn, we need to warn with two caveats:
1) Your gamble may pay off, but what if it doesn’t? Is it worth taking a chance?
When we proffer our warning, it’s actually more believable when we include the honest truth: I don’t know if you’ll fail the test or not, but you can increase your chances of passing if you study. I don’t know if you’ll get cold or not, but at least you’ll have a coat handy if you do.
2) You may not experience the consequences of your choices right away but you will eventually. In other words, if you gamble, eventually your luck will run out. Skin cancer doesn’t occur the first time you get a sun burn.
It may take years before the consequences of a poor choice manifest themselves.
Had somebody warned me, as a teenager, that excess sun exposure can cause skin cancer, I might have elected to gamble and sit in the sun anyway. But it would have been so nice to be warned. I had no idea I could experience such drastic consequences. It would have been a blessing beyond measure if an adult had not only had the wisdom to warn, but also had the courage.
JeaNette Goates Smith is the author of Unsteady: What Every Parent Absolutely Must Know About Teenage Romance available at www.amazon.com and Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available at www.unsteadydating.com