I vividly remember opening presents at the dining room table on what must’ve been my 15th birthday. Mom proudly handed me a special gift she’d selected. From the shape and size, I could tell it was a record, which I’d add to my pile of new cassette tapes, to be used in my bright yellow Walkman.
Ripping off the paper, I saw Rick Astley staring back at me—and felt guilt in the pit of my stomach. Mom was so excited about giving me the “best” record available that I couldn’t admit I only kind-of-sort-of liked one song. My expression apparently gave me away, though, because my mother deflatedly asked, “What’s wrong with Rick Astley?”
That oddly clear memory is a great example of how parents try to enter the culture that matters to their teenagers. But if my mom couldn’t keep up with the changing culture back in the ’80s, how do today’s parents stand a chance? After all, she could listen to the radio, hear a song, notice if I liked it, and then go purchase the record at a physical store. Now by the time parents say, “Hey, I heard this song,” kids respond with, “Yeah, I found it online a month ago.” By then, they’ve also seen the video, downloaded the music to multiple devices, and added it to their streaming music list.
In today’s fast-and-furious culture, parents of teenagers tend to do one of two things:
- Check out completely because they can’t keep up.
- Look to youth workers for expert advice about what their kids are interested in.
Yes, some parents can navigate culture pretty well. Others try to re-create their own high school years by going overboard with Snapchat and Instagram. Usually, however, they look to youth experts (i.e., youth workers) for help about how to engage with their kids’ world.
How can we help the parents of today navigate the culture of tomorrow?
- Educate them—Gone are the days when certain kids from a particular demographic dressed a certain way or listened to one style of music because it represented them. With technology, any teenager from any given background can now like anything. Parents need practical tools for recognizing trends, and youth workers are constantly studying, learning, and listening to the world of adolescents. So share insightful articles, resources, videos, blog posts, and book titles. Connect parents with sources such as the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (cpyu.org). If you have a conversation in youth group about the latest ideas or hot topics, send parents a note about what you discussed and how teenagers responded. Once a month, choose a cultural touchpoint and have a “coffee talk” so parents can ask questions and learn about what’s going on in the youth world.
- Help parents assess their own preferences—Some parents can’t quite vocalize their opinions on culture. Or maybe they don’t realize exactly what they want their own kids to see, experience, and hear. Other parents may simply need reminders that their kids need help navigating media choices. Without standing in judgment, encourage parents to embrace what they like and are okay with and why. Sponsor a get-together where parents list everything they watch, listen to, and engage in. Then have them write what they don’t like or aren’t interested in. Finally, have them admit what cultural trends scare them (Snapchat, for example). Review and discuss the lists so parents can process what’s okay and not okay for their kids.
- Show parents how to enter their kids’ world—Engaging with teenagers is intimidating enough as it is, but when you add in lots of unfamiliar language and trends, it can feel downright overwhelming. When kids start using a new phrase or referencing a new YouTube channel, parents don’t want to appear ignorant. Or they might think, “I probably don’t even need to know.” But teenagers truly want their parents to understand them better! That begins by asking solid questions. Throughout the week, text parents a question prompt to help them engage with their kids; for example, “What’s your favorite song this week?” “Is there a movie coming out that you want to see? Why?” “What movie or show are your friends into that you think is stupid?” Such inquiries help parents listen to their kids and stay engaged as the culture changes. Remind parents it’s okay to admit, “I haven’t heard about that. Describe it to me. I want to know what you like.” Kids might laugh at first, but that’s okay. It means a lot to parents and kids that these questions are being asked.
Who would’ve thought that Rick Astley and his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” would eventually create today’s cultural trend of Rickrolling? It just goes to show: Parents of teenagers might not be as clueless about what’s “in” as they think.