Early adolescence is often a time when a child’s appreciation of the magic that younger children see everywhere in the world becomes squelched or outright ignored. Wide-eyed wonder about life and the universe isn’t “cool” and gaining the respect of their peers often becomes tantamount.
By the time they have become teenagers, most children have already developed that ever-present internal critic that haunts adults. This can keep youth from being fully present in any moment, let alone experiencing the sacredness of life or a connection to the divine.
Today’s teens also live in a world of multi-tasking and hyper-attention to multiple sources at once. Texting, instant messaging, social networks, instant access to the internet via Wi-Fi, and other modern tools mean youth are used to spreading their attention over multiple stimuli at one time. From a spiritual perspective, Mimi Doe, author of Nurturing Your Teenager’s Soul, argues that all of this multiple and simultaneous auditory and visual input “tends to numb teens out, disconnecting them from their hearts, minds, and intuitive wisdom. When over-stimulation is a way of life, quieter moments may seem empty” as a result.
Our job as parents, then, is to offer opportunities for our youth to remember that quiet time doesn’t have to mean being bored or even engaging in deep thinking. We can orchestrate moments that help them to reconnect to the extraordinary and reawaken what may seem like a sleeping sense of wonder.
One of the best ways we can do this is through immersion in the natural world. It doesn’t have to be an expensive trip to the Grand Canyon or Badlands National Park. In fact, those places are so often so overrun with tourists that it may be more difficult to engulf yourself in the experience than it is at home. Taking a hike through a local woods, camping overnight in a natural space, or planting vegetables together in a community garden are wonderful ways to open up the possibilities of connection to one another and the greater universe.
Teenagers have a strong, intense need for acceptance, which is one of the real draws of the popular and charismatic evangelical Christian youth programs that are all around us. Nature, too, accepts us for who we are and never rejects us: The connection youth can feel to the larger universe is empowering, even as it reminds us how small we are.
As you sit around the campfire or simply light a candle in your home after a hike in the woods, retell them our creation story—how millions of years of evolution have passed to create them and their generation, and now it is up to them to be the caretakers of the amazing world with which we have an everlasting connection. Remind them that they are a part of the universe and that they contain the same elements as the stars that were born during the Big Bang. Blow their minds with the science of physics; share theories of how time is relative, not fixed, and then watch them tune into the moment right before your eyes.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).