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Teen Scene 2017

February 6, 2017 @ 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm

Teen Scene XXXI – Teen Panel Informs Parents By Adrienne Barr

On a chilly night in February, three months after a contentious election and in a new year marked by protests on a variety of fronts, sixteen teenagers from over a dozen New York independent schools gathered on a stage and showed they were more mature and thoughtful than many adults. They were surprisingly optimistic about their relationships with their parents, friends, the schools they attend and the world they will inherit. Welcome to Teen Scene 2017, the 31st annual teen panel sponsored by Parents in Action.

Teen Scene is where parents get to hear first-hand reporting of what’s going on with their kids.  Moderated by PIA’s veteran teen interrogator and charmer, Lucy Martin Gianino, these student “guides” ranged in age from 15 to 18, from partiers to abstainers, from competitive ski racers to soccer stars, from actors to artists, with over a dozen activities among them that would light up anyone’s resume or college essay.  The group included a part time coat check girl, an oboe player, a class president, and two kids with early admittance to Harvard.

Granted, these are not your average couch potato kids; they are a self-selecting group of students who are probably not coming home in police cars or with grades much lower than a B. But they are also an enlightened and articulate group who are figuring out themselves and their futures, and were generous enough to share their journeys with a roomful of 400 plus nervous parents who sat in the Trinity School chapel, wondering whether they would leave terrified or delighted. For the most part, these girls and boys filled the crowd with hope and awe at their wisdom and honesty, but like any event starring irreverent teenagers, there were also a few moments that set off alarms.

The evening got off to a rollicking start when Lucy asked her first question: how had this politically intense past year affected them?  Nearly all who answered were frank about their schools’ liberal bent, and noted the election results had been emotional for many.  Several mentioned school mates who had reacted swiftly and enthusiastically to join protests, take buses to Washington, create school wide walkouts and question what they saw happening.  They were also careful to point out that not all their friends or teachers shared the same beliefs, and that sometimes that dissonance was tough.  For some of the seniors, this was their first opportunity to vote, and for others, the recent election made them keenly aware of the privilege to exercise this freedom.  A ninth-grade boy said the “election was a wake-up call to pay attention, it’s not just about the interest, but about the impact this election can have on us and that we can have on the next one.”

Academic pressure was clearly a concern for the panel. While independent school parents know their kids are receiving a terrific education, many worry about the emotional price of achieving top grades, and shining in demanding extracurricular activities, all for the sake of getting into the “right” colleges.  The students acknowledged they feel constant pressure not just to make excellent marks, but also, as one young man put it, not to “waste the opportunities that have been given to me.”   A freshman girl, already feeling pressure to know what college she should attend and what she wants to do when she grows up, lamented somewhat anxiously,” I’m only 15.”

A junior boy quipped sagely, “Competing with everyone in your class, along with the pressure your parents put on you, sets up some interesting conflicts.”  Another noted his parents had signed him up for standardized test prep classes for 10 hours every weekend, which, he said in a deadpan voice, is definitely “not great.” “God,” he pleaded out loud, “A little conversation would have gone a long way on that one!”  Another young man admitted that his immigrant parents sometimes put undue pressure on him to do well, but in reality, he acknowledged, kids “put unnecessary pressure on ourselves, and that’s definitely unhealthy.”

teens-relax-e1438183457644For the seniors who had either gotten into college early, or were just waiting for their announcements, the application process seemed to have a silver lining.  One senior girl said: “The first few months of the fall was like a huge wave of anxiety… but in the end, in my class, we all came together and learned to rely on one another … and now there’s this sweet feeling of nostalgia for all of us.”   Another senior, a boy, gave parents some remarkably sane advice:  “My parents want the best, but where you go doesn’t mean who you will be.”

If anything emerged as a theme of the evening, it was a plea for parents to listen to their kids, and most importantly, to trust them.  Whether it was discussing homework, curfews, partying or friends, all of the speakers stressed the importance of listening and trust.

“A little trust goes a long way; if I breach that, then we have a talk, but let your kids prove themselves to you,” said one 11th grade girl.   Another girl, a senior, said she and her parents had very open communications.  They talked about all kinds of things, all the time, and she found that very helpful.  “I don’t lie and they don’t worry.”

When Ms. Gianino asked, “What can parents do to help their kids?”  some responses echoed the “how-to” books most parents have read: “Have dinner together,” a self-assured young man said instantly, and nearly all the heads on the panel bobbed simultaneously.  “I have dinner with my parents five times a week, and that makes me feel less stress. I put my phone away, and my mom asks, ‘How was today different than yesterday?’ It definitely lets me get things off my chest before I have to start my night!’”

A 15-year-old girl told the crowd, “Even though we’re not always supposed to at school, texting throughout the day with my mom really helps.”   And a senior boy, sounding like a seasoned parenting expert, added: “If you don’t know how to talk to your kids, start a TV show with them, or read a book together,” something he proudly admitted he still does with his own family.  One girl described how her parents had begun “a family group chat” and that they had “finally learned how to use emojis.”   She elicited a huge laugh from the audience and also some hope, when she described how seeing a smiley face from one of them would make her smile in the middle of a busy day.

While these kids offered advice for parents, many had praise too. One boy praised his parents for telling him they would always help him out if he got into trouble, “No questions asked. There would probably be consequences down the road, but at the moment I needed them, I know they would be helpful.”

The night was not all wholesome sweetness and light; the kids did admit that partying, drugs, and sex are still a part of many high school students’ lives, and as expected, the older kids seemed to know more than the younger ones.  A ninth-grade boy said he really hadn’t seen too many kids getting out of control at all, and another stated flatly he was an athlete and strictly avoided drugs and alcohol. Still another told of losing a friend group, after turning down a joint once too often. However, most of the panel acknowledged that kids are holding and attending unchaperoned parties, called “frees,” at many homes, and that fake IDs are rampant.  At Lucy’s prodding, several kids admitted they could have drugs, (mostly marijuana) and liquor delivered – without questions – to private homes, in large quantities. Some dealers even take credit cards.

Some panelists took a pragmatic view, noting that most of the people they know party in moderation, and that “most kids try hard not to be idiots.”  Those getting “really out of control” are an isolated sub-group, they said. There were reports of Adderall and prescription drug abuse and pre-game drinking before parties, but most kids believed that opiates were used only by a very small fringe. One boy was proud to admit that, when he had been the guy who wasn’t drinking, he took some “out of control” friends home.  “I felt like I was doing the right thing, but I had to take quite a shower afterwards,” he told the audience, who laughed a little uncomfortably.

There was more parental discomfort when some panelists naively explained how they “knew” their drugs were safe. One boy maintained that kids didn’t usually use random dealers, but dealt with the same people repeatedly so they could responsibly source their marijuana.  “If you know a safe dealer,” another girl said, “then you think the stuff is fairly safe.”  It’s probably fair to say that no one in the audience was relieved to hear this.

When sex is the topic, the kids said they preferred to talk to their siblings, friends or school health instructors, and noted hearing plenty of discussions about consent in their classes.  On the whole, the kids were not very forthcoming on this subject. They did explain that “hooking up” meant a range of things, depending on the ages of those involved.  It may mean ‘making out’ for younger teens, and perhaps something more for 12th graders, although that “something” was kept vague. The panelists stressed that boys and girls tend to develop deep friendships these days, and many of them are reluctant to “mess it up” by getting involved romantically.  And while these students do seem to have mature and healthy expectations in this area, one could not help but wonder whether they even have time for dating or relationships, and whether this might impede healthy development.

When asked how they were handling the growing awareness of gender fluidity, the panel agreed almost unanimously that, as New Yorkers, they were “open minded,” and that being transgender was basically a “non-issue.” One boy quipped that it was “awesome that people are so open.”  Most also felt that it is much easier for kids to come out today, whether as transgender or gay, and that adults need to stop worrying about pronoun changes, or gender-neutral bath rooms. One junior girl did, however, make a humorous plea for keeping some traditional “girls” bathrooms with stalls, because they were so important “for social interactions” with friends.

As the evening drew to a close, Lucy asked for a few final thoughts from the students, who returned to the issue of trust and close communication.  One young man wisely told parents, “If you are assuming the worst, you might not be doing the best.” A girl reminded everyone “to be aware of your home life, be at home, and have dinner together.  Kids who are hooking up and doing drugs are the ones with the worst home life.” Perhaps most importantly, said several kids, “Like your children, and don’t make them do things just because of college. Like what they like.”  An 11th grade boy told parents that it was vital to help their kids “make their dreams come true, but you’re setting them up to fail if you don’t help them do the work that will make that happen.”

Most touching were the kids who viewed their parents not only in the traditional sense, as guides and role models, but also as friends.  A senior boy said with obvious pride, “My mother is my best friend.  We are exactly the same person…and because we’ve been best friends my whole life, it’s helped me go a long way.” When Ms. Gianino questioned whether this ran contrary to traditional parenting advice, an 18-year-old girl summed it up best:

“You have to be both, not just one or another.  Sometimes we do need the stability that a parent provides but other times, [we] just need someone to talk to, someone to share our lives with and if you can’t be both of those people, it’s a real disservice to your child.”

Out of the mouths of babes.  It’s not always so easy to hear every part of what they have to say, but so very important that we remember how much our kids need and want us in their lives, in good times and bad.  Do yourselves, and them, a favor: listen!


February 6, 2017
6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Event Category:


Parents In Action


Trinity School
101 West 91st Street
New York, NY 10024 United States
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