Teen Scene Then and Now: Thirty Years of Conversations, with Lucy Martin Gianino

By Melanie Wells


PIA’s signature event, Teen Scene XXX, celebrated its 30th birthday February 1st, reassuring the audience that their kids really are okay – despite the suggestive Roman numeral in the title. With PIA’s Lucy Martin Gianino moderating the articulate teen panel, parents, as always, heard candid talk from the 9th to 12th graders. The consistent message is, still, New York City independent school teens are a thoughtful and savvy bunch, capable of making good decisions, negotiating the shoals of adolescence and moving successfully to college and beyond.


Asked to look back and reflect on Teen Scene’s endurance, Lucy (as moderator since 1986) provided the backstory:

Our first Teen Scene had an audience of just 30 parents, mostly women. (By comparison, the 2016 event sold out at 400, with many fathers present.) The impetus to hold that first event, she said, came from “a distressing story, that a young woman from one of our schools – a teen who was on track academically, doing great – was killed by a hit and run driver as she emerged from a bar at 4 a.m.” As the news spread, a friend said, “Everyone is talking about this, but not to us, the kids. Just because we might be in a bar doesn’t mean we’re loose, or bad. Instead of all the adults talking to each other ABOUT us, why don’t they talk TO us?”

That struck everyone as “a fair question,” and it triggered the first Teen Scene, PIA’s serious answer to a legitimate teen wish that the adults hear directly from them. Since then, Lucy said, “We’ve never wavered from our mission to support these teens in their quest to speak out on behalf of their peers.” Teen Scene, she added, is “NOT an expose. We don’t look for secrets,” but rather, for a way to let teens “express to us what is going on in their world.” That was valid in 1986 and it’s still valid in 2016.


Have the teen panelists changed much?

It’s not so much that teens have changed, as that concerns have shifted, said Lucy. Consent and stress are big issues now. And there are other differences; to go back 30 years is to view a time that was somehow more innocent. Panelists’ revelations then felt more “shocking.” There were no social media platforms, no way for adults to eavesdrop electronically on teen talk, no easy way to track what kids did or where they went – unless they told you. Today, everything’s “out there,” and it’s immediate. That wasn’t so in 1986 so Teen Scene “reveals” came as more of a shock, sounding “a bit naughtier,” said Lucy.

Then, parents heard their kids were sneaking out at night – a “big naughty” — but no one even talks about that now, said Lucy. The “shock” bar is set much higher. Teens now may talk about oral sex, but even that doesn’t reverberate as it did at first; our audiences have been hearing about it for years. What has changed is the focus. Teens now say they want values related conversation. This year, although they talked about sexuality and admitted to some promiscuity, what they really wanted to discuss was consent. Today’s teens are struggling to figure out boundaries and identify what constitutes consent. They already have data on birth control and STDs at their fingertips, but the meaning of consent, for them and for healthy relationships, is not so obvious. Understanding intangibles and figuring out what to do – or not do – won’t happen just Googling data. Greater ethical clarity requires time, attention and a genuine parental effort to engage in conversation.

Panelists noted that while they want conversation with parents on this and other sensitive topics, they don’t want it in “a lecturing way.” Don’t wait until 11th grade to start talking, either, they said. Talk about the hard stuff in advance – alcohol, drugs, consent. Lucy felt that, unlike 30 years ago, kids welcome dialogue even if it’s awkward. PIA Co-President Amy Lloyd noted, similarly, that the panel “praised parents for talking to them about sex even if it was embarrassing at the time, particularly with regard to birth control.” Discussions may be tough to initiate, but become easier with time, as the child matures.

Lucy added that, unlike 30 years ago when kids sent a “leave us alone, just trust us” message, they now prefer to engage. Amy noted, “Teens this year seemed noticeably more connected to their parents.” Alcohol is still big: “Kids are gonna drink, you can’t stop them,” said the panel, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want discussion. Lucy asked if they’d want to “sit and have a drink with a parent?” No, they said, but we’d like tips, guidelines, and a full conversation. Not just “DON’T DO IT,” or a lecture, but real information. Amy Lloyd: “They are thankful when parents talk candidly to them, as long as parents give the ‘why’ behind the ‘don’t do it.’”

The kids have absorbed the rule that there should be a go-to person if there’s trouble, and agreed they’d seek adult help if a friend were dangerously drunk. But they really want to talk with parents about bad scenarios BEFORE they happen. Panelists noted, “We’d rather be the kid taking care of someone than the kid BEING taken care of.” Abstainers are not put down. Nor are the kids who prefer to just stay at home, or who suffer from “FOMO” (fear of missing out).

Alcohol is very accessible, said Lucy. Fake ID’s make purchasing ridiculously easy. It was much harder 30 years ago, involving trips into the park or other shadowy places to buy. With fake IDs, and the amount of ready cash available to many kids, purchasing power is almost limitless.


What emerged as the big concern now, vs. then?

Lucy said the panel emphasized it was clearly STRESS. In 1986, stress arose in senior year around college applications, but it hits now with disturbing force as soon as the kids enter 9th grade. They arrive in high school and “On day one, boom! It starts,” she said. The teens don’t seem resentful that stress is “put on them;” in fact, they put it on themselves, and even self-identify as “angsty kids.” Deflective humor aside, though, stress is a huge problem for them.

Lucy added, “Alcohol is still there. Drugs are still there. But the way they hit the ground running as freshmen, is nothing remotely like 30 years ago. Stress is SO much worse today.” The kids appreciate New York City, being at the “center of everything,” but they don’t know how to “get off the merry go round.” While they wouldn’t trade for a slower-paced locale, they wish life weren’t so pressured. Academic stress, in particular, can lead to prescription drug abuse, to help them ace important tests. Lucy asked the kids if they worried about harm to the brain; they said, “We just need to get through that test – you do what you have to do to get the good grade. Worry about side effects later.” They sounded like little driven adults, said Lucy, but not healthy ones. That wasn’t so true 30 years ago.


What about discipline, when they “screw up?” Have attitudes changed?

Kids want parents to “let us make all our own mistakes.” And, “If you’re mad at me for doing poorly, it’s nothing to how bad I feel and how mad I am at myself,” said panelists. The message in 1986 was “parents should just trust me,” Lucy recalled. Now, it’s more complex: the kids report feeling “worse than [parents] do” if they screw up. The underlying message: an explosion of parental anger won’t do much good. A calm serious talk just might.

Amy noted that the teen panel “valued parents who don’t just propose punishment, but let kids make their own mistakes and learn from them.” One was grateful for parents who said, “If you’re going to make a stupid mistake, do it under our roof.” Another said, “We have a policy where my parents will come and pick me up no matter where I am and in what condition I’m in and will not ask any questions until the next day.”


Will Teen Scene stay relevant? Could there be a Teen Scene LV?

Yes maybe, said Lucy, even probably – but who knows what 25 years from now will look like? There are constants: Parent will always want to care for, love and protect their child, and the child will want to experience those things. How we present that might look very different. Maybe the event will be digitally managed? Whatever the delivery system, the adolescent urge to experiment, and the parental urge to share knowledge, love and instruct their children well, are strong and will remain so. For those reasons, Teen Scene – either in this format or a different one – will likely continue to be a bridge between our essentially well-meaning kids and their worried but well-meaning parents.

Lucy summed up: What will still matter is “the humanity.” When asked why kids are mean to each other online, the panelists said, “Because people are stupid.” “Youth is thoughtless,” Lucy said. Parents must teach humane values like kindness and empathy. It may be “harder now for parents to know what their job is,” she acknowledged. The steps to adulthood 30 years ago were more narrowly defined; choices are wider now, making guidance even more important. But parental willingness to talk openly and give guidance is still valuable to teens. That’s reinforced year after year, straight from teen mouths.

In the final analysis, Teen Scene may simply be best at reminding parents that these kids are, after all is said and done, darn good people.



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