I have been thinking all week about the expectations on American teenagers. I thought it would be fairly easy for me to figure this out. After all, I have two teenagers currently living at home and a third child who just left her teenage years behind. All three have grown up in the US, they have gone to school here, played sports and made friends here. But the more I thought about the “American teenager” the less I knew what to write. And, indeed, when I asked my kids what it is like to be an American teenager, they all had different stories to tell. So, in order to round out the picture and get some objective input, I did some Internet research.
One of the first things to pop up through my Internet searches is the abundance of studies concerning teenagers’ social media habits and digital activities. I was not surprised to learn that the median age to get your first cell phone is around eleven, or that the median number of Facebook friends for teenagers is 300. Social media plays a big role in a teenager’s life and serves as a major facilitator in communication. I have seen this first-hand with my own kids: their phones are never far away and communication with friends regularly takes place via Snapchat or Instagram or other new apps that I don’t even know exist.
According to the Pew Research Center, US adults feel that the most valuable skills needed for teenagers to succeed in life are “communication skills”, followed by reading, math, teamwork, writing and logic. Science landed somewhere in the middle on this scale while skills such as art, music and athletics ranked at the bottom. Another study showed that while American students have improved in math and science over the past 20 years, they still lag behind students in many other industrialized nations. The Pew Research Center also found that America’s students as a whole are more racially diverse than ever before and that Millennials are on track to be the most educated generation in history.
My own kids all pointed out to me that maybe they aren’t good “typical American teenagers” as they have grown up in Silicon Valley, which they view as exceedingly high achieving and different from many other parts of the US. They have all felt academic pressures, not necessarily from parents but from society as a whole. In particular, they have experienced the college application process as stressful. There is a need to be unique, exceptional and well-rounded at an early age, yet everyone ends up taking the same AP classes, performing similar volunteer work and partaking in various extracurricular activities. In the end, no one stands out but all are perceived as exceptional. It is a given that you apply to go to college, and most students apply to many schools. My son, who is a senior, doesn’t know anyone who didn’t apply to college this year.
I was happy when my son told me that high school in general is a more forgiving and free environment compared to middle school, especially in relation to peer pressure and the need to be liked. Fitting in is not as important any more and you are judged more on what you do as opposed to what you wear or what gadgets you have. My daughter who is in middle school confirms that notion pretty much every day as she goes through her morning routine to get ready for school; she has to look just right.
My two older kids both agreed that prom is a beast all its own and that it holds an almost magical power over high school kids. If you are asking someone to prom you have to figure out a cute, creative way of doing so – simply asking is not enough. If you are hoping to be asked, you hold your breath and wish for that most elaborate of invitation schemes to be directed at you. If social pressures in general are less in high school, they all seem to be highly present in the preparations for, and execution of, prom night. Who will wear the cutest dress and the highest heels; who will get to dance with the star quarterback?
It may be that there is no such thing as a typical “American teenager”. It seems to me that the trends and the struggles of teenagers here are similar to those in other countries and cultures. Sure, each place has its own peculiarities, demands and social structures but overall tendencies appear universal. In the end, I think what matters to teenagers here is what matters to teenagers elsewhere: having good friends, being appreciated for who they are and building an identity that is their own.
<em><a href=”http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/teens-and-youth/pages/5/” target=”_blank”>The Pew Research Center</a></em>