Teens in a Performance Driven Culture by Mark Gregston


We live in a performance driven culture. Remember when baseball and football were sports you played in the empty sandlot at the end of the street? Nowadays, parents spend thousands of dollars to make sure even their middle-school kids have all the right equipment and privatized training to be bigger, faster and stronger. A high school diploma used to be enough to ensure you a decent job. And if you went on to a trade school and learned a skill like welding or mechanics, you were guaranteed a solid career. Kids today are taking college visits in junior high! And to be competitive in our current job market a Masters degree is almost becoming a requirement!

And TV and the movies don’t help either. Often, what our kids pick up from the media is that to be loved and to lead a satisfying life they have to be rich, famous and constantly on the go. Not only is this idea wrong, it’s also unhealthy!

You can see the effect this performance driven culture has on teens when you step into the world of social media. Hop onto Facebook on a random Thursday, and you see friends and acquaintances reporting on what they’re doing, where they’ve been, who they’re hanging out with and what they know. Teens use photo-sharing apps like Instagram to display pictures of themselves with nice clothes, nice cars, nice vacations, and nice and notable friends. It’s a highly competitive digital world, in which our kids feel the pressure to “perform” as well, or better, than the other kids they see. For some teens, the number of comments or “likes” they get on their posts translates into how loved, appreciated and valued they feel.

Of course, moms and dads don’t want this performance attitude to permeate their own relationship with their kids. Ask any parent up front, and we’ll tell you that we want to show our children unconditional love. We don’t want our teens to feel they have to perform in order to win our affection. But sometimes the way we communicate with them says the exact opposite. When our teens exhibit bad behavior or don’t live up to our expectations, we may pull away from them, express our disappointment, or punish them by withholding time or attention. Yet, when our son or daughter excels or accomplishes something noteworthy, we heap praise, tell them how proud we are of them, and how much we care. This almost subconscious reinforcement that achievements bring love, and mistakes bring rejection, further drills into our teens this need to perform. And the more they operate in this mindset, the more struggles they will experience in life.

So what are some of the lies our teens are hearing that we need to combat?

Performance Driven Lies

In today’s culture, teens are hearing that people will only love them if they perform up to a certain high standard. Approval and accolades will be theirs when they are running on all cylinders. But should there be a drop in their performance, teens believe that others’ affections will correspondingly plummet. It’s one reason guys are conditioned not to show weakness, and to display the bravado of power and strength. It’s one reason young ladies develop eating disorders, or turn into mean girls and try to cut other people down. In a performance-driven world, teens are being conditioned to be tough guys and drama queens.

The second lie teens are buying into is that if they make a mistake, no one will love them. It’s what leads many teens to act dishonestly or in secret. They’re worried that if anyone finds out about who they really are, or what they’ve done, they’ll lose the relationship. Recently, I had a past student of Heartlight call me from college. He wanted to tell me he was sorry for a mistake he had made that semester. At first I was taken aback. I wondered why he was telling me this. He told me, “I didn’t want to lose your friendship over this.” Even a college-age kid believed that a bad decision means loss of relationship. I had to remind this young man that there was nothing he could do that would make me love him more and nothing he could to do to make me love him less.

Lastly, the lie of performance-driven culture says that we are valuable in our good years, but not valuable in our bad years. Teens think that if they’re behaving properly they have more worth to parents and family than when they are misbehaving. But I believe in the sanctity of life in all stages. An unborn baby is just as valuable and worthy of love as that bratty 14-year-old or that Rhodes Scholar student!

With so many lies, untruths and misrepresentations flying around, how can we combat these performance-driven myths? Let me share a few options.

Relationally Driven Truth

Communicate love in various ways when your teen does something bad. This is not a recommendation to gloss over the mistake, or forgo the due consequences. But in the midst of the punishment, verbalize your love to your child. Let him know that his behavior doesn’t negate your relationship with him. Give her a hug. Share an encouraging word. Be creative about how you relay your care and compassion to your son or daughter, even when they blow it.

Also, allow your teen to make mistakes without shaming him or her. I’m sure you’ve seen or read articles about parents punishing their children by having them hold signs proclaiming their guilt in front of busy streets, or posting pictures and humiliating them on social media. I understand the motivation behind those methods, but shaming kids is never a good solution. All it does is reinforce their own insecurity and push them deeper into performance-driven behavior. When our toddler falls off their tricycle, we don’t run up and point and let them know what a stupid mistake it was to keel over. No, as parents we come alongside, brush the child off, and put them back on the bike. We have to treat our teens the same way. When our son or daughter blows it, we don’t pile on the guilt and shame. We brush them off and encourage them to keep going and try again.

It can help for teens to hear about mom and dad’s mistakes. I know it might be uncomfortable, but be honest about the times you’ve blown it. Those stories let teens know that if mom and dad made mistakes, and still turned out all right, then maybe they don’t have to be perfect either. Some of the most powerful words you can tell your teen is “I’m sorry.” If you’ve never heard your teenager ask for forgiveness or admit when they were wrong, maybe it’s because they’ve never heard it from you!

Mom and dad; let your kids have their own opinions. You don’t have to be correcting your teen 24/7. Let some discussions simply be about communicating. There may be times when you have to share the truth with your kids, but most of the time conversations should revolve around getting to know your son or daughter as a person. Ask them what they enjoy, and why they enjoy it. Don’t tear them down. They are already facing pressure to like the “right” things from all of their peers; home should be a safe place for them to relax and be who they are.

Lastly, affirm your teen’s value regularly. Let your child know they have intrinsic worth. Value is inherent in who they are as God’s creations, not in what they do. Whether she can flip around on a balance beam, or would rather spend time scrap-booking, remind your teen that she is precious to you. Whether your son’s gift is throwing a football down the field, or belching the ABCs, let him know he is worth your time. Show your kids that you appreciate them for who they are, and you’ll destroy that performance-driven mentality and foster a healthy teenager.

Encourage your kids to be themselves. Show interest in them for who they are, not what they do. And don’t wait until your kids are adults to unveil your flaws, mistakes and inadequacies.  It will draw them to you and it will cause teens to relax.  Plus, they will see your successes and understand that it’s possible to have a good life even when they’ve messed up. Yes, there are consequences for behavior.  Yes, you need to set standards for your kids.  But when you allow them the opportunity to see into your own life and recognize that you don’t have to perform to be loved, you will give them the hope they need to keep striving for the best.

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