Dear Teens: Fun Is Overrated

(photo: Shutterstock image)

I came across an online discussion the other day in which moms were agonizing about how to make sure their teens had fun during the summer. In reading the back-and-forths with suggestions of all the things kids could do to maximize their amusement while out of school, it occurred to me: I don’t think I’m going to be very concerned about this when my kids are teens.

Don’t get me wrong: I want them to enjoy life and be peaceful, joyful people—it’s just that I don’t think that specifically aiming to “have fun” is the way to do it.

The dominant worldview in the culture where I grew up was that kids should have as much fun as possible. Moms and dads encouraged their kids to strive academically and in sports or other activities, but they also heavily gauged their performance as parents based on how much fun their kids had. Teens were told that work and sacrifice were dreaded parts of the “real world” that should be put off as long as possible; these last few years of having the opportunity to do nothing but focus on your own amusement were something to be cherished and savored.

These ideals are touching in their well-meaningness; the only problem is that they’re not what kids really need, or even want. Especially once we reached the teenage years, there was an unmistakable sense of restlessness and pent-up energy among the young people of my generation. Destructive behaviors like drug use, premarital sex, vandalism, etc. were surprisingly common, as were depression and even suicide attempts—and, oddly, this kind of thing seemed to be most common in the areas where the culture most strongly emphasized this “enjoy your last years of freedom and have fun” ideal.

Looking back, especially with the benefit of the wisdom of the Catholic Church, it’s clear how much we young people hungered for a mission. We wanted to feel like we were a part of something bigger than ourselves, to feel needed by the world around us. Far more than we desired to be amused, we craved an outlet for our limitless energy, and a chance to prove ourselves and use our budding talents.

Mike Aquilina wrote a fantastic article a while back that takes a look at how the Church Fathers approached youth ministry (seriously, go read the whole thing). He points out:

What made the Church attractive in the third century can make it just as attractive in the twenty-first. In the ancient world and in ours, young people want a challenge. They want to love with their whole being. They’re willing to do things the hard way—if people they respect make the big demands. These are distinguishing marks of youth. You don’t find too many middle-aged men petitioning the Marines for a long stay at Parris Island. It’s young men who beg for that kind of rigor.

Obviously we all need regular time to relax and unwind; but, as Aquilina points out, too much of it leaves people—especially young people—feeling aimless and open to the temptation to engage in destructive behavior in the desperate search for real risk and adventure. I think that the teens of today are more desperate than ever to hear the message: We need you. We need your energy, your talents, and your fresh perspective. There is a great battle of good vs. evil raging in the world around us, and we need you to fight.

Given the options of a) spending their teen years following the call to hard work and fighting to make the world a better place or, b) optimizing on having fun, I think our young people might surprise us with which one they’d choose.