Loneliness in the Third Plane
We keep being told that this generation is different. "Kids today" care less. They're shallow. They're soft. They don't know how to deal with disappointment. They're mean. They're selfish. They have their heads in their phones all day and they don't know how to make friends.
I don't know. Maybe this generation is different. But I think maybe every generation gets told that they're different than the ones who've come before. I think maybe every generation romanticizes its own goodness.
Here's what I do know: one on one, they're just the same. They're scared and they're ambitious. They're selfish and they're compassionate. They're clueless and they're determined. They're doing the best they know how to do.
But here is one way in which I believe their lives are different: they are lonelier.
In our efforts to stay more connected, we've somehow lost our connection.
Our children need us to disconnect from our devices so we can reconnect to them. Especially in the third plane of development, that critical window between 12 and 18, our children need us to pay attention, to make eye contact, to love them on the days when they are certain they are unlovable and to continue, just as we did when they were preschoolers, to see in them the people they have the capacity to become. This has always been a developmental need of adolescence, but, for this generation, it may literally be the difference between life and death.
At a time when traditional skills increase the testing demands and reduce the individualization of learning, Montessori provides for adolescents through low-tech, high-agency environments. Montessori learners in the Third Plane have the supportive and responsive facilitation of adults who know how to follow their lead, who can help to direct this age's keen attention to issues of social justice into actionable tasks. It's a delicate balance to invest in learners as individuals at a time when their need to fit in with their friends is so high, but Montessori adolescent programs may offer some guidance to meet it:
1. Your child needs both agency and community: Learners in the third plane need both to feel like they are an integrated part of a group and to feel recognized as unique individuals. Don't sweat the small stuff. Let your adolescent experiment with their clothing and hair. Let them listen to different music than you listened to. Let them be outraged at the injustices to which you've become accustomed. Instead of arguing with your adolescent about t-shirts and music, use that energy to talk to them about their tastes and preferences. Let them share with you the music they prefer and let those choices become the fodder for curious conversations. But remember: your goal is to keep your child talking, to let them always feel like they have a safe place to land when the world is overwhelming or confusing to them. That doesn't develop if you're constantly correcting them or judging their preferences.
2. Give them freedom and limits: It's your job to maintain reliable, predictable limits. It's your child's job to test them. You don't have to be more strict than you've been before, but you do have to be reliable in the limits you set, and you should be able to defend those limits as reasonable and logical. Unlike younger children, adolescents need to know why the rules exist the way they do, and they need to know that those rules are rational. Be open to their input, but reliable in your implementation. For example, if you have set as a rule that your teenager needs to complete their household chores and finish their homework before they can spend time with their friends, you need to hold to that rule, no matter how much whining or stomping or slamming doors. Stay calm. Repeat the expectation in a way that reminds your teen of their control. "When you have...., then you may..." Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm.
3. Your teen needs you. Really. Even on the days when they act like they don't. Prioritize the time you have with them, without your phones, without a screen in front of or between you. Ask open-ended questions that invite their authenticity. "Tell me something that went well today. Tell me something that didn't." Ask follow up questions. Ask more follow up questions. You are building a relationship from behind, encouraging them to take steps toward their own independence but knowing that you're going to have their back in the meantime. Make time, every single day, to make eye contact and let your teen talk to you. And if this isn't already a habit in your family, let your teen know why you want to make it one. "Hey, kiddo. I know you've got a lot going on these days, and so do it, but I miss spending time with you. Can we make time at breakfast each day to just talk to each other?" You don't lose any authority by letting your child know that you value your time with them.
Finally, remember that your great work right now is to support your teenager in growing into the adult they are right on the cusp of becoming. They may have to try on lots of different possible selves before they settle in to the ones that are the most authentic. And while you want to be sure they know they are safe, loved and accepted fully at home, you also need to let them make enough of their own choices to be able to make enough of their own mistakes. If you control all the aspects of their lives, you may protect them from being hurt but you won't prepare them for being an adult. You can either parent in intense windows of crisis management with great arguments over control and punishment, or you can parent a little bit all along the way, building a relationship that mirrors for your child the value and care you hope they'll feel for themselves. You're going to spend exactly the same amount of energy parenting your children, no matter how you do it. One way emphasizes the "otherness" and isolation too many of our children feel today. One reminds them that, even on the hardest days, they are not alone.