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Todd Kestin Headshot

Teens, Character and the Myth That Keeps Them Apart

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Jutta Klee via Getty Images

Co-authored by Jason Gracia, Founder and CEO of VantagePoint Inc, and author of Shifting the Balance.

The moral character of our teens is deteriorating at a terrifying pace. We see proof in every corner of our lives, from bullying at school to laziness at work to self-absorption at home. If the children are our future, tomorrow will most certainly be filled with hordes of entitled, hormone-infused teenagers waiting for the world to see to their every unreasonable demand.

Or will it?

Though prevailing wisdom consistently casts stones at our youth, the reality is far brighter than they would have you believe. In fact, the qualities we hope for in our children surround us, waiting to be recognized and multiplied. You've been fed a lie.

From Maxine Coady, a teen volunteer with local hospitals, food pantries and community restoration projects (along with a stint in Zambia to nurture the lion population) to Lauren Samz, Greta Pohlman, and Chloe Johnson, advocates for animal rights, epilepsy research, and women in engineering respectively, the teens of today leave me convinced that the character we feared was missing is alive and well.

The Parent's Role

In my work with families, I often find the respect and compassion demonstrated by the teens above is present, but sleeping. It needs a trigger to emerge and grow. That trigger is you. Time and again I've witnessed the undeniable truth about parenting: Nothing so influences what your child will do as what you have done. It's your example that leads the way to success or to failure.

By focusing on your own expressions of character -- instead of what your teen lacks -- you'll not only follow a better path, you'll help your children follow closely behind. Below are a handful of ideas of help get you started.

Gratitude: Show an appreciation for what you have been given and worked to achieve. It's far too easy to expect our children to be grateful while we complain about not having enough. By clearly appreciating your opportunities -- and helping your children recognize their own -- you'll replace the curse of entitlement with gratitude and thankfulness.

Anna Gamm, 16, is a teen whose understanding of gratitude affects her on a daily basis. "I'm committed to helping people because I've been fortunate growing up. I was raised in a privileged home and feel if I don't use that privilege to help those less fortunate I'm wasting my opportunity." Because her parents took the time to explain the importance of appreciation, this teen exudes character. Yours will do the same.

Giving Back: In my work as a mentor, I'm constantly reminded how strong the need to contribute is among children and teens. We can't help it. We're designed to experience pleasure with the slightest gesture of giving back, which is why so many of the teens I meet with are focused on helping family and friends, school and community.

You can once again lead by example, as with gratitude, but even better is opening a door. Teens want to help. Let them. Work together to find opportunities where their time and attention can make a difference. Whether volunteering at a food bank, helping to build homes for those in need, or even spending an afternoon talking with someone who has no one else to talk to, these moments of giving back will make a profound difference in the lives of everyone involved.

Respect: When it comes to respect, it's give to get. Offer your teens respect first and you'll soon receive it in kind. Show respect to others, regardless of station or creed or color, and you'll soon find your teen showing that same respect to the people in their lives. (Many of the parents I work with are actually surprised to find their teens more accepting than they are. What better chance to learn a lesson from your kids?)

Respect is a mirror. If you're not getting what you want, chances are you -- and not your teen -- need to make an adjustment.

Integrity: Do what's right, even when it's not easy. Teens will turn to past examples when faced with a difficult decision. When they turn to you, will you be happy with the one they find? If not, start with a clean slate of integrity. Do the good, hard work that needs to be done, regardless of how difficult you find the task. And when you do, involve your teen, explaining the decision and why the harder path was the right one to choose.

When the time comes for your teen to make her own tough decisions, your example will be one to live up to and one of which you can both be proud.

Honesty: One of the most powerful expressions of honesty is admitting when you're wrong. It's not easy, especially for a parent, but it will make an impression on your teen that lasts long after accepting blame. How can you expect your teens to be honest when you can't tell the truth?

Admit your mistakes. Your teen will admire you for it and live up the example when the time comes. Show your teen how to take responsibility for his actions by always taking responsibility for your own.

Character isn't dead. It's dormant. By leading with your example, you'll bring it to the surface within your teen and, when you do, recognize it, applaud it and nurture it as best you can. Soon enough, you'll realize the better nature of your teen was always there, just beneath the surface, waiting for you to clear the path to the top.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled Maxine Coady's last name.