Patty hesitated before she spoke. The facts of what had happened were so disturbing that she could hardly bear to share them. But this was the world her teenager was living in. “Have you heard about this?” Patty asked.
Kayla shook her head no, so mother and daughter sat down together to talk. In the days that followed, they continued talking about the details of the crime and how it made them feel and about the way anti-Asian hatred had affected their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
“To be able to bond with her, to feel the same thing, I think she did the right thing by telling me,” Kayla says. Patty says she understands her role as a parent differently as her daughter moves through adolescence.
“One of my jobs as a parent is being a protector,” she says, “but now that Kayla is getting older, I actually think it might be irresponsible to try to protect her from a lot of what’s going on, because I think it’s important that she become engaged in these things, that she become aware and form her own opinions. My role is moving from protection to preparedness.”
Both Patty and Kayla feel that now is a challenging time for teenagers across the country to come of age. They also say that confronting the grimmer realities of the world together has brought them closer.
These twin beliefs echo those of a majority of the American teens ages 14 to 18 and their parents and guardians in a recent national Washington Post-Ipsos poll: 51 percent of teens said they felt this is a bad time to be growing up — a steep increase from the 31 percent who gave that answer in a similar poll conducted 16 years ago by The Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University — and 62 percent of parents said the same.
Yet in the face of that rather bleak outlook, 96 percent of the teens in the poll also described their relationship with their parents in positive terms, with nearly half describing their bonds as “excellent.”
There are plenty of reasons both generations might feel this is a particularly difficult time to be a kid in high school: the prevalence of gun violence, the persistence of systemic racism, the specter of police brutality, the pressures of social media, the volatility of contemporary politics and, of course, the still enduring stress of the coronavirus pandemic.
Then there is the existential threat of climate change, which loomed especially large for parents and teens interviewed by The Post.
There was no single conversation, no sudden moment of revelation, when 17-year-old Kallan Benson’s parents explained what the climate crisis meant for Kallan and her younger brother, Reece. It was more of a running discussion, Kallan says, an ever-deepening understanding of the environmental perils facing the planet. “My entire teenage life I have been aware of the climate crisis, focused on this very large issue that impacts our entire world,” she says, “so that certainly has been a weight on my growing up.”
That awareness was spurred by her parents, Kimberly Benson, 56, a marine scientist and educator, and Carl Benson, 54, who left his full-time job as an attorney years ago to stay at home and support his daughter’s activism.
“I always spoke to them about climate change. I felt like I always had to respect their intelligence and their curiosity, and answer them with integrity about things,” says Kimberly Benson. “So I’ve never felt that I ought to hide any information from them or shield them from anything.”
When Kallan was 10 and Reece was 9, the Bensons, who live in West Virginia, took a bus to New York to attend the People’s Climate March in 2014. Kallan has since grown increasingly active in the movement, and her parents have been closely involved. When she was invited to attend the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in 2018, the family decided that flying to the West Coast and back was not environmentally friendly.
So the Bensons hit the road. “That certainly brought us closer together,” Carl Benson says, “piling into the car and driving across the country.”
When Kelle Pressley’s family arrived at Surfside Beach in South Carolina for vacation in July, her kids raced toward the water and realized that the shoreline was strewn with starfish washed up on the sand. During a carefree afternoon, the 45-year-old doula and mother of nine found herself once again talking to her kids about climate change.
“It is disturbing, seeing these animals where they don’t belong. I know that’s not right,” says her 14-year-old son, Ramuntu Pressley. “And my mom, she told us about climate change and how that does affect the starfish and all the other sea creatures. So when I do see stuff like that, it does disturb me.”
Similar mass sea star strandings along the South Carolina shoreline have been documented before, but Kelle, who lives with her family in North Carolina, took the opportunity to talk about the factors that affect their ecosystem — and how warming waters, changing current patterns and intensifying storms can play a role in washing them ashore.
“I want my babies to be able to enjoy the gifts of nature, but not at the expense of these creatures being washed up from the ocean, laying out on the sand like seashells,” she says. “So we talked about global warming, we talked about how the winds are pushing these tiny creatures up on the shore. We talked about how for them to survive, they’re supposed to be in a certain depth of water.”
She says she has always made a point to talk to her children frankly about the issues that will shape their lives, particularly as they reach their teen years and begin to move more freely in the outside world. And the conversations are not just about climate change. As a Black family, systemic racism and police brutality have often been topics of worry and discussion.
Ramuntu was with an older sister and younger brother when he witnessed an armed robbery at a pizza shop near their home. That frightening encounter led to a talk with his parents about how to stay aware of his surroundings, how to make a note of exits and places to hide. “Gun violence is definitely one of the things on my mind,” says Ramuntu. “My goal is to help them survive, and that’s not just physical survival, it’s mental survival, too,” Kelle says.
In the family of Stephanie BadSoldier Snow, a Native American cultural consultant and anthropologist who lives with her husband and their two teen children on the Meskwaki Settlement in central Iowa, essential survival skills have long been passed down through generations. Now, it’s her turn to instill them in her 16-year-old daughter, Sophie, and 14-year-old son, Tenoch.
“One of our teachings in parenting is that you treat your children as if they are little adults, you don’t talk down to them,” she says. “We bring them into these conversations about big topics. Today we had a conversation about covid. Yesterday morning at breakfast we had a conversation on systemic racism. We try to ask each of them what their opinions are, what they think. We don’t always agree on things, but we listen to each other.”
“I talk to my parents about all the things that are troubling me,” says Tenoch, “and I’ve been doing that even more lately than I have in the past.”
As he gets older, Tenoch has found himself increasingly worried about how others see him and how they might treat him as a result. “I’m kind of scared of getting harassed — by police, or racists,” he says. “I’m starting to feel scared about going out around other people just because I’m Brown.”
Native Americans are disproportionately victims of police shootings, and the Snows have taught their kids how to behave if they’re ever pulled over. One time, a police officer stopped Stephanie and Sophie as they drove home after attending a training session on peaceful protest led by prominent Native American environmental activists in 2017.
“I came up to a stop light and I noticed he was sitting there, so I was very careful,” Stephanie says. “I said to Sophie, watch, he’s going to pull me over.” Sure enough, he did. The officer said her tags had expired, Stephanie says, which was incorrect, and eventually he let the mother and daughter go. “But Sophie was absolutely terrified,” Stephanie adds.
“My parents don’t sugarcoat anything. They just say how it is,” Sophie says. “They don’t assure you that it’s going to get better, or that other people are working on solving these problems. It’s like, this is what is happening, and you can either sit there or do nothing, or you can get up and do something.”
Even for families who fear for the world their children will inherit, the act of parenting necessitates the search for hope, or at least for a sense of purpose in the world.
Several weeks after the Georgia shootings, Kayla Sang poured the feelings she had been processing with her mom into a school art assignment. She filled her canvas with vibrant eastern Asian symbols — faces, flowers, swirls of color — and the words “we are Asian, not a virus” in bold letters at the top.
“Hearing about the shooting itself, and how my mom was feeling about it and how people my mom knew were also devastated by it — it just made me want to express something for us, for our community, and channel their emotions as well as mine,” Kayla says. When Patty Sang saw the artwork, she stared at it for a long time in silence, overwhelmed with pride.
“She felt sad and she felt angry about what was happening, but the art is actually more of a celebration, and there’s just so much beauty in it. It blew me away,” Patty remembers. And that is what she finally said to her daughter. “It’s beautiful,” she told Kayla.
When Kelle Pressley considers her teens and their peers, she feels hope: “I personally think that this generation is so much bolder than we ever were,” she says. “Even in the midst of all the chaos, there is this whisper sometimes that says ‘your voice does matter.’” And that whisper — that belief in something better — is also vital to share.
Pressley remembers sharing it with her kids after Derek Chauvin, the police officer who had knelt on George Floyd’s neck, was convicted of murder. “I think the Floyd case was a renewal,” she says. “It gives the kids hope, that they are loved, they are valued.”
Five months into the pandemic, a colossal derecho swept across the Midwest on an August afternoon, spawning tornadoes and flattening fields of corn and soybean. In central Iowa, the Snow family was among the millions left without power in the wake of the storm.
They spent the sweltering days cleaning the debris littering their property, and nights camped out in their open garage. The family cooked dinner on the grill, danced salsa and cumbia, laughed at Sophie’s improvisational storytelling, sang songs and played musical instruments.
The power stayed off for more than a week, the humid air thick with the smell of gasoline from so many generators running in their neighborhood. It was a reminder of the extreme weather that climate change may herald, with all its damage and deprivation.
It was also oddly empowering: The Snows were survivors, descended from survivors. Stephanie BadSoldier Snow had grown up without running water or electric heat. “It felt almost like the old life,” she says of the aftermath, only this time her children were also there.
The days were uncomfortable, and the atmosphere unsettling. But every night at dusk, Sophie would take out her ukulele, and the family of four sat in the fading light and together began to sing.
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