Dear Next Generation: Life Lessons I Learned From Teenagers

March 23, 2021 Updated: March 23, 2021

I am intrigued by the letters that subscribers write to the young generation and am moved emotionally by many of them.

For half a century, I practiced pediatrics with an emphasis on adolescents and learned many life lessons from them. So many, in fact, that today I want to spin the “What would I tell the young people today” to “What would I tell young people today that I learned from young people yesteryear.”

The lessons were told to me by teens. I changed the names, contributed medical and social data to prove the verity of the lessons, and published them in a book, “Messengers in Denim: The Amazing Things Parents Can Learn From Teens.”

I have since retired from pediatrics and spent 10 years doing qualifying exams on military applicants. Most of these recruits were 17 to 19 years old with an occasional youth in his or her early 20s. These teens, like their non-military peers, also taught me some important life lessons.

So if you permit me, I’ll tell you some true stories and let you consider if they are valuable lessons.

Eighteen-year-old Nat, born to a single mother, was joining the Army to escape an abusive childhood. He was beaten by several of his mother’s serial boyfriendsWhen mother and the child’s molester faced the judge, he reportedly told her she had to choose between her son and her boyfriend. She replied, “I’ll take my boyfriend.”

Thus began Nat’s experience in and out of foster homes. Mom soon became drug-dependent and spent several terms in jail, each time losing custody of Nat only to have him return to her when she was released. She was in jail and he was in a foster home as Nat neared the end of his high school junior year. He contacted his uncle who agreed to let Nat work in his sawmill in exchange for room, board, and a small salary. That summer, Nat saved enough to buy a “junker car.”

When fall came, he needed two classes to graduate from high school, so he arranged his schedule to attend school only on Tuesdays and Thursdays and be able to graduate with his class. Because he couldn’t work full time, his uncle threw him out.

Nat lived in his car and spent as little of his saved money as possible. He took enough food from the school cafeteria on Fridays to last over the weekend. By the middle of Christmas vacation, he was out of money and unable to eat during that time off of school. One morning, he got out of his car and fainted in the street. He was taken to the hospital by a passerby and given fluids and food. Social service was able to contact his grandmother, who agreed to keep him until graduation if he promised to join the Army then.

I asked him how he managed to survive all that abuse.

“I’m a committed Christian,” he replied.

“Really?” I commented. “So am I, but just how did that help?”

His answer, “Jesus taught forgiveness.”

I was struck dumb and I’m sure my face showed it.

“Forgiveness,” he continued, “is the basis of mankind! Man is the only animal who can forgive.” Nat lived that truth: Forgiveness is the basis of mankind!

***

James, a model child, wanted to join the Army to follow the family tradition. Dad was in Desert Storm, Granddad a Vietnam vet, and Great-Granddad served in World War II.

After we finished the interview and physical exam, I pushed back in my chair and asked: “James, what made you such an outstanding young man when so many of our nation’s black men your age are in jail? Do you have any suggestions that might help other parents?”

James looked into the distance, thought for a long minute, and said: “When I was little, my mom wouldn’t let me cross the street, but my cousin who lived across the street and down a couple of blocks was allowed to. I didn’t think that was fair, because he was younger than me. I asked Mom about it, and she told me she cared about me too much to let anything happen to me. There was a hill just up the street and she worried I couldn’t see cars coming.”

Then he took an even longer pause, looked over my head, and continued, “You don’t need to have lots of things like computers or cellphones, all you need is someone who you know cares about you.”

I agreed and dared to ask, “What does your cousin do now?”

James looked at the floor. “He’s in jail.”

***

Joe was an admirable lad of 18. He played trumpet in the marching band, varsity baseball, had a GPA of 3.7, didn’t smoke or drink, and had a positive attitude with a smiley face to match his personality.

His dad was imprisoned for murder since Joe was 5. He had no siblings; he lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 9, and lived with Grandma until she died right after his 15th birthday, then he moved into an apartment and lived “on his own.” He wanted to join the Navy because he thought he “needed some discipline.”

I asked how he was able to rent an apartment or sign a contract when he was still a minor.

“My uncle is a doctor—chiropractor—and helped me. He said as long as I didn’t get into trouble, I could live alone. So, I just did what I should and didn’t do what I knew was wrong.

“I gave him my word and he trusted me.”

A man is as good as his word!

***

Jason, also 18, was born to a single mother and until age 4 or 5 lived wherever his mom could dump him for the day or night. He said he had been a “really bad kid” (who could blame him!). He received counseling for his “behavior disorder” and started medication for ADHD before he started school.

At age 5, his so-called parent lost custody and Jason was adopted by a former Marine, now a cop, and his wife. They didn’t believe in counseling or medication for ADHD. They believed in strict structure and that actions have consequences. Under this family’s care, Jason’s behavior changed. His ADHD abated, and he became a good student and a good kid. He told me that his dad was the “best dad any kid could have.”

His Marine dad and his wife knew that all love is tough love! And that actions speak louder than words.

***

This next guy is no longer a teen, but he was a teenager when he learned the lesson he taught me.

Mike was a handsome 26-year-old guy wanting to join the National Guard. He spent his first 16 years in foster homes and claimed he changed homes at “least twice a year.” He didn’t know for sure, but thought that he was born in a foster home. He found a factory job at age 16, emancipated himself, left foster care, and quit school while still in 9th grade. By 18, he was into drugs, became an alcoholic, and had been imprisoned twice.

Before his 19th birthday, he impregnated his girlfriend, the daughter of a preacher, married his child’s mother, and began to turn his life around. Because he had no idea who he was, he took his father-in-law’s name. He stopped drinking and using drugs.

“When my son was born,” he said, “I held him in my arms and looked him all over. I couldn’t believe I had helped make such a beautiful, helpless, baby boy. His eyes were staring at me. All I could think was this baby needs a dad. I looked at those eyes and told him I was his dad and I promised him I’d take care of him. And I have.”

Mike’s baby was 7 years old when I met Mike; by then he had earned his GED. Mom was a stay-at-home mom and had a new baby coming. “I’ll take care of him, too!” Mike boasted.

I wish you could have seen the glow on his face as he shook my hand to leave. “My wife and my baby saved my life!” he exclaimed.

I couldn’t help adding, “The poet says, ‘The child is the father of the man!’”

“Mine sure is,” he offered.

***

One young man summed up good parenting in four words. We were discussing his family history when he said: “I’ve got the best dad in the whole world. I always try to be just like him.”

This from a 17-year-old boy!

He pointed to a tattoo on his bicep, “Like Father, Like Son,” and said, “Dad has one just like it!”

This father–son dyad lived a tattoo they shared, “Like father, like son.”

Dad was the man he wanted his son to become!

***

Each day I worked for the military, I would see 10 to 15 young men and women, and each day I saw at least one with the same story as Joe, Nat, and Mike. Kids born to single mothers; kids whose “sperm donor” walked out and Mom tried to make it on her own; kids whose parents went in and out of jail and left the kids to foster homes; and kids who were abused and hungry.

I also saw kids who came from divorced or separated parents. Some did well, others not so. And I saw a few from “old-fashioned” parents who were still married to each other. Many of them, in every group, taught me lessons in living.

But the group of kids I loved most were those who had survived in spite of all the misfortune they had had in their lives.

I’m not worried about the future of our great country, or the world, because the next greatest generation is just putting on their uniforms.

Dr. Parnell Donahue, Tennessee