I feel extremely blessed to work with tweens and teens as they learn to navigate the many challenges of adolescence. Aside from the countless benefits of teaching what I love, this journey has rewarded me in countless other ways. For example, although my daughters are young (6 and almost 2), my daily interactions with youth have helped to shape who I am as a parent.
When I think of my own girls as tweens and teens, my biggest concern is the limiting self-beliefs that seem to plague adolescents. It saddens me to see young people who fail to recognize their tremendous beauty and embrace the difference they make in the world.
Below is a letter that I wrote to my daughters, which I will read to them when the time is right. I encourage you to share it with your tween or teen.
Dear Emerson and Ivy,
I realize that wherever you go you will be inundated with messages (direct or indirect) that are designed to tell you who you are. Whether it’s a text from a friend asking you to do something you know in your heart is wrong, or the billboard on the street that displays an illusionary image of what girls should look like, I want you to feel powerful in each of these moments. I know from experience that it’s easy to fall prey to the social mirror and do something simply because it’s the thing to do.
I spent a lot of time in my younger years worrying about what other people thought about me and therefore developed a self-image that was completely out of alignment with who I really was. Even though I loved to sing, I didn’t try out for my high school choir because it wasn’t cool for football players to do something like this. Even though I was told that I had natural leadership abilities, I placed a lid on my leadership potential because I was concerned with being too bossy. Even though I was told by countless teachers and coaches that I was an exceptional student and teammate, I always doubted whether I was good enough. What I failed to recognize is that each of these limited self-beliefs was something that I had learned, and could therefore be unlearned.
So, in the process of learning to embrace who you are, I want you to consider the fact that there are many things you’ve learned about yourself that you may need to unlearn. I know it sounds strange, but this is the exact approach that Michelangelo took when he sculpted The Statue of David. When you have an opportunity to uncover, or unlearn certain things that you’ve accepted as the truth, then (and only then) can you truly embrace the tremendous power you have to create positive, sustainable change.
Michelangelo was considered by many to be one of the greatest artists of all time. Each year, millions of tourists flock to the Italian city of Florence to see Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece, the Statue of David. Upon its completion in 1504, this 17-foot-tall statue, sculpted with incredible precision and beauty, generated an immediate buzz among the townspeople. Many were left wondering how Michelangelo was able to create a sculpture of such magnitude and with so much detail, out of what was once a huge slab of marble. When asked this question, Michelangelo smiled and humbly replied, “Actually, it was quite simple. I didn’t create David, you see. David already existed concealed within the stone. All I had to do was chip away at what wasn’t David.” His response serves as a perfect metaphor for the process of unlearning.
Just as Michelangelo was able to chip away at the various layers of marble that represented who David wasn’t, you too can chip away, or unlearn, the various layers that prevent you from achieving your true potential. You are not doubt, fear, guilt, discouragement, or suffering. These all originated in your mind as a response to outside stimulus; you learned them. The unlearning process begins with a commitment to self-discovery and a willingness to change a set of beliefs that have been running on autopilot for years.
Please know that I’m on this journey with you and continue to unlearn things about myself. I love both of you very much and want nothing more than to help you discover who you really are.
• Mike Sissel is a former Kyrene teacher who now owns and operates a youth leadership company called KaleidoEye. KaleidoEye’s signature program, Lenses of Leadership, is administered in various schools throughout Ahwatukee. For more information, visit www.kaleidoeye.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.