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Can Your Teenager Be a Changemaker? It’s Not a Question of If, but When

When my son graduated from high school, he left behind a dozen misplaced hoodies, several costly calculators, and a few frustrated teachers. I realize this is not uncommon. But I also know it is possible for teens to leave behind a more, shall we say, robust legacy.

Take Firas Abboud, for example. Firas is a teen who cares deeply about promoting acceptance and celebrating diversity. He helped to create a Diversity Day program that has now become an annual tradition at University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio, where he is a senior. He also created a multicultural fair for student clubs that focuses on diversity and inclusion.

As a result of his efforts, “Firas will be remembered as a guy who wanted to make sure everyone at the school was valued and felt valued,” says Bruce Wilhelm, the school’s assistant headmaster.

Firas’s example doesn’t have to be the exception.

All teenagers have the capacity to be changemakers.

According to Seth Godin, author of What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn), “It’s not a question of can it be done; instead, we’re only talking about degree. Every teen has inspired at least one other person, lent a hand to a friend in need, shared an idea, or told a joke that made someone smile.”

Wilhelm agrees that every student has the potential to lead, but notes, “They may find it at different times.” He advises parents to “be an ally, but don’t try to forge the path for them. Instead, look for opportunities to support your teen’s interests and pursuits, comfort them in their failures, and model leadership and integrity at home. Ultimately, kids will find their own paths.”

For most teens, the opportunity to make their mark will flow naturally from their involvement in academics, sports, theater, or community service. Others may find that political activism on a particular issue propels them into action and inspires them to work for change.

Whatever school, community, or societal issue your teen cares about, teens influence more today than ever before.

Godin says, “We live in a powerful moment in time, when anyone who cares can raise their hand, offer an insight, share an idea. A moment when, for the first time, we can spread ideas, connect with millions, and lead our people on a journey.”

For Firas, that moment came at a student diversity leadership conference during his freshman year. That experience ignited his desire to make a difference. “I wanted to be a leader in bettering my school community,” he says. “It was important for me to share what I had learned: that it is important to listen, versus making assumptions about others and their ideas.”

While we want our teens to become independent agents of change, the reality is that they cannot do it in a vacuum. “As parents, we need to teach our kids to lead, to solve interesting problems, and to care enough to fail along the way,” says Godin.

For his part, Firas was very appreciative of the support he received along the way. “In our senior yearbook, I had almost 50 people to thank for helping guide me,” he says, including teachers, friends, and his parents.

And if your teen is a late bloomer like mine, take heart. That kid who left hoodies in his wake as a high schooler forged his own path in his twenties. Now he teaches English all over the globe and creates a positive change in his students’ perception of America.

Nancy O'Connor

Nancy O’Connor is a freelance writer and the triumphant mother of three emerging adult sons.