By now you may have heard about the “Summer Bucket List 2017” that was seemingly written by a teenage girl and reportedly discovered in an Urban Outfitters dressing room in Pittsburgh. The items on the list range from endearing (“Pet a giraffe”) to alarming (“Get crossfaded” — simultaneously drunk and high — “17 times”) and from fanciful (“Tie a message to a balloon and let it go”) to practical (“Do summer reading”). The list appears to offer an unfiltered peek at one teenage girl’s summer plans.
As a psychologist who has long specialized in caring for adolescents, reading the list filled me with anxiety. First, I found myself worrying for the list’s author. In addition to my natural concern for her well-being – the box for “Get drunk all the time” was already checked – I felt uncomfortable looking at something that, if we accept the origin story, was never meant to be public. No one, even if unidentified, deserves to have the equivalent of her diary splashed across Twitter.
More broadly, however, I feared that the list would strengthen negative and unhelpful stereotypes many adults hold about teenagers. Grown-ups who believe that teenagers are drug-seeking, sex-crazed delinquents will find plenty in the list to reinforce that view. And parents who lie awake at night wondering if their teenager leads a dangerous or illicit secret life certainly won’t be sleeping any better having read it.
Everything I know from more than 20 years of practice comes down to this: Teenagers are better off when they have open channels of communication and working relationships with grown-ups. That simply cannot happen when we look down on teenagers or look at them askance, as this list almost invites us to do.
Thankfully, the bucket list also contains evidence of something else I know about teenagers: They are complex and multifaceted. Fast-lane impulses alternate with childlike fascinations. Recklessness, such the intention to “Go ape,” lives alongside earnest plans (“have a lemonade stand w/ Zoe”). Years of caring for teenagers have taught me that every one of them has at least two sides. One can be impetuous, superficial and immature, while another is reliably careful, thoughtful and wise.
Perhaps most usefully I’ve learned that the side of a teenager we address will usually be the one that responds. On occasion in my practice, I’ve nearly broken a sweat in my effort to restrain a judgmental reaction to a girl’s description of the raging party she attended over the weekend. But gently asking, “What’s a smart girl like you doing at a party like that?” tends to bring that smart girl to the fore.
Adolescents present adults with moments that give us the option of pushing them away or reaching out to them. The “Summer Bucket List 2017” is a convenient case in point. If the list reinforces your darkest beliefs or worst fears about teenagers, it may leave you feeling more distant from the young people in your life. If you can welcome it as a gift from the internet, it might offer up a valuable conversation with the most mature side of your teenager.
Obviously, I recommend reaching out. First, however, parents may want to give themselves time to absorb their initial reaction to the list. There are certainly a few disquieting items on it. But it may be helpful to note, as one Twitter user did by organizing the goals into categories on a spreadsheet, that the vast majority of them are perfectly wholesome or harmless – decorate room, go on a picnic, stargaze, buy seven bikinis.
To gain further perspective, we should remember that teenagers (and adults) sometimes find gratification in imagining — out loud, in writing, or with friends — deeds they would never actually do. Further, we should consider the possibility that the list’s author may have come to doubt the wisdom of her stated intentions. Perhaps the list wasn’t lost, but carelessly discarded.
After taming our alarm we can ask our teenagers if they have seen the list and if so wonder with them, “What did you think of it?” From here, the possibilities open wide. We might learn more about our teenagers’ take on sex, drugs and drinking. Or we might simply discover that our teenager had forgotten about her summer reading and didn’t yet want to be reminded of it. One response isn’t better than another and you’ll want to read your teenager’s signals about whether you should aim to further the conversation.
We might also run into outright resistance if not patent offense. It’s easy to imagine a teenager bristling at a parent’s invitation to discuss an internet shocker full of racy details. But this can still be a useful interaction. The success of reaching out to our teenagers doesn’t hinge on receiving a warm or wordy response.
We build bridges to our adolescents when we treat them as nuanced and whole. And we make those bridges sturdier when we are willing to talk about the real complexities they navigate. Expressing our respectful, if rebuffed, curiosity about what the bucket list means to our teenagers allows us to do both.