Why you should never tell a teenager her ideas are insane

When a teenager comes to you with a next-level crazy theory, engage it and encourage it. This article tells you why… and why shutting them down is a bad, bad idea.
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Back in January, I woke up to six text messages from my 14-year-old niece. It was unusual because she is an infrequent texter, we don’t talk very often, and I get to see her only a few times a year, because I live so far away.

Happily, we have a great relationship. I was still surprised to hear from her.

When I looked at her messages, I wondered if I might have been a last resort.

Her texts said:

I have this really great theory.

But everyone thinks I’m fucking insane

So do you wanna hear it?

TJ, 2019

Hell YES I wanted to hear it! Next-level-crazy theories are totally my thing, and usually it’s me being told I’m mad.

When she sent it to me, I could see why people would think she’s mad. It made absolute sense to me. I could see some gaps in what she proposed, and asked some questions to validate my thinking.

She could (of course, I knew she would) explain the gaps succinctly. And when she’d done, I was impressed.

Like, really impressed. I’d never seen anything similar, anywhere. It was a theory about the nature of de ja vu.

I replied to her:

That makes sense. You ain’t crazy.

Me, 2019

She was happy to hear that she isn’t crazy. Happy to hear it made sense. Happy that someone got it.

I took the time to tell her she isn’t crazy largely because feeling like maybe everyone is right (and maybe you are insane) is incredibly isolating — at any age!

So here’s the problem with telling big thinkers that they’re insane.

First, being a teenager is hard enough.

If you happen to have a teenager who is melancholy and anxious anyway, they will start to wonder if they are actually crazy. If this happens, then they can become introverted and uncommunicative, and change their hobbies.

When those teenagers are in a country town, and when they don’t fit a regular box like everyone else, it can also stop them from trying to solve big unwieldy, apparently impossible problems. Or from getting out of their comfort zones. Nobody around them is doing it. People just finish school, get a job, get married, have kids, rinse and repeat. Why buck the trend?

Second, shutting down big thinkers is like stomping all over their creativity and their wonder.

Wonder and creativity are the building blocks of new things, new lives, new methods. It’s like telling the caveman that this spark he’s trying to turn into something will fail. If he’d given up, we’d all still be sitting in the dark, right?

Don’t be the fascist that refuses to see someone else’s way of thinking. Challenge yourself! Try to understand it, and you might see the wonder in things a bit more often yourself.

Instead of telling them that they are insane, try to work out why YOU think this big theory doesn’t fly.

Then ask a question.

Asking a question is more powerful than just saying, Well that doesn’t work.

The reason is because by asking questions you are helping this young adult to become a sharper thinker. Instead of just coming up with a theory and not being able to see its gaps, they will gradually learn to see where people’s objections might fall. As a result, every time they share an idea, it will get tighter, more controlled, and less able to be refuted.

What it teaches them is communication and critical thinking.

The other reason to ask a question is because it signals that you are actually interested in the things they have to say. By encouraging them to think in big, difficult patterns,

  • they’ll do it more often
  • you’ll be included in their discussions more often
  • you’ll become a sounding board for even the most whacko (amazing) ideas
  • their big thinking will mature
  • their big thinking will get bigger.

And most importantly, they turn into adults with the types of capabilities that actually change the world.

Most often, people shut big thinkers down because they’re afraid.

They are afraid of what they don’t know. Of being shown to be ignorant, or clueless, or just plain old stupid. They are afraid of demonstrating that they can’t follow deep, complex pathways when someone just speed-talks through it.

I also suspect that they don’t like how it feels.

If you, like me, are a big, crazy thinker, you might know the brain-feels I’m talking about. Solving a knotty problem gives me a physical feeling that is unbeatable, like my brain is swirling in a million directions at once, and like I have the involvement of my entire neurological system, including my spinal cord. It’s like my brain switches into another gear, I get sharper and more alert. It’s quite exhilarating, actually.

If that happened to you and you weren’t used to it, it’s likely you’d back off and wonder what the hell is going on.

We need big thinkers, as a society.

You know as well as I do that society is complex. We’re dealing with everything from ridiculous politics to environmental degradation, to technologies that we haven’t learned how to control, let alone master.

Humans have been enslaved by work, can’t see the forest for the trees, are experiencing new problems like digital amnesia, and their brains are being rewired by the devices they use and the lives they live.

It’s the big thinkers who will help us make sense of our reality, our spirits, our existence, our relationships with the world. We need them. We need them so desperately that you don’t have any right to get in their way, in my opinion.

My message to you, then, is this.

Next time a young person comes to you with a crazy-level idea, engage them instead of running away. What they are thinking might well be beyond you, sure. And if it is, admit it! Let them have the victory. Celebrate it and encourage them.

When they’re a grown-up, they’ll remember. And, who knows; they might be the one person who helps humanity switch into a higher gear.

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