Let’s face it. The amount of conversation in the world is expanding exponentially. But it is not the same kind of conversation that most of us adults remember.
I was at a shopping mall the other day and observed a group of eight teenage friends—boys and girls. They were walking together, each focused on their mobile devices. Most appeared to be texting other people. A few were speaking on their phones. None of them were speaking to each other.
As I watched with interest in this new phenomenon that allows us to engage in multiple modes of connectivity at once, I chuckled to myself when one of the boys fell into a girl as he tripped getting off the escalator. The mishap occurred because he was texting while walking, sometimes as hazardous as texting while driving! The teens laughed too, and then quickly returned to their respective conversations on mobile devices.
It’s mind boggling to imagine how many conversations were happening while those eight teens walked through the shopping center. But what’s more important is to ask the question, “When do young people find time to be in silence, to reflect on who they are in a world with constant chatter?”
Why Silence is Golden
The reason we should ask the question, and encourage teens to explore silent spaces, is because we know that self-reflection is important to human development and learning. John Dewey, a renowned psychologist and education reformer, claimed that experiences alone were not enough. What is critical is an ability to perceive and then weave meaning from the threads of our experiences.
The function of self-reflection is to make meaning. The creation of meaning is at the heart of what it means to be human.
Adolescence is a time when young people discover their unique identities. They need moments of silence to reflect on their experiences—to discover who they are as individuals, what kind of relationships they desire, and what they value and believe about life. Tuning out the noisy world helps young people develop the ability to reflect and grow.
Ways to Foster Self-Reflection in Teens
The act of sharing our experiences with others is the first part of developing reflective practices that lead to greater awareness and learning. When adults invite teens to share thoughts and feelings, they affirm the value of a young person’s experiences, help them see things through other eyes, and support the process of reflection. Taken from Dewey’s work on learning, here are five ways to encourage a teen’s ability to make meaning from their experiences:
Rather than talking only about the surface of experiences, invite conversations that ask teens to go deeper. How did that experience make you feel? What were you feeling in your body? Anxiety? Fear? Exhilaration? What does that say to you?
Explore a teen’s attitudes that resulted from a particular experience. Dewey recognized the tendency in all human beings to see what we wish was true rather than to accept evidence of what really is. When adults challenge young people’s assumptions, it encourages them to think more deeply about their choices.
Honor the validity of young people’s thoughts and feelings rather than judging them. Adults should accept ideas with open-mindedness; a term Dewey says is not blind acceptance of another person’s way of experiencing the world but a willingness to listen to different perspectives. When we accept and listen to a young person’s feelings, it gives them permission to explore meaning in greater depth.
Talk about self-responsibility. What are the real-life implications of my thinking and feeling? Dewey examined the link between how we think, feel, and act. Being responsible implies that we are acting on meaning that is fully our own, not someone else’s.
When we engage young people in conversations that encompass the above suggestions, young people become curious and desire growth. They are ready for self-reflection. When this occurs, they will likely find their own ways and times for silence and introspection. They will ignore the noise of text messages, cell phones, and nonstop activity. They will appreciate the importance of silence and the golden beauty of the learning that emerges from within.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: MacMillan
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. (Original work published 1910)
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi.