ritter and sand

This is perhaps the one week of the year when more than any other, we collectively reflect on thanks and appreciation. Putting aside the less charitable thought that prioritizing gratitude on the other 51 weeks might do us all, and the world a bit of good, let's talk about gratitude for — and from — a sometimes under-appreciated part of our community: teenage kids.

In this column, we talk a lot about family life, and often in terms of dealing with the thankless parts: challenges, stress and expense. It is true that in our professional lives at Kids First and Aspen Family Connections, we are somewhat immersed in this side of things. Our organizations support families in navigating the warp-speed family journey, through finding and paying for child care, to the end of high school when we are expected to kick the baby birds out of the nest and find out whether they’re ready to fly.

And there is no denying that there is a lot that goes with this. Screen time. Social media. Mental health. Economic stress. Parenting teens often is exhausting, frustrating, anxiety-inducing, mystifying and sometimes even scary. And unfortunately, being parents will not make you happier — scientific studies have demonstrated this. Many people do not have children, through choice or circumstance, and have extremely fulfilling and happy lives.

On the contrary, having children will make you more stressed, more broke, and guarantee a life that is more complex. If we follow the evolutionary impetus to produce kids in the hope that one day they will buy us a house or even take care of us in our old age, modern experience suggests that we may be overly optimistic.

But there we go again! Stress and strain. Money and worry. We forget that one of the most important things about children is their ability, through their honesty and experiences, to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

Last week, a teen came into Aspen Family Connections for a meeting: a young man who has had more than a reasonable share of family ups and downs, who has struggled at school and who is certainly stereotyped by some as “troubled.” He sat down and in a quiet moment before the meeting addressed Katherine with questions. “How are you doing?” he asked. “How’s your work going?”

It was profound because his remark showed not only unusually good manners, but more than that, empathy and an ability to think about the world outside his own significant concerns. It’s not often that Katherine is lost for words but in that private moment we knew that this boy would be OK.

And there was another teen, one who has been through AFC’s restorative redirection program for kids who get into minor trouble, always for poor adolescent choices. The girl has had little motivation at school, and on screening, came out as purposeless and dissatisfied. She was cross, her demeanor sullen and withdrawn.

AFC’s Teen Resource Connector, the amazing Emily Cackett, started to meet with her, providing support in completing the program. Some weeks later, Emily received a text from the client saying that she is going to look at a whole range of new post-school options and thanking her “for being such a useful resource and helping me find my way.”

Our final story came in a family meeting with a young man who has a fairly significant learning disability. This kid is funny, smart and very unconventional. But of course the family wonders what life in the outside world will be like for him. At the end of the discussion, this young man said, “I’d like to say something to you all.” He opened his arms very wide as if to hug everyone around the table. “Thank you for talking about me like a person, and not just about my disability.” It was an unforgettable, humbling moment.

So we express our thanks to these three special young people — and so many more we meet all the time in our schools and community. Thanks for being honest, thoughtful and loving, setting aside entitlement and specialness. Thanks for showing resilience and optimism, often despite the difficulties, distractions and temptations of modern teenage life.

Their families should be unbelievably proud.


Growing Community, by Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First, and Katherine Sand, director of Aspen Family Connections, runs every other Wednesday in the Aspen Daily News. It features topics of interest related to early childhood, parenting and education. To reach the authors, email Shirley at shirley.ritter@cityofaspen.com or Katherine at ksand@aspenk12.net.