Rearing teenagers is full of surprises, like when yours announces the one thing she wants for her birthday:

Birkenstocks.

Wait. What? Birkenstocks are back? Those … practical sandals?

Right on cue, which means about five years after the phenom hit both coasts, the leather footwear is flying off shelves here. After being relatively flat in 2013, sales have jumped 51 percent since January among Schuler Shoes’ eight locations, said Leslie Butler, vice president of merchandising.

The increase is fueled, in part, by young celebrities slipping them on for the cover of Vogue — twice in the past year. But I sense something deeper going on.

Birks aren’t the only step backward of late. Ouija boards are being pulled from basement shelves. Drive-in movie theaters are experiencing a notable revival.

After years of running in packs of girls and boys, some teens are returning to old-fashioned dating. And some parents are returning to that old-fashioned, stay-in-your-room punishment called grounding.

Seems we just can’t get enough of nostalgia (for better or worse), and it’s more complex than pining for Nik-L-Nip Original Wax Bottles. (Google it, kids!)

These forays into the past are an understandable response to a wired world that can be rude and unruly, or at the very least, uncertain.

What better way to shut it all out than in a field watching a movie under the stars? As my colleague Sue Feyder reported, the Champions Outdoor Movie Theater in Elko New Market opened last week to great enthusiasm among young people eager to try the experience.

Champions is among a small but growing number of outdoor theaters benefiting from a longing for old-fashioned family activities.

But far from being stuck in a field — or in the past — those who embrace nostalgia tend to be happier than the rest of us. And better able to focus on the future.

“The general consensus is that nostalgia is beneficial,” said Krystine Batcho, a psychologist and professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.

Batcho’s research on nostalgia dates to 1995, when she developed a “Nostalgia Inventory” to measure how often and how deeply people feel nostalgic.

Those who embrace nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles. When they feel stressed, for example, they tap into previously successful strategies, such as turning to a trusted teacher or parent. If I overcame adversity before, they tell themselves, I can do it again.

When they feel a lack of self-confidence, they remember when they felt valued and loved for who they were and not for what they achieved or earned.

And when they feel uncertain about the future, they wipe the cobwebs off their Ouija board.

“Nostalgia also has been connected to an attempt to establish purpose and meaning,” Batcho said. “Why are we alive? What are we living for? What’s going to come next?”

A “great diminishment” in affiliation with organized religion, she said, has not decreased the desire to find answers to these big questions. Ouija boards, fortunetellers, psychics and books about the afterlife all are experiencing a comeback, she said.

Pondering the meaning of life certainly is preferable when one’s feet don’t hurt. But comfort is just the beginning of Birkenstocks’ renewed appeal with mainly female teenagers and young women who are embracing green living and “granny chic.”

In a literal way, Batcho said, the sandals allow them to “try on things. Adolescence is the time of leaving your past behind developmentally. You’re no longer a child, but you’re not really a full-fledged adult. You don’t want to be your parents, but you also don’t want to be who you were when you were 6.

“Birkenstocks are an exploration into the nature of yourself. Does the hippie thing fit who I am? It’s one more layer in their attempt to separate from us.”

The revival of dating is another. For years, parents and adolescent health experts viewed the phenomenon of “hanging out” in groups as a mixed bag. On the one hand, it certainly took the pressure off kids. But where would they practice necessary skills to prepare them for the adult world of marriage or long-term relationships, including negotiating, fighting fair, forgiveness and money management?

Kids saw the high divorce rate among their parents and wondered, what’s the point in practicing these skills?

This new crop of nostalgic, yet realistic, young people seems more willing to take the leap, Batcho said.

“Dating is another way of saying to their parents, ‘I’m not going to do it your way.’ ”

Until we’ve walked a mile in their Birks, let’s resist grounding them, or feeling defensive.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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