for The Gold Standard

People hate teenagers. Good people, people whom I love, respect, and admire hate teenagers. When I tell people I work with teenagers–-that working with teenagers is my favorite part of my job–-they look at me like I just told them like I spend my days having orgies with lepers.

According to most people, teens are: self-involved, disrespectful, immature, grandiose, melodramatic, etc. None of these

image via
image via

complaints are completely unfounded. I’m of the belief that those adjectives can be used to describe 99% of people, not just 99% of teenagers.

Teens have significantly more justification for being any of the aforementioned things than we “adults” do. Before I get into my particular admiration for teens, it’s useful to look at the realities of being a teen.

Things that suck about being a teenager (listed in no particular order):

  1. The Daily Schedule/Workload

School from 8 AM– 3 PM, maybe an after school sport or something if they are one of those athletic types, dinner (with or without a crazy family) and then homework, possibly studying for SATs, and/or college applications until midnight.

“So what?” you might say. What about the financial burdens of kids, student loans, and mortgages? I hear you, all of those things suck, too. Many teens do actually have financial burdens, especially now that college is more expensive than ever. Teens who don’t have financial obligations are perceived as not having responsibility but that’s only because adults and teens have different outcomes associated with the work they do.

When adults think of work, we think of money and, by association, all of our financial woes. Teens don’t make money for going to school (though imagine the attendance statistics if they did) but between school and homework, they’re often logging more hours than you or I do.

Which is fine. Working hard builds character and all that.

2)            Teens are expected to be the most boring adults ever:

Here’s where the really shitty part of being a teenager kicks in: they’re expected to act like responsible adults in all the boring ways (work, schlepping younger siblings around, etc.) without any of the autonomy or fun that comes (relatively speaking) with being an adult. They are still the “property” of their parent(s)/guardians; adults tell teens where they can go and when, treating them like a child one minute and then asking them to act like an adult the next.

3)             Unavoidable hormones and the Socially Awkward Olympics

Hormones can be a real pain in the ass and that ass pain is really bad when one goes through puberty. Teens’ hormones are going bananas in all kinds of unpredictable ways, as are their peers’. I’m sure I don’t need to explain how mortifying and confusing this daily process can be.

4)             The Law

The law is notorious for picking and choosing how it wants to treat teenagers. They are not children who need to be protected and/or forgiven and they are frequently tried as adults. In the United States, thousands of teenagers as young as 13 have been tried as adults and been sent to prison without possibility of parole. That said, they’re not often afforded the rights and protections adults have. If teens are in a store, many people assume they are shoplifting. Laws are created to prevent teens from hanging out with their friends in public spaces. Curfews are created in neighborhoods so teens don’t cause trouble. It’s not difficult to see why being a teenager can feel like a no-win situation.

Sucks, right?

And despite all the things that teens face, the young adults I encounter are the loveliest, kindest, smartest, funniest, and most creative people I know.

Things that I love about teens (again, in no particular order):

  1.  I don’t have to dumb down what I want to say in order to have a conversation with teens. Little kids are great, but they want to talk to me for 3 hours about, well, something I can’t actually understand (how do parents understand their children when they’re not speaking an actual language?). Also, teens are potty trained. This is a great thing.
  2.  If a teen likes something, they’ll tell you. If they don’t, they’ll tell you. There’s no bullshit and no passive-aggressiveness. Adults, take note.
  3. I teach a creative writing class for high school kids at the local public library and the environment in that room is more fun, relaxed, and supportive than any creative writing workshop I have been in as an adult. There’s no petty competition or backhanded compliments. Despite what 60 minutes might tell you, teens are, on the whole, unfailingly kind.
  4. Sadly, teens aren’t used to getting respect–-actual non-condescending respect–-from adults and, once it’s shown to them, they are more than willing to respond in kind.
  5. Teenagers are so, so creative. Even the ones who aren’t creative are creative. They can’t help it. They’ve got all the puberty going on and all the angst of being a teen happening and when they channel it into something creative it’s something that’s so raw and vulnerable that adults have to stop to appreciate it. Everything that they are experiencing is new or taking a new shape. That hyper-excitement that’s visible in any group of kids outside a high school? It’s teens processing all that newness and figuring out who they are in relation to the world as it unfolds before them. They’re excited and vulnerable and they should be. We used to feel like that about certain things. Maybe we’ve squashed that vulnerability down in ourselves because we got embarrassed about it or felt too frightening to be so exposed.

If you’re thinking that I get the good kids, the kids who come to a weekly creative writing workshop at the library, you’d be right. It’s not a representative sample of all teenagers. But I have also spent the last five years teaching creative writing and talking about books with kids in the Marin County Juvenile Hall and their needs and attitudes are not so different from those of my library creative writing kids. Both groups want respect, they want to be listened to and to have their thoughts and ideas understood by another human being. They want to feel cool and in control of their own lives. However much one disagrees with the way some of the kids in Juvenile Hall went about trying to feel that way, I think that yearning is universal.

So why are adults so uncomfortable around teens? I think it’s because teenagers remind us that inside each of us is a socially awkward, insecure, pimply 16 year-old. I think they annoy us the way siblings annoy us, because they mirror the things we’d like to pretend we are not: petty, approval-seeking, and frustrated with the lack of control we have over our own lives.

But even if they were the brattiest brats in all of Brattytown, I would still work with teens. As an age group teens are, at best, forgotten and, at worst, reviled. The groups that pays the closest attention to teens are companies who understand the purchasing power of adolescents. As for the rest of us? We tend to think of teens as either not needing our help or being beyond it. However, so often, we need to do very little to improve the life of a teenager. We need to show him respect. We need to listen to her as we would listen to an adult, not a child. We need to encourage them to think for themselves and ask questions that will help them do that.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine (“she doesn’t even go to this school!”). Just because we listen to teens the way we listen to adults doesn’t mean we give teens the same advice or encouragement as we would give adults. What we can offer is respect in exchange for respect. Thoughts and ideas for thoughts and ideas. Book suggestions for book suggestions.

If we all engaged with teens in this way, I think there would be fewer asshole teens who grow into asshole adults. Next time you walk into a library or a coffee shop and it’s crowded with teens, don’t immediately turn around and head for the other Starbucks down the street. Just wait. Think about what you were like as a teenager, how you behaved on your best and worst days. If nothing else, maybe it will make you realize you’re not so old, after all.