Teenagers really are a marginalized group. I believe that teenagers are basically issued a scroll of “Don’t-s.” Don’t stay out too late. Don’t text and drive. Don’t be late. Don’t be a bully. Don’t let your grades drop. Don’t get into any trouble. The problem, I think, is that nobody gives people this age a list of “Do-s” to go along with this. The only thing anyone tells them to do is to not get in trouble or break any rules. That’s not very helpful and it can be completely paralyzing as well as counterproductive – for everyone.
It seems that we just don’t know what to do with adolescents. They don’t know what we want from them other than to just go to school, do everything we tell them to do, and not cause trouble. When they’re younger, their antics are seen as cute or typical for their age. By the time they are around 12 and able to stay home without supervision, many parents stop parenting. It’s understandable. Parenting is exhausting and meeting a child’s immediate needs is enough work. Once a child can make his own dinner, let herself into the house after school, and finish her homework on her own, they still need so much more than just someone to make sure they’re not screwing up.
We do a terrible job of this part of parenting and schooling. We move kids from Elementary School to Middle School over the course of 2 months of summer break and when they land at their new school, they’re expected to manage, lockers, seven class periods with seven different teachers, gym uniforms, negotiating a brand new social life with students from many other Elementary Schools, and they’re supposed to have it all worked out within the first two weeks of school. Plus, we take away their recess! It’s not a good formula.
What if we took the time and the money to figure out something for these kids to do? They need community centers and free unstructured time to create without a legion of adults standing over them telling them all the things that they can’t talk about or shouldn’t do. We need to “let them sing and scream”, as Amanda Palmer says in her brilliant song “Ukulele Anthem.” When we try to control them so much and demand that they succeed, or at least not cause trouble, in all of their efforts, we’re suppressing their natural expression, socializing, and their creativity. If they can’t get what’s inside them out by saying what they want, doing what they want, listening to what they want, creating what they want, READING what they want, they’re going to withdraw and become resentful, secretive and angry. Then, we usually punish them for having a bad attitude. They just can’t win.
Very few adults I know would abide being told what to do. Most of us need a creative outlet – a way to make some noise. We want to know that we can affect our world and our lives. Not all of kids’ activities or studies need to prepare them for college. We have to find ways to let them do what they want sometimes – just because they want to. Whatever it is. They have to be able to sing and scream. We also must make it clear to them, to quote Amanda Palmer again that, “Just because your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing.”
We fail the entire teen population when we don’t listen to them and give them a chance to say or do or read what they want.