4 Ways You're Getting Teenagers Totally Wrong
The recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida is already unique in one regard: For weeks afterward, it actually kept the gun debate going. This is entirely due to the Parkland kids, the fiercely articulate teenage survivors who got in front of cameras and demanded change. The undercurrent of the coverage, though, is that this part is surprising. Who knew kids could form thoughts and express them? It's as if we can't conceive of anyone between the ages of 13 and 19 accomplishing much beyond eating Tide Pods and sexting each other.
Which is dumb, yeah? It wasn't until I was knee-deep in the slog of adulthood and raising teenagers of my own that I realized there are superpowers hidden in that weird time when your brain is becoming sharp enough to function as an adult but you haven't quite learned the rules. So let me clear some things up.
Myth: Teenagers Are Lazy
You've probably heard jokes about Millennials and their participation trophies, how the dummies don't understand hard work because someone gave them a plastic award for just showing up to Little League once a week when they were kids. It's funny because Millennials are so over-educated and underemployed now, get it?
Of course you don't get it; there isn't a joke there. Participation trophies, while great as a mediocre punchline from five years ago, don't cover what actually happens when kids move beyond that very first year of just showing up. By high school, those participation trophy babies are the royalty of pouring hours into their skills and hobbies and expecting a nothing sandwich in return. That's part of the game when you're a teenager.
When I was that age, the idea of getting a part-time job beyond babysitting was insane -- not because I was so rich that I didn't need a job (in fact, I was so poor that there was a tiny network of people paying for my extracurricular activities out of the kindness of their hearts), but because I was so busy competing in speech tournaments and performing in plays and going to church to even consider a disruption to my self-imposed activities schedule. And at the end of high school, I ended up with a closet full of trophies and enough scholarships to pay for ... uh ... part of one college textbook. Putting hours into speech club was not a smart financial decision.
Actually, scratch that. Learning how to debate, speak publicly, and defend my ideas is why I have this job, and probably why the Parkland kids are holding their own in public engagements as I write this. (YOUTHS, take debate or drama if the opportunity arises!) The point is, high school is the very last time most of us are allowed to go all-in with our passions without having to worry about keeping the lights on or keeping baby humans alive.
As an adult, you have fight against everything from actual hunger to stone-cold apathy to maintain the discipline and passion that you gain in high school. I voluntarily signed up for a zero hour class my senior year, which was the exact last time I committed to being ANYWHERE at 7 a.m. in my life. As a parent, I see the track kids out running in shorts in February (in Idaho), the drama kids putting in 12-hour days to keep up with their grades while rehearsing for plays, the 4H kids doing their thing with ... feeding and then selling farm animals, I guess? Ag kids are a mystery to me.
The second you grow up, the pressures of adulthood immediately begin to steal hours away from your passions. Every high school classroom is filled with people who are actually at the top of their art game or can sing notes that they'll never be able to hit again or are running their fastest mile, and they don't know it yet. Also, every high school classroom is filled with a few kids who can talk, write, draw, act, sing and think circles around many adults in their lives, not in spite of being teenagers but because they're teenagers.
It's not that adults don't work hard or don't maintain insane schedules or don't develop talents beyond our regular work days, it's that we don't do it for free anymore, at least not for a long. And if we do, it's out of self-care, a need to create, or honestly, just to fill a hole in our lives that we aren't meeting with our jobs. I volunteer with my kids' drama stuff now so that A) I can get more time in with them before they grow up and leave me, and B) so I can be a part of someone else's art.
Myth: Teenagers Don't Understand How The Real World Works
One of the saddest things I've heard parents say to their kids is "Wait until you get out into the real world and ..." As if our kids are somehow stupid for not knowing how much the rent costs or how much we spend on groceries every month. By the time they're teenagers, they should have some kind of idea of what it takes to function in the adult world, but if they don't, that's on us, the parents who didn't sit our kids down with our budgets to pull back the curtain on adult life.
The truth is that teenagers aren't living in a cartoon fairy tale. They understand the real world they're living every day just fine, probably better than most adults. They might not understand how hard it is to get a job or find a career or maintain a budget, but I can't fault them for that because I haven't figured it out either and I'm, like, super old now.
They don't know what we know, and that's a blessing, not a problem. They get to start fresh. After life has whipped your butt for a few decades, you start to get risk-averse. This is why you never hear 60-year-olds say "I just moved out to New York City with nothing but a dollar and a tap shoe in my pocket to follow my dreams of inventing one-shoed tap dancing." Once you've faced eviction, been fired, had the water shut off, run out of grocery money, failed at a couple of marriages, or found yourself down to one pair of underwear total, it becomes increasingly difficult to take risks that could put you back in that situation again. And out of love for our kids, we also try to keep them from facing the same problems.
Unfortunately, as a result, we end up presenting adult life to kids as if their dreams have a drug commercial's worth of caveats, warnings, risks, and potential problems. "Oh, you want to become a musician? Please be aware that going into music may lead to prolonged poverty, moving back home, depression, alcoholism, heroin addiction, unfortunate tattoos, and definitely having terrible hair. Side effects will include dry mouth and diarrhea." "What's that? You want to go to law school? OK, but the pressures of school and your crushing debt might make you suicidal one day." "You want to be a teacher? Are you sure? They're poor, and a kid might shoot you!"
And then some of us apply that same logic to activism. "Oh, you want to strengthen gun control laws? That's cute, we already tried. Trust me, the NRA is too powerful and gun culture is too deep. It's impossible. Side effects of strengthening gun control include dry mouth and diarrhea."
Side note: Everything that comes after the phrase "Trust me" should be replaced by a fart noise.
Teenagers have the superpower of walking through life without those caveats internally drummed into their souls. Sure, they might take adult advice to heart, but why? We don't know everything, grown-ups. We certainly don't have great handle on what the economy is going to look like in five years or what technologies our kids should be investigating for work. In fact, history says we should count on being wrong on a lot of our advice, and our kids are three steps ahead of us on the technology front anyway.
Myth: Teenagers Are Disrespectful
During the Parkland Town Hall a few weeks ago, survivors of the massacre were given a live platform to confront politicians Marco Rubio, Bill Nelson, and Ted Deutch, as well as NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, about their gun control policies in light of the shooting. It turns out that a whole room full of traumatized teachers, students, and parents will go Live at the Apollo on anyone who comes up against them when it comes to guns. During the conversation, one foolhead Fox radio host lost his mind when the kids in the room talked to the adults in the room as if they were all on the same playing field. Here's what he tweeted:
I'm raising respectful kids, and yes, they'll occasionally flex on their dad and I when they notice we're total hypocrites or don't know what we're talking about. But other than the occasional eye roll or rarer door slam (which we correct), they don't sass us or yell or call us goobers to our faces, so my definition of disrespectful is different than that of The Oldest Man In the World Who Goes By "Todd." Over the course of writing this article, I had six different teenagers in and out of my house (that I know of). They were all delights!
On the other hand, Todd accidentally referenced another teen superpower that most of us lose in adulthood: the power of being unafraid in the face of authority. Contrast that with someone like me, who'll (almost) never publicly trash talk anyone in my industry -- and my industry is all of comedy -- unless I'm 100 percent sure I'll never ever ever ever come to them looking for a job. I just can't afford to air all of my opinions on the internet ... or for that matter, out loud in my small town. One aggressive rant about President Trump at my hairdresser's might be overheard by someone who could give me or my husband or my kids a job someday, and I'm absolutely ruled by money. If this sounds like a stupid scenario, you obviously haven't seen Legally Blonde.
As a teenager, however, I was also that kid who would debate an adult if the issue was important and I thought I was right and could persuade them to my side. I'm still that kid, just more conscious about what little money I have and how to hang on to it. And again, that's not something to brag about.
Change is instigated by youth and young adults because they just aren't as scared of the rest of us. Why aren't more Republicans in power shouting from the rooftops that they want nothing to do with President Trump? For the same reasons I don't trash-talk my boss or anyone who could become my boss in public: greed, fear, and self-preservation.
Myth: Teenagers Expect The World On A Platter
When we're talking about the Parkland teens, we're talking about Generation Z, and it's important to understand exactly who these kids are. The first crop was born in 1998, so they weren't even out of diapers yet when Columbine happened. The Twin Towers fell as they were getting ready for preschool. Cool fact: In two years, people who were born right after 9/11 will be eligible to fight in Afghanistan, a war that has spanned their entire lives. They've grown up during the Great Recession, the housing crisis, an opioid epidemic, and a resurgence of actual Nazis. Between school shooting drills, getting screened for weapons every time they fly, and the alternate violent reality that children of color face every day, this crew doesn't necessarily think America is the greatest country in the world. Also, who said we should even rank countries by greatness? That's stupid.
Not to continue being a big bummer, but this particular generation also doesn't have high expectations for financial security, medical coverage, affordable housing, ever retiring, or the basics of a middle-class lifestyle. As one of my kids put it, "I'll be happy with an apartment and a small plant when I grow up." She also said that all of her friends are nihilists, but I haven't had a chance to look that up yet, so I'm going assume it means "drug-free do-gooders who love their mamas and are avoiding hanky panky until they're adults." Feel free to use the comment section to let me know if I got that wrong.
Here's some good news: Despite growing up holding the worst economic hands since the Greatest Generation, da GENZ are also more racially diverse than previous generations, and are so immersed in LGBTQ issues that debating things like transgender rights with them would be like justifying racial segregation to my generation. It's a nonstarter. That culture war is over.
Most importantly, they're teenagers, and teenagers think they can Bob the Builder the universe. That's a superpower. Thank God teenagers believe they can solve problems, because the world would come to a standstill if no one ever challenged older generations on their BS. That cynicism about grownups isn't a Generation Z thing, either. It's a teenager thing.
PS: Not true, Breakfast Club-era Ally Sheedy! Your heart ages and shifts, like all human organs are prone to do, but it doesn't die. It just gets clouded with plaque, and in this metaphor, plaque is bad experiences and apathy, until the day it actually dies. From death. Because we aren't immortal ... yet. Try to tackle death itself, Z-ers!
You can follow Kristi on Twitter.
We're on your side, teenagers. For example, we thought fidget spinners were a fun idea. Still do.
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