Expect the Best

Teenagers get a bad rap. They really do. Oftentimes, there’s a good reason for this. You see–I know teens. I’m the proud mom of an ex-teen, two current teens, and a preteen. I write books for teens. I used to be a teen. So, yeah. I know teenagers. I know why they get a bad rap. Because sometimes they lie. Sometimes they get into trouble. Sometimes they screw up and make bad decisions and do really bad things. But, sometimes adults do these things too.

So, why do teens get such a bad rap? Why do we assume they’re liars, thieves, bad drivers, and general miscreants? Just because some of them act that way?

Yesterday, one of my children witnessed an exchange between a friend and a police officer. According to my child’s story, this police officer overreacted. (I can’t tell you the story, but I wish I could. I have to have some respect for my children’s privacy.)  According to stories I’ve heard from my children–and things I’ve seen with my own eyes–teens are regarded with suspicion. Teens are judged (and misjudged) differently from those in other age groups. If there’s a car accident, it’s automatically assumed the teenage driver is at fault. If a group of teens walk into a convenient store, they’re regarded with suspicion and watched closely by the clerk. Teens aren’t considered reliable witnesses, and in a world where it’s-his-word-against-mine, the word of a teenager means nothing. Who would believe a teen over a teacher? A police officer? Or, a parent? No one.

This seems to be the general attitude in the community where I live. I hope it isn’t this way everywhere, but judging from posts I’ve read on Facebook, comments I’ve read on news forum threads, comments I’ve heard on radio talk shows, and comments I’ve heard from real live people, teens in the United States seem to be regarded with distrust. Many US malls have implemented a policy where teens are not allowed to be there after 6:00PM without a parent or guardian. Police officers are assigned to middle-schools, high-schools, teen dances, and libraries during after-school hours. While I appreciate the extra security, I can’t help but feel these policies are put in place not only to protect our teenagers, but to protect us from them.

These are some of the comments I’ve heard: “Teenagers today have no respect or appreciation for anyone,” or “We’re raising a generation of delinquents,” or “All these teenagers do is play on their cell phones and ignore the world around them.”

Yes, I’ve watched the news–teens and young adults involved in shootings, theft, gang activity, sexting. I know it happens. But, where are the stories about teens who have gone out of their way to help others? Teens who plunge into a freezing cold lake to raise money for the Special Olympics? Teens who work in soup kitchens on Thanksgiving? Teens who are active in church and community organizations? Where are those teens in our news stories? I know they exist–I’ve met them.

Why do we lump all teens under the broad category of “these damned teenagers?”

Do you want to know how to turn an entire generation into unreliable, irresponsible criminals? Treat them like unreliable, irresponsible criminals. If you expect teens to be delinquents, a good percentage of them will work hard to live up to your expectations. Either that, or they’ll use your poor expectations as an excuse for their bad behavior. Show them they aren’t trusted, and they will exhibit untrustworthy behavior. Tell them all teenagers are lazy, ungrateful druggies, and they will assume there isn’t any point in striving for anything better. Expect the worst–and you’ll get it.

Can we as a society do a better job in raising our teenagers? Absolutely. But, in addition to instilling good moral values, disciplining children when necessary, and supervising them a little better, maybe we should raise our own expectations. If we expect this generation of teens to be the rising stars of this century, they’ll live up to it. They’ll cure cancer, stop world hunger, and save the environment.

Expect the best–and you just might get it.

7 thoughts on “Expect the Best

  1. We have a very similar profile (except I have two ex-teens now) maybe why we have similar thoughts. Something that many of the critics of teenagers, and young people in general often forget is that our teenagers would have been another epoch’s adults, or at the very least co-workers. Only the privileged could send their children to school and until well into the twentieth century kids started work at age fourteen some as young as twelve. Go back a bit further and shorter life expectancy meant that what we consider unruly children would have been the main earners in a household, or have had households of their own. We infantilise teenagers, watch over their shoulders all the time, don’t let them work, keep them at home, worry about them, give them money, take all their decisions for them, then we complain that they have no moral direction. Treat them like budding adults, show them how to be an adult, and they will maybe behave like adults. And I’m not thinking of the adults who behave like spoilt children either.

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    • That’s a very good point, Jane. Teens are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. My teens have complained about some of the rules in school. Students are not allowed to use their phones in class (which is understandable because they’re supposed to be learning), yet they watch their teachers scroll through their mobile devices when they’re supposed to be teaching. Teens have a very good understanding of hypocrisy (much better than adults in many cases). I understand why this bothers them–it was exactly the same thing that bothered me when I worked–having to follow certain rules that didn’t make sense just because the company could enforce them, while the boss took long lunches and wasted work time (just because he could). We tell intelligent human beings in adult-size bodies that they have to obey us ‘because we said so,’ and then wonder why teenagers are so angry.

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    • I totally agree Jane. In another era, so-called teenagers were treated as fully functioning, but somewhat less experienced adults. They fought, loved, raised families and–on occasion–ran expanding empires:

      http://www.historyofmacedonia.org/AncientMacedonia/AlexandertheGreat.html

      In 340, when Philip assembled a large Macedonian army and invaded Thrace, he left his 16 years old son with the power to rule Macedonia in his absence as regent, which shows that even at such young age Alexander was recognized as quite capable. But as the Macedonian army advanced deep into Thrace, the Thracian tribe of Maedi bordering north-eastern Macedonia rebelled and posed a danger to the country. Alexander assembled an army, led it against the rebels, and with swift action defeated the Maedi, captured their stronghold, and renamed it after himself to Alexandropolis. Two years later in 338 BC, Philip gave his son a commanding post among the senior generals as the Macedonian army invaded Greece. At the Battle of Chaeronea the Greeks were defeated and Alexander displayed his bravery by destroying the elite Greek force, the Theban Secret Band. Some ancient historians recorded that the Macedonians won the battle thanks to his bravery.

      I think that our contemporary views of teenagers stem from a business and government culture eager to turn a post-child-labor law demographic of idle young adults into completely brain-dead hyper-consumers, however, there has been a never-ending but ever co-opted undercurrent of youth rebellion against this marketing and government driven cultural infantalization.

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  2. Another fabulous post, Tricia! “If you’re young you just can’t win. The loudest voice in the room but nobody’s listening.” SO true.

    Yes, that’s the key. I may not know teenagers as well as I used to, but I know kids and it’s totally true, you HAVE to have high expectations. Let them rise to the challenge, push themselves and what they thought they could do, show them respect as well as love and they’ll show respect back. They’ll amaze and surprise you. Yes, kids need boundaries, always, it helps give them a sense of self, a moral code, a safety net. But always expect the best from them.

    I always remember the first school I ever taught in after I qualified, I was young and idealistic. But there was one teacher there who actually told me to put this child in the corner with a ‘holding activity’, that they weren’t bright enough and wouldn’t achieve anything. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, this teacher had totally written them off! As an idealistic teacher, which thankfully I still am, I’d be damned before I’d ever give up on a child, so I did the complete opposite, worked everyday 1-to-1, gave him the time and attention he’d never received in his whole school life and because for the first time someone believed in him, someone had high expectations, that child rose to the challenge and grabbed that chance. I will always remember Christopher and the look of pride he had when he told his mum his SAT results. She cried, I cried, we were a mess, but that little boy had pride in himself. He achieved it. That’s all we need to do for our kids, our teens, ourselves. Give our young people a voice, goals, high expectations, challenges and see them fly! 😀

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