Anne Horton Writing Award
First Place Expository/Research
"A Need for Friendliness"
Why do we adults hold back from friendly conversations with teenagers unless they are family members or close friends? Come on, you know you do it. You avoid their eye when you meet them in the street, or you stare them down in order to avoid seeming intimidated. I know I do it sometimes, and I'm very disappointed in myself when I do. We create a distance between us and them by not reaching out as we normally would with our peers or with children. We adults should make a conscious decision to treat the teens we encounter in an open and friendly manner in order to build a stronger community. It may seem strange that smiling at a teenager or taking the time to talk with one would benefit society as a whole, but it's true. By learning the names of the teens in our neighborhood and taking a few minutes to talk with them, we show them what a community is. When we smile and say hello to a teenager at the mall, we make adults seem a little more approachable. When we treat the worker at a fast food place with respect, they appreciate it. These encounters strengthen the ties between generations, resulting in a closer, more stable society.
As the parent of two teenagers and a twenty-year-old, I know how much it hurts them when they are judged and patronized by complete strangers. It doesn't seem to matter how teens dress or what they do, just by falling within a certain age group they are looked upon suspiciously. My children are very different from each other and yet they've each had bad experiences with adults. One daughter, along with her best friend, was followed through the juniors department of a major store so relentlessly that the girls left early, the fun evening tarnished by the implied accusations of the store employee and the girls' own rightful anger. One of my other daughters and her friends have been glared at and warned about their noise, at McDonald's of all places. Yes, I imagine they were loud, but I've sat beside some incredibly loud old people, some of whom swear like it's uncontrollable, and by some very loud young children, and no employee ever approached either group about disturbing others.
Teens across the country can relate many similar stories. A young man from Berkeley, California named Gabe Crane wrote a poem which begins "I am fourteen,/And get treated like an abomination,/This sensation sends me into hibernation, to cry over this discrimination,/And the quest for assimilation overwhelms me," (Crane). The pain within his words overwhelms me. I want Gabe to know that he has a lot to offer this world and that he is a valuable part of society. Unfortunately, teens don't feel like they belong to society because adults don't make an effort to include them. That takes me back to my original question: why don't we?
The answer ties in with the fact that many adults do not have close contact with any teens. Teenagers are members of far fewer households today than they have been in the past (Scales 64). This means many adults lack any kind of interaction with teens beyond a mere passing of them on the street and in the store. Despite this lack of connection, most adults have definite opinions about teens and those opinions are generally not favorable. This is because the only teens available for these youth-deprived adults are the ones they see on TV and read about in the newspaper. Unfortunately, the media does a lousy job of accurately portraying teens. Today the teen most likely to appear in the newspaper is the teen who breaks the law. Yes, there are stories about high school sports, and every few months there is a listing of the school honor roll. But day after day, there is the list of kids who break the law or get in auto accidents.
This is indeed news, and I would never suggest that it should not be reported. However, every day there are teens who go to school, go to work, babysit their younger siblings, volunteer somewhere, and spend time with their families. In fact, there are thousands more of these than there are of the others. If newspapers would show the world these kids, then the world would like teenagers a whole lot more than it does right now, and that would translate into benefits for everyone.
The problem is that teenagers are seen as issues that must be dealt with rather than as members of society. Susan Nall Bales, a communications analyst who runs the FrameWorks Institute in Washington, states that these false images of teens can result in societal problems (Sessions Stepp par. 33). Governmental money is directed toward juvenile justice rather than schools because lawmakers believe that is where the need lies. Schools create insipid rules that impact the vast majority of good kids based on the actions of a few. The same citizens who refuse to pass a school referendum also choose not to support programs devoted to teens for the same reason: they believe the problem is so great that no one can really fix it. Some parents dread the arrival of the teen years based on stories they've read and news reports they've seen. In order to escape the turmoil, they either overprotect their teens, never letting them take appropriate risks, or they just turn them loose, believing they really have no control (Sessions Stepp par. 34). These are serious repercussions of a negative societal view of teenagers.
This view is not even an accurate reflection of teens today. According to developmental psychologist Peter Scales, sixty-six to eighty percent of today's teens avoid the big problems, such as pregnancy, drug use, and school failure (Scales 65). That is the majority of teens. Most teens do not engage in patterns of negative behavior, even if they do have instances of experimentation. The facts about teens are startling. Pregnancy rates, crime rates, smoking, drinking, and drug rates are all down. Suicide rates are stable and have been for years. Religion has remained stable. Graduation and volunteer rates are up. More kids expect to go to college. Most want advice from their parents, they want more time with their families, and they tell their parents where they're going when they go out (Scales 66). The ethical traits that they value are the same that adults value-honesty, hard work (Sessions Stepp par. 6). This is a generation of great people. Those of us in close contact with the adolescent world know that.
Now if the rest of the population knew these facts, adults would see teens accurately. There would be more adults talking to teens rather than avoiding them. There would be more connections between adults and adolescents resulting in stronger ties. Social science data show that strong bonds with adults, related and unrelated, lead to healthy development of teens (Scales 65) The benefits received translate into a stronger sense of belonging in the community. Another interesting effect of these relationships is that teens who receive the same message from several different adults tend to incorporate those messages (Scales 67). For example, the teen who receives messages from lots of adults about delaying sex, tends to delay sex. The teen who receives messages about the value of hard work, tends to work hard. The strengthening of values most Americans hold dear will lead to further strides for teens and for the rest of us. Perhaps then our money will be allocated to schools rather than jails. Perhaps then leeway will be made for the minor missteps that teenagers are bound to make within the schools. Strong inter-generational relationships could lead to some fantastic repercussions for all of society.
How do we make this happen, though? The best way is through small steps done by individuals in the course of their daily life. Giving a smile to a teen as they pass by, saying hello and chatting for a few minutes with a young neighbor, and listening respectfully to what a teenager has to say are all great ways to make a difference. I could start with myself. I once found myself, along with my daughter, in one of those stores that are so popular with teenagers-trendy clothes, size minuscule through small, fun accessories that will be hopelessly outdated next month, and clerks who look impossibly cool. This particular clerk had what appeared to be a nut-the nut and bolt kind of nut-in his ear where one would expect an earring. Maybe it was a washer; I'm not really up on my hardware vocabulary. The odd thing was it did not run from the front to the back of his ear like a hoop, but rather sat within the plane of his earlobe. The half-inch space within the nut was empty; if he hadn't been so tall, I would have seen merchandise through that hole. Instead I saw the store wall. I was fascinated, as was my daughter. How did he do that? Did he start with a smaller nut and increase the size? How did it get installed? How does it stay in? Does it hurt a lot to have it done? I wanted to ask so many questions, and I would have if he had been thirty or older, but he wasn't and so I didn't. I didn't want him to think that I was judging him. This happened months ago and I've never seen anyone else with this particular body decoration, so my questions go unanswered. I truly regret not just treating him like any adult I might run across. I would have asked him questions, he would have answered, it would have been a really nice encounter that would have left both of us feeling like a connection had been made. I didn't do it, though, so I lost out.
What have you lost out on? Do you know why that kid wears his pants so low? Does he think about how likely those pants are to fall down? Does he know that everyone else is wondering when they're going to do it? I don't recommend that you ask him; it's probably rude to suggest that he might at any moment find himself standing in his underwear in the middle of the mall. I do recommend that you say hello to him, though. It's a little scary to make the first move; he might after all laugh at you when you leave, but later on, he'll remember your hello as a nice part of his day. The more you smile at others and say hello or even initiate conversations, the easier it becomes. This is what journalist Malcolm Gladwell calls the "tipping point" (Scales 68). It is the moment when unusual behavior tips over into common practice. This means that one day you will be able to easily and confidently speak to teenagers.
Additionally, the friendlier you are to teens, the more likely they are to confide in you, maybe not about their pants, but about other, more important things. Just by spending time with them you are going to discover how they think. Even experts who write about troubled teens have positive things to say about their personalities. Psychologist Neil I. Bernstein states, "They are charming, funny, and kind, filled with curiosity, boundless energy and ideas about how the world ought to be" (Sessions Stepp par. 25). Couldn't you use someone like that in your life to entertain you and to stretch your ideas about the world? Wouldn't you like to share your wisdom with someone young and eager to learn? You wouldn't have to look far to find a teen. Almost every neighborhood has one or two walking down the sidewalk or mowing the grass who would smile back and say hello if only you made the first gesture. You might even learn to see past the unusual appearance he's chosen to present to the world.
The other thing you can do is read those newspaper reports with a critical eye. Look at those statistics and then reverse them. If the headlines scream that twenty percent of teens do some awful thing, remind yourself that eighty percent don't. When you run your errands, take a close look at the drivers of the other cars. Make a note of how many teens you see and how carefully they are driving; remember your observations the next time someone complains about how fast teens drive. Be an advocate for teenagers. Let your friends and neighbors know that the rates of negative behavior are down and the rates of positive behavior are up; I will, too.
Journalist Beth Frerking claims that only by spending lots of time with teens in ordinary pursuits can a reporter really understand teens and be able to report on them (Frerking par. 15). I would say the same is true for the rest of us. We may not all have the option of spending long periods of time with these incredible people, but we can all become more comfortable with them and they with us simply by being friendly in the little moments and places where our lives overlap.
Crane, Gabe. "Not Every Teen." KQED Youth Media Corps-Gabe 'sWords 6 Aug. 2001. 21 July 2003 <http.//www.kqed.org/w/ymc/roots/gave.html>
Frerking, Beth. "A Truer Picture of Teens' Lives." American Journalism Review 22.9 (Nov. 2000): 21 July 2003 <http://web2.infotrac.com>.
Scales, Peter C. "The Public Image of Adolescents." Society 38.4 (May 2001): 64-70 21 July 2003 <http://web2.infotrac.com.>
Sessions Stepp, Laura. "Generation Hex: Stereotypes Hurt Today's Teens." The Washington Post 31 Jan. 2003. 21 July 2003