I’m not sure what mechanism of the human brain gives us a distain for our most recent stage of life the second that we move on to the next one, but when it comes to the way that adults view teenagers, I think that a little introspection would do all of us a lot of good. Maybe my sample is skewed by the fact that I spend so much time on the internet, but I can’t help but notice a long-standing pattern of the 20-something-and-up demographic condescending to the pre-college set for having the brazen audacity to be under twenty-one in a society where other people are over twenty- one.
Now, I realize that young people need to be taken to task for specific behaviors now and then in order to help them learn and mature. I even understand the “damn kids” impulse to some degree. It’s irritating to go to a movie and listen to pre-teen girls scream when an actor takes his shirt off. It’s frightening to have a near-collision with an inexperienced seventeen-year-old driver. It stings to be dismissed by someone who thinks that they know better when you try to offer them advice out of love. The unexamined gut response to all of these things is to blame the individual for their inexperience in handling these kinds of life events, but I think the key to the problem with the “damn kids” attitude is the word, “unexamined”. If we took a minute to look closely at this condescension toward those who commit the crime of being younger than ourselves, it might occur to us that:
- Being frustrated with someone five or more years younger than you are for not navigating the world with the same assurance or maturity that you do is like taking an amputee to task for not being able to run a marathon after two days on a prosthetic. They don’t have the tools that they need to interact with the world the way you do, because they are not yet where you are. They are learning; have a little compassion and patience.
- We have nothing to be smug about. Absolutely nothing. The fact that you were born five or more years before that high school sophomore texting in the theatre seat next to you is not an accomplishment. It does not make you a better person or a higher life form; it just makes you a little older. Yes, you have more life experience than that fourteen year old, but not because you are inherently more accomplished than that fourteen-year-old. You have more experience than that fourteen- year- old because the acquisition of life experience beyond fourteen years is the general result of living longer than fourteen years. Unless you are trying to claim superiority over a fellow human being based on the fact that you’ve been blinking, breathing and walking on the Earth a little longer than they have, being more experienced than a high school student at the age of twenty is not an accomplishment.
- . Everyone over the age of fifteen was, in fact, fifteen, at one point. We all had to fight our way through that stage of life and imbibe whatever its bumps and potholes could teach us. Some of us had a more challenging adolescence than others, but we all had one. The fact that someone else is going through a stage of life that you have already been through does not make him or her an automatic candidate for your scorn.
When you look at it too closely, the “how dare teenagers be teenagers” complaint makes about as much sense as Professor Higgins’s inability to understand why women are not men.[i] I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m pretty sure that becoming comfortable with the fact that other people are not exactly like you is one of the early signs of true maturity.
And if nothing else in this discussion speaks to you, I respectfully beg you to remember that, whenever you complain about how “teenagery” and generally Not Like You young people are…this is what you sound like.
[i] For the uninitiated, this is a reference to the 1964 Audrey Hepburn film, “My Fair Lady.”