Why is it that people seem genuinely surprised when teens provide evidence of the fact that they have personalities, and causes, and taste, and things they believe in? People goggle as though they’ve just seen a black swan pontificating about free market capitalism every time a teen opens her mouth to contribute to conversations instead of remaining silent, every time teens organise in support of a cause they support or feel passionate about, every time teens play an active role as tastemakers and shapers of society—don’t forget that one of the biggest sales categories in books right now is young adult fiction, which is a teen-driven market no matter how much people want to talk about crossover fiction and how adults read it too (as though that somehow legitimises it).
Uh, people, I have news for you, and it may come as a shock: teens are people! They are younger people, and some of them are smaller people because they haven’t had a good growth spurt yet, but they are definitely people! There’s no hard and fast line between ‘nonperson’ and ‘person.’ If you are a Homo sapiens sapiens, you are a human being, no matter what your age, and like other members of your species, you have a complex brain that, while it takes a while to develop, is well worth the wait.
Teens may still be forming neural connections and key parts of their brains, but believe me, that doesn’t make their brains any less sharp or valuable. They are in fact capable of choosing a preferred item when offered an array of items! They are also capable of articulating their choices and providing solid reasoning for them! Thus, teens can comment on, say, arts and culture, explaining why they prefer given music, books, television, and more. Gosh, it’s almost as though teens were independently capable of organising thoughts about media and communicating around them. Just like grown ups!
Not only that, but teens are capable not only of following social causes, but grasping them, even when they occur at a high level of complexity, and they can take it a step further and actually do something. I always have mixed feelings when I see people celebrating teen activists because while I want to see people credited for their work, I dislike a framing that suggests this kind of behaviour is unusual or abnormal for teens, who are in fact activists every day in communities large and small for all kinds of causes.
Teens are key organisers in Chicago, where they’re protesting school closures (yes, hahaha, teens are mad that their schools are closing). They’re environmental activists concerned about climate change, unsustainable land use, and poor development and city planning decisions not just in the places they call home, but also further afield. They’re involved in human rights work including a variety of causes. Teens even *gasp* volunteer in their local communities with activities like watershed cleanup, literacy classes, and mentoring for young children.
So why must adults act as though this is perennially surprising, like all teens are running around being feral and useless except for a handful of good eggs? There’s a kind of myth of exceptionalism going on here, where people act like it’s totally weird when teens actually do things, and it’s insulting to teens.
It’s insulting to teens as a whole by writing them off as though they have no social value, suggesting that their lives aren’t worth anything and all they do is create trouble and make nuisances of themselves. That way lies danger, for it tells teens to give up. It’s also rude to teen activists in general, marking them out as something exceptional when many of them simply see a need that needs to be filled and they step in to do some of the hard work; by singling them out as abnormal and freakish, the adult media reinforce harmful attitudes about teens and suggests that teen activists are somehow ‘special,’ creating the wrong idea that it’s not possible for just anyone to be an activist.
This society works hard to undermine teens. It denies them legal autonomy over their bodies and lives, allowing parents and guardians to make medical decisions for teens without consultation in addition to allowing those same adults to decide where teens live, how they spend their time, who they interact with, and how they lead their lives. Part of the way society reinforces this is by maintaining the idea that teens need to be monitored and looked out for because they cannot be trusted on their own, because as a consequence of not being grown-up, they need to be watched at every minute.
And while it’s true that teens can be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse (sometimes from those very adults society says are ‘taking care’ of them), that doesn’t mean they’re ignorant, or incapable of contributing to society, or unable to see when they’re being played by adults. Teens care about their future just like adults do. They care about injustice, they care about their communities, they care about causes they can become very passionate about, whether it’s literacy or whales.
So can we stop treating teen activists as freaks to be ogled, and pitch in with their causes instead? Can we stop acting like teens are totally vapid and incapable of contributing anything useful to society, culture, and criticism? Because teens are all around us and they are driven, smart, passionate, and so much more—if only adults bothered to take a minute to actually see them, instead of focusing on what we think we know about them. While we were all teens once, we often seem to forget that in our hurry to smack down the next generation.