A number of my friends are teachers, and most of them work in elementary schools. However, when it comes to those who work in high schools, I’ve always looked at them with a mixture of reverence and pity. I thought I was afraid of teenagers (that’s called ephibiphobia… there’s a fun piece of trivia). As it turns out, I simply hadn’t spoken to any since I was one! Sporting glasses, braces and suede vests, my nerdy teen years were somewhat less than socially optimal. But, things change. Oh, I’m still nerdy. I dropped the braces and the suede vests, but I still love learning and I own a star trek uniform. But, I like to think my skin is a little thicker now.
A big part of my research revolved around advocating for child and youth participation in community decision-making. While I fervently pushed this agenda, and firmly believed in it, I always felt like a bit of a hypocrite. I worked for six years at a summer camp with grades 3 and 4. I happily consulted with my target age group (grade 5) for my thesis. And, as I have two young children of my own, I felt justified in speaking about children’s rights and responsibilities as members of community.
But I never quite knew what to do with the youth piece.
So, I became a volunteer tutor for high school students in a low income neighbourhood.
I absolutely love it. Many of the teens are funny, creative, and interesting, and I really enjoy working with them. Even more, I enjoy just talking to them. I have learned so much in a short amount of time.
It seems to me that many adults are battling this same ridiculous unfounded fear or discomfort, and not just when it comes to teens. Many adults simply refuse to engage with children or youth at all.
This becomes very evident by contrast.
For example, on the second day of grade 3, I was dropping off my oldest son, while accompanied by my 3-year-old. Before class, the grade 3
teacher came up to us, got down on her knees and had an in-depth conversation with little brother. He was smitten. He kept pointing her out to me and trying to get more attention. How many strange adults make the effort to do that sort of thing? Aunts and uncles, grandparents and close friends will, of course! But when it comes to strangers, people seem to always speak through parents.
Have you ever taken your child to a store to spend their own money, and the cashier speaks with you instead, or even tries to hand you the change? Have you ever witnessed impatient wait staff at a restaurant, who clearly don’t want to wait the extra 20 seconds for a child to give their order? I notice these things. I also notice when people make a concerted effort to speak directly and respectfully to my children. It makes a huge difference. It builds their confidence and self-efficacy. This is something I can’t give them myself.
And then, in the teen years, even though they are gaining more independence, teens still experience this distance in public interaction. They are avoided like the plague. But, it is at this influential in-between stage where teens MUST be granted respect in order for them to become respectful members of society.
I have seen signs limiting the number of students allowed in a store at one time. I have seen a device called the “Mosquito” that is designed to specifically target the hearing range of teen ears by making an irritating noise to keep them away from certain areas. What sort of messages do these things send? “We don’t want you here.”
Children are taught not to speak to strangers. What a ridiculous idea. How does that teach them to be active and engaged members of society? It teaches them the world is a scary place and people are not to be trusted. That’s a topic I already covered in another post. At the same time, adults now fear BEING the stranger. Any unauthorized adult communications with children can be scrutinized and sometimes reported. How did we get this far? Thanks to media hype, relatively rare incidents have led to fear in parents and children that ultimately does more harm than good.
Instead, why don’t we teach children and youth how to safely speak to strangers, and how to interact comfortably, politely and respectfully with people of all ages?
Or, even better, why don’t we teach ADULTS how to speak to children and youth, comfortably, politely and respectfully. Now THAT would make a difference.