Grown-ups still treat youth as mini-adults. Why not encourage them to create a different world?
KIDS WILL BE KIDS
Grown-ups still treat youth as mini-adults. Why not encourage them to create a different world?
I was born in 1947. When I look at class photos of myself from elementary school, I am in a plaid flannel shirt and cotton pants. In family photos, I am wearing a navy-blue blazer with grey pants and a tie. I am wearing the kind of clothes that men in those days wore at home or in the office. I look 50 years old, only 40 years younger.
In the 1950s, being a kid was just beginning to be different from being an adult. Before the Depression, most kids lived on farms and spent their days doing what their parents did. Even as families moved into cities, old understandings remained. The family came first. There were chores, responsibilities. School was fitted in until kids were old enough to take on a full-time load and the family needed them. For most, that time came early in high school. Kids were raised as mini-adults, one day to step into their parents’ shoes. Youth was an age in one’s life, not an identity.
Then things began to change. The postwar boom meant families had more money to spend. They could afford objects that made their day-to-day tasks easier. With fewer hands needed to make light work, kids could do other things. They went to school longer. They joined sports leagues and community clubs organized just for them. Affluence was creating the unprecedented luxury of a special time and a special stage in life for kids. Yet it was a kid’s life with adult values and understandings.
James Dean and Elvis Presley challenged that model. They offered a look, sound and attitude that were nothing like those of their parents. They would never have had the chance in an
earlier era, but this was a time of money. Teenagers who weren’t interested in teams or clubs could use their extra time to work. Not to do family chores out of obligation, but to do jobs for money. Thursday and Friday nights and Saturday working at the supermarket or gas station, earning money in amounts far greater than their nickeland-dime allowance—and it was all theirs. They also had something to buy now.
Postwar prosperity had put more cars on the road and eventually offered families affordable, secondhand, second cars. Teenagers could now borrow a car and (theoretically) put gas in the tank, robbing parents of their only real leg to stand on in refusing them the keys to the car. (The old excuses—“because your homework isn’t done/I never got the car when I was your age/I said so”—no longer seemed to work.) And now, there was also the possibility of a third car in the family: the jalopy. The jalopy was something for a teenager to work towards. Being thirdhand (or fourthor fifth-hand), it didn’t cost much (to buy), and keeping it on the road was a cost to be worried about later, and then passed on to parents. Not that parents liked these heaps: they were too loud, uncomfortable, unreliable, unsafe. Parents didn’t want to be in them. Which was, for a teenager, all the better.
Rock ’n’ roll also widened the generational divide. If, for kids, louder is natural, now they had the money to support a natural kids’ sound. If, for adults, louder is to be avoided, for kids that was having their cake and eating it, too. Now kids could create the space and the time to be kids, to begin discovering what this adventuring, developing time of life might make of
them. With blue jeans, they also had the uniform. Family pressure had been joined by peer pressure as a critical shaper of youth. With kids having their own money, a timeless instinct to be different could be played out. Youth was becoming an identity.
In every era, youth is (or should be) a time of taking in the world, discovering what feels good and what doesn’t, where you fit in and don’t. Youth is doing what you don’t know how to do, going where you’ve never been. It is getting things wrong, and doing them again. It is testing yourself and everything around you. It is feeling pain, and finding ways to avoid it. It is feeling pleasure, and finding ways to repeat it. Youth is, to an adult, a time of exaggerations. Louder, wilder, crazier, allout, all the time. No fudging, no finessing, no control.
Youth is also a time of finding balance. When kids learn to skate, they go faster than they can manage, and fall. Or, if they don’t fall, they go until something stops them—the boards at the end of the rink— and they discover they had better learn how to stop. Once they learn how to stop, they are willing to skate more often and longer. They discover they can go faster and faster without hurting themselves. They learn that by controlling themselves they can have even greater freedom.
Youth is a time of learning. Are we using that time well?
Today, youth identity has never been stronger. There is little new, popular music that isn’t youth music. Youth movies and TV shows offer a vision of youth that is very different from what today’s adult experienced as a child. Television even has special youth networks conceived of by adults, and some—MuchMusic and others—with a spirit that’s unmistakably of and by youth.
Today, it takes an extraordinary effort for adults to share the youth experience
with their kids. And, today, even an ordinary effort is harder to make. More often than in the past, both parents work, and they work longer hours. More often, parents are not together. They have less time and energy. The fight is exhausting. Disconnected from their children’s reality, adults come to feel disconnected emotionally from their children as well. Instead of even sharing the same space, kids and parents watch their own TVs in separate rooms, or they all escape to their own computers. The peer pressure of friends, and indirecdy of youth in television shows and movies, are ever-stronger forces shaping a child’s life.
Yet youth are not as independent as they seem, especially financially. They take longer to graduate from college or university (and even from high school) as they work more hours at part-time jobs, take fewer credits at a time, go on year-long
breaks from school, and maybe do multiple degrees. When they’re finally finished with school, they come back home again (if they ever left) so they can afford to pay off student loans and save money to support the lifestyle they want. Living in different worlds, kids and adults often still live under the same roof.
Youth feel ready for lives of their own. They don’t believe in the old hierarchies of power that ran the world before their time. Because someone is older, richer, male, white or better educated doesn’t mean they should have special privileges. To today’s youth, kids are human beings just as adults are, and that’s all that matters. If youth can do the job better, they should get the chance. But, as in the family business, the younger generation may be ready long before adults are willing to give up control. One thing has changed, however. New technologies are allowing many small companies to start up, and since youth often understand new technologies better than adults, they don’t necessarily have to wait their turn climbing the corporate ladder. They can start their own businesses or be hired at a senior level straight from school.
What might youth identity be in the future? We understand better today the immense capacities of youth, which until now have mosdy been untapped. We also know that many of the great breakthrough discoveries and creations through history were made by those under 30; Galileo, Mozart, Marconi, Einstein and Picasso all did much of their most important work while still young. We know, too, that in creating the luxury of a special stage in life for youth, we have confined youth to development rather than action. From a desire to be enlightened and generous, it seems we have extended that incubation period into adulthood, and well into the years of greatest human capacity.
Now, as always, the most rewarded youth—rewarded, that is, by adults—are the prodigies, the kids who can do adult things at a freakishly youthful age. Not as well as adults, not to the point of extending the boundaries of human capacity, but as the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson said, “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” But this is a sideshow achievement.
Not only do we adults confine youth to development rather than action, but we also try to limit their development to a certain sort. Idle hands may have long done the devil’s work, but now the devil is seen everywhere. Drugs, alcohol, physical and emotional abuse are lurking, ready to creep through the cracks of free time. So our adult instinct is to fill time for our kids. To organize it, maximize it. Afraid of youthful meanderings—whether physical, emotional or psychological—afraid of chance, afraid of accident, afraid of time, we focus, we direct. We distrust the indirect and the informal. We distrust play. Yet play, doing things without fear of the consequences, is the essence of learning. It is the essence of youth. We as adults have created an extended time for youth, but to safeguard youth from youth’s uncertainties, we have made that time very unyouth-like.
Today, the greatest youth achievements
come from the mavericks who, impatient with the pace of youth development, jump off the train to create their own time and follow their own passions and obsessions. Bill Gates may be the most obvious example, but there are many others in music, dance, art, sports, new technologies— wherever age cannot act as gatekeeper. As a society, as we become more comfortable with formal learning over our entire lives, perhaps it will become more acceptable for youth to interrupt their education for years at a time so that they can work and take action in the world. Perhaps new technology, and the instinct for money and independence, will drive that to happen.
We live in a world where adults still want to treat youth as mini-adults, reward them for adult-like achievement, and criticize them for non-adult-like behaviour. We live in a world where the big problems—poverty, racism, violence, inequality—have evaded adult solutions. How can we do better? Do we need other approaches, other sensibilities? As Albert Einstein once wrote: “You cannot solve the problems of the present with the solutions that produced them.” Does today’s adult represent the ultimate stage of human development, human achievement, human possibility? If not, why do we want to raise our kids as mini-adults? Why not let them use the time of youth differently? Why not encourage youth to be youth? To learn and grow in different ways to become different adults. To redefine youth. To redefine adulthood. To invent a different world. To create a youth identity that emerges out of true youth possibility. ED
Hockey Hall ofFamer Ken Dryden is president of the Toronto Maple Leaf. The six-time Stanley Cup champion goalie holds a history degree from Cornell University and a law degreefrom McGill. He is the author of four best-selling books, including The Game (1983) and In School (1995).
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