Teenagers are Starved

… for attention, structure, and loving authority figures. It’s not always reflected through school shootings, stabbings on behalf of Slenderman, or torturing animals in YouTube videos, either. Those are just the most sensational stories. No, more often than not, it’s young girls sending nude photos to boys, so they’ll keep talking to them. It’s 5th grade boys vaping so the older kids will think they’re cool. It’s widespread porn addiction, because they don’t understand how their bodies work or what these feelings mean and they have all the stimulation they could possibly desire in their pockets. It’s indiscriminate sexual experimentation, before they’re old enough to handle the physical and emotional complications. It’s the expectation that the latter will look like the former, because no one is talking to them.

While many have spent the past week, arguing about gun control with strangers online, as opposed to… I don’t know, looking at cat videos and posting photos of their coffee, like they do the rest of the time, their children are still floundering. The country is positively baffled as to why kids act the way they do and not one of them realize that we’re so busy arguing with each other, that none of us are actually guiding teenagers. Adolescence is one of the most confusing times in a person’s life and it always has been. The hot debates of gun control, bullying, and sexual education aren’t new. Mean Girls and body shaming aren’t new. Teenage boys using teenage girls and telling the whole school isn’t new. What is new, is the constant distraction in the lives of everyone who is supposed to care for these kids.

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Today, if parents aren’t too busy swiping left and right on dating apps, rediscovering themselves after the divorce, then they’re on Facebook, debating car seat safety and vaccines with someone from high school that they don’t even know or like. They’re thumbing through Pinterest recipes in the drive through line, instead of talking to their children about their day while sliding a frozen lasagna in the oven. It’s not entirely their fault, either. We live in a society that shares everything from day altering information, such as school closures, to life altering information, such as engagements and the deaths of loved ones, via social networking. If you delete Facebook and Pinterest, you’re considered antisocial or an isolationist, and I should know, here in my fourth month without either.

Dad: “You know your uncle’s mom died, though.”
Me: “Nope… not on Facebook”
Dad: “Oh, that’s right! Well, your uncle’s mom died.”

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It’s not just parents who’ve detached, either. Teachers, once a source of love and affection, are now so petrified of ending up on the news, that they won’t even hug their students… and that’s if they even have the time to connect with them emotionally, after the ludicrously detailed lesson planning, IEP meetings, and professional development days. The same is true of youth ministers and counselors and even librarians. Keep the door open and keep your hands to yourself or risk destroying your life.

As a result of our collective detachment from our youth, teens test boundaries, just as they always have, but… they find none. They use their phones in class and their teachers don’t dare confiscate them, for fear of parental wrath. Whereas once it was enough to be able to call the school and leave an important message for one’s child, we must now have instant access to everyone in our lives, just in case we realize they’ve deleted our DVR’d episodes of The Bachelor and we want to share our unhappiness. The reverse is true as well. Even 10 years ago, a child who forgot his homework would have to beg his teacher for an extension and ultimately learn to be more responsible; now he can text mom and beg her to drop it off on her only break. If she doesn’t, then lord have mercy on the teacher who dares to grade him down for it, teaching him only that there are no limits, no consequences.

It’s cyclical, even. We’re all so very exhausted, because we refuse to acknowledge the emotional energy expended in keeping up with 153 friends, and 12 different news feeds, that we relish the moments the young ones in our lives are distracted by technology, plugging them in the second they can respond to an iPad, in part because it’s a societal norm. As a result, we don’t see what it’s doing to them until it’s too late and we feel powerless to police their usage after years of such access and the privacy that came with the adults not caring what was on the screen, if it would only keep them quiet. As a result, such personal technology has become ubiquitous in middle school and beyond, so the parent who does refuse to gift their child with a smartphone, hobbles them academically, when every other student in class has internet access and therefore, the lesson plans begin to require it. No exaggeration, I never used my undergrad to teach in an official capacity, but I substitute taught in over 100 different classrooms in six years and increasingly saw kids without devices at a clear disadvantage.

This past Christmas, my five-year-old nephew spent all of dinner longing for Minecraft on his iPad, completely disinterested in the prospect of family time or even presents, because of technology and that’s the norm, with kids and their parents. We are wasting our lives staring at screens and teaching children to do the same. We spend hours a week keeping up with people we neither know nor care about, arguing with people whose opinions will never change, occasionally even finding ourselves in affairs with our marriages in shambles, as a result of an effort to feel another superficial connection, because we have no real connections in our lives and while we’re undoubtedly suffering as well, our kids are most definitely suffering. I say ours, because they are ours. Every society is judged on how it’s weakest and most impressionable members are treated and while we argue with each other online about the ways we’ve failed them, we are continuing to fail them.

I’m not asking anyone for perfection or even claiming to know what that looks like. I’m not insisting you can’t have a healthy relationship with technology, simply that many do not and the teachers, youth ministers, librarians, or other supportive authority figures aren’t capable of truly picking up the slack. Restore the balance, put down your phone/tablet/laptop, and ask the kids in your life about their day, because the general struggles of youth aren’t new, but being completely ignored by the adults in their lives who are supposed to care is… and perhaps if our children can go home from a hostile environment to a warm and involved one, once again, they’ll learn to cope with their emotions in non-hostile ways. As an advocate for teens and a former neglected teen, I am telling you, no matter how flawed we might all be, the most important thing we can possibly do for these kids is be present and force them to be present.

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Cheering for the Underdog: the Frustrations of a Teen Librarian

I’m a married, thirty-year-old woman, with a degree in education, who has every intention of having her own children… and I don’t like kids.

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That statement is usually met with confusion or melodramatic horror. How could you not like kids?!?! Well… like this.

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I substitute taught for six years and I work in a public library. Children are trying, yo. At best, any cuteness they possess is canceled out by the fact that they talk incessantly about things that do not interest me in the least and they don’t understand my sense of humor. I simply can’t relate to them. At worst, they’re loud, demanding, rude, have no respect for personal space, and everything they say is spoken through a whine. I’m not allowed to correct them, even when they’re disrupting the entire library, because it’s assumed that everyone thinks the above is adorable… mostly by the helicopter mom with her $200 blonde bob and insistence that the only reason her angel is screaming like Veruca Salt, while tearing books off my shelf, is because she has “extremely high functioning Asperger’s.”

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That’s not a legitimate diagnosis in the DSM-5 and hasn’t been since 2013. You Googled that. Poorly.

In fact, in defense of children as a whole, I understand that they’re still learning: to cope with their emotions, to use their manners, to moderate their voices. I get that it’s completely normal and healthy for a child to have a tantrum at the grocery store, because they can’t always have their way; at church, because sitting still is hard; at Christmas, because they’re just overwhelmed. I don’t hold that against children and it I’m still confident I want my own. I just don’t want to be around other people’s children; and I do hold it against some parents that they have a complete and utter disregard for the fact that there are absolutely settings in which it is entirely acceptable to assume they will require their children to behave or remove them, such as at a nice movie theater or restaurant, the ballet, church, the library. I’d estimate that a good third of my frustration with children can actually be blamed, not on the fact that they’re present, but on the fact that no one corrects them. Regardless of my reasoning, if I tell you that I don’t like children, I’m a monster. You know who everyone’s allowed to vocally berate at top volume, though? Teens.

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That’s right. I’m expected to understand that children are precious little gifts from God, no matter how much they annoy me. I’m supposed to get over it if your child starts screaming at the ballet, because babies exist and for some reason they have to do it near me during The Nutcracker; something I guarantee I will understand even less when I’ve gone through the trouble to get a sitter of my own, so I can enjoy some child free entertainment. In the South, I’m a biological disgrace to my gender, because I haven’t had “baby fever” for the last ten years… but the rest of American society gets to hate on teenagers, like they’re white millennials wearing leggings as pants and drinking pumpkin spice lattes, while they read Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s cool to hate teenagers… and that is complete and utter trash.

My dream job has always been teen librarian. My title has not. I began my first full time supervisory librarian position specializing in adults and so, when I stepped down from management, it was an adult position that was available for me at the Jackson branch. Sadly, it seemed my ship had sailed on teen librarianship… that was until our grassroots restructuring, last spring, when a specialization was demanded from everyone, and I threw my own managers for a loop by taking a chance and adamantly declaring that teens, not adults, were my jam.

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Since then, I’ve been the teen librarian for all five of our satellite libraries, primarily stationed at the central hub of the Cherokee branch; and I’m admittedly under-qualified for the dream job, into which I was mapped and transferred. I have wonderful mentors, but I can’t deny that, if I had actually applied for such a position, I wouldn’t have even been interviewed, with only my substitute teaching and bachelor’s degree as related experience. What I can affirm, however, is that my passion for teens would probably have ranked higher than that of most applicants. Whereas everyone else thinks the Ramona Quimby’s and Scout Finches are just precious, I love teenagers; from Carrie White, to Hermione Granger, to Ponyboy Curtis, to Cher Horowitz, to Regina George, I love them all… and just like the Little Orphan Annie’s and Matilda’s they need a champion, because when you’re a teenager, most of the adults in your life are jerks.

When they come to me, my library kids have just started middle school. They’re excited for the pending teenage years, when they suddenly realize, the understanding that was demanded on their behalf just three years ago, has completely vanished… but only for them, not for their younger siblings or the other kids in the library, the Eric Cartmans screaming in the children’s area. When they were four and terrified of the dark, everyone understood that this was the first time they really felt fear and coddled them for it. Yet, for some reason, now that they’re 11 and feeling every adult emotion for the first time, no one cares. To them, there’s seemingly no catalyst. They went from cute and clever and generally adored to gawky and mouthy and generally despised and I am telling you, they feel every bit of this dislike and they understand exactly none of it… and it’s the lucky ones who have only this struggle.

The problem runs deeper in the South, as many problems do. In a region where it’s assumed you’ll marry and have children by 22, most adults don’t really get a time to be young and selfish. Your twenties are the time when your primary focus should be yourself, figuring out what you want from life and how to make it happen. Your twenties are the best time to find a career path, decide what kind of friends you want, what kind of person you want to be with, if you want marriage, and if you want children. People don’t often live deliberately, around these parts, though. They follow the path laid out for them, by parents who never considered another path for themselves.

While this works out for many and happens to be exactly what they want, many others find themselves in their mid-thirties, trying to recapture this time in their lives, backtracking while they feel they still can. They look at their spouse and children, a decision they made at 22, that was really no decision at all, simply a default, and wonder what might have been. They finally admit that they’ve been unhappy for the last 10 years, but they’ve stayed for the children, so they wouldn’t miss those precious, adorable, early years and they just can’t anymore. The kids are older now and don’t need them as much, they rationalize, because feisty has turned into bitchy, and they aren’t as devastated by the idea of missing this phase. It’s time to think of themselves again… except it isn’t. Their teens’ brains are still just as different from adult brains as they were when they were five years old. They’re not done, even if they aren’t as fun to be around and they still need their parents. That’s when they come to me… when everyone else, often including mom and dad, hates them… and I’m left cheering for the underdog, while people stare in confusion.

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Last week, a man who lives catty corner to the library, started yelling at my teens for existing near his back yard. They weren’t even on his property and he started yelling obscene and racist things at them, so they would leave. Because teens are impulsive and reckless, one of them started throwing rocks and the man called the police. Naturally, they believed the 30-year-old’s story and arrested the 18-year-old rock thrower, as they should have done, because you don’t get to throw rocks at people. I spent 30 minutes on the back patio talking to one of the other kids, 16 years old, angry, and confused. I convinced him not to pick a fight with the guy, to avoid his lawn, and stay out of trouble. The man came to the library later that night and yelled at my manager for allowing “white trash thugs” to exist… “thugs”, I might add, who were do nothing inappropriate until he started screaming at them.

It was just the next day that the same kid I talked down came into the library in tears, because this 30-year-old man got a group of friends together and jumped him. For all his threats and bluster, from the previous day, he was just a hurt child, wanting an adult to care about him and I’ll tell you, I did. In the middle of a program, I invited him and his friends to sit down and eat pizza. I assured them that they would always be safe inside the library, that we wouldn’t let anyone hurt them and I apologized on behalf of all of the adults who look at his hoodie and baggy jeans and write him off, for the collective teenage hate that leads to this sort of violence.

I admit that teens can be mouthy and impulsive and disrespectful. They’re often confused and angry, because being a teenager sucks. They don’t know how to cope with the Mean Girls, the adults who make no secret of the fact they don’t like them, their parents who are suddenly too self-absorbed to care what’s happening in their lives, all their new and strange feelings that they’re told to simply not have, and they lash out. Sometimes it’s downright unpleasant for even me to be around them, but the only way to get them through that phase, is to provide them with loving mentors who care about them, like they had for the first half of their lives.

I get that sometimes whatever takes a parent away from their teenagers is unavoidable, be it divorce or remarriage or a new job, but when a twelve-year-old girl sits across from me and tells me her dad is moving to Puerto Rico for fun, I want to dick punch him for fun, because he is not done raising his daughter and he won’t be for six years! No matter how loudly I cheer for the underdog, I can only make so much difference and more than once I have gone home in tears, because of that fact. Even some of my coworkers villainize my teens, insisting they should know better, but why?!?! If you don’t take the time to teach a teenage girl how much physical affection is appropriate to show her boyfriend in public, she’s not going to know, especially not in the abstinence education capitol of the world! If you don’t teach a teenage boy how to control his emotions, he’s not going to know how to deal with the pain of his first breakup! If you don’t teach a 13-year-old what to share and not to share on social media, she’s far more likely to jeopardize her future! If no one is there for them, they’re not going to thrive, because they’re still kids.

Ultimately, if I have to put up with your screaming baby banshee throwing a tantrum in the children’s section, “because they’re just kids,” you can put up with the laughing teens in the young adult section, because “they’re just kids” and I will never stop cheering for the underdog.

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