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Teen Power

David Cowles

Oct 31, 2023

"We need to give teenagers a path to citizenship!"

The institution of childhood, at least in the North Atlantic Community today, is totally dysfunctional. If that surprises you, you haven’t been watching the news, but it’s no wonder! Can you imagine being a child? Perhaps you were a child once; who knows?

Say you’re four years old. You’re in a miniature body; you can do very little on your own, and what you can do is usually not allowed. You’re beginning to develop a sense that there is a world beyond “where the sidewalk ends”, but you still don’t have the faintest idea what’s really going on outside your nuclear family. One of my grandchildren said it best: “I hate the age of four.” 

But you do know a few things:

  1. Your wellbeing, and indeed, your very life, is utterly dependent on ‘the kindness of strangers’ – well, not exactly strangers, ‘caretakers’. 

  2. You contribute nothing to society except your cuteness. You desperately want to contribute, ‘to help Mommy and Daddy’, and you do your best to convince yourself that you’re doing just that, but you know it isn’t so.

  3. Almost everything you do is dictated by others, and like Herod’s daughter, you are frequently called on to perform for the entertainment of your caretakers and their guests; you literally sing for your supper!

  4. Failure to obey your caretakers can lead to punishment—sometimes very painful punishment, but that’s secondary. Your real fear is that ‘mere punishment’ might result in some sort of lasting damage—death, for example! You know you can’t defend yourself. 

So now you’re 14! Thank God! You survived childhood. You are now a full-fledged biological adult, more or less capable of doing things for yourself and making your own way in the world. As a reward, you get to sleep in the same bed, in the same juvenile room, with a slightly later ‘bedtime’. Seriously…a 'bedtime’? What are you, four? 

You’ve worked for 10+ years trying to make a contribution. Now at 14, you could contribute in myriad ways, but that’s not allowed. Instead, you’re told that you must ‘stay in school’ and ‘prepare for adulthood’ – an adulthood you thought you’d already achieved.

It gets worse! When you were four, you were comforted by the fact that all your friends were in the same boat. But now that you’re 14, some of your friends are effectively emancipated; they do whatever the heck they want. You, on the other hand, get an hour of screen time a day and must be in bed by 9. And your ‘grown-up’ classmates are not at all shy about teasing ‘the little boys’ in their classroom. I hate the age of 14.

But perhaps you buy into the mythology of adolescence: you will one day graduate from Yale and go on to spend the rest of your life practicing corporate law, hoping to become one of nine attorneys picked to serve on the Supreme Court. Good luck! Or perhaps you don’t buy in; in that case, you become part of ‘youth culture’, a 10-yearlong celebration of nihilism that often results in death, disability, incarceration, or addiction. Not necessarily the best possible options!

When you were four, you were often expected to act as though you were 14; now you’re 14, but you are often treated as though you were four. Imagine yourself in such a predicament! What would you do? Drink, do drugs, get a gun, drive recklessly, steal stuff, vandalize property, hack computers, get into fights, harm yourself—the possibilities are endless, and, for the most part, they all pretty much end the same way: in tragedy.

In my adopted hometown, a whole generation of teens was effectively wiped out during the infamous ‘70s’. So what’s changed? Adolescence remains ‘a killing field’. The mistreatment of children and the stifling of their potential is nothing short of a crime against humanity. But, you think, it’s this way in all cultures; it’s always been this way. How else could it be?

In fact, the infantilization of adolescence is a very recent and culturally specific phenomenon. Anthropologically speaking, most 14-year-olds have always been considered ‘adults’. I am unaware of any other society, past or present, that treats its 14-year-olds as if they were four.

Oops! I misspoke. I do know a few other societies (e.g., the Piraha) that treat their 14-year-olds as if they were four…but that’s because they treat their four-year-olds as adults

Most 14-year-olds could reproduce, work a farm, learn a trade, fight a war, become a scholar, etc. Failing that, they can get a foothold in the neighborhood drug trade and begin to climb the leadership ladder as a member of the local gang

And why not? Jesus held the elders of the Temple in thrall at the age of 12. Sigismondo Malatesta entered the army at the then-customary age of 13…and became its commander at 15. And don’t forget Joan of Arc’s military triumphs (at age 17) or those of the Khmer Rouge (soldiers’ ages…14-19).   

Hypothesis: You can’t flip a switch on someone’s 21st birthday and expect that person to start functioning as a law-abiding, self-supporting, adult member of society. 

Evidence: The first 15 minutes of any nightly newscast on any TV network.

Conclusion: Restructure the growing-up process. Empower kids to take on real-life responsibilities at a pace that respects each person’s unique personality, skills, learning styles, interests, etc. We need to give teenagers a path to citizenship!


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