My parents became a lot smarter after I turned 22.
Throughout my teenage years and early adulthood they just never seemed to get it. The world, I mean. At least compared to me. Of course, I knew everything when I was 17, so by comparison my mom and dad were bound to seem a little slow-witted.
But it’s amazing what a university education and a little life experience can teach you about what you don’t know. Suddenly, the parental advice I had so consistently rolled my eyes at a few years earlier started to make a lot of sense.
Now, at the ripe old age of 31, I have immense respect for the wisdom of not just my mom and dad but a host of other “old people” I used to so casually dismiss in my youthful arrogance. I also appreciate how frustrating it must have been for these people to deal with me then, but I understand why they put up with it. They knew it was just a phase.
Why I am telling you this?
It’s my way of justifying my decision to publish the letter to the editor that ran last week under the headline ‘On teenagers and bylaw officers.’ My initial reaction was to not run the letter, because it was downright discriminatory against young people, in particular the section where the letter writer paraphrases Judge Judy and says: “Every time a teenager opens their mouth, they are lying.”
Improper pronoun use aside, that part of the letter offended me, both as a current adult and as a former teenager who was consistently frustrated by the prejudices I felt were routinely directed towards people my age.
As a child, even, I recognized the discrimination. People made all sorts of assumptions about me and my peers based solely on the fact that we were kids. They treated us as if we were imbeciles. I remember one particularly galling incident when an acquaintance of my parents didn’t believe I knew my own name when I introduced myself as “Robson.”
“That’s your last name, little boy. But what’s your first name?” this woman asked, her question dripping with condescension.
“Robson is my first name,” I replied impatiently, but she was having none of it. I had to drag my dad over to the conversation to convince her that, as a nine year old, I had indeed wrapped my mind around the concept of surnames and given names.
That incident and others like it prompted me to write an indignant essay I titled “Ageism” – thinking I had coined the term as an elementary school student. I later learned that the word had been introduced into the lexicon decades earlier and credit for that went to Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Neil Butler, but he used the term primarily in reference to discrimination against seniors. So I still felt like a crusader for children’s rights.
Ageism is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination, I often argued. I realize now that’s not quite true but it certainly is more acceptable than racism or sexism in this day and age. Just imagine, for a moment, if a letter to the editor in the Fitzhugh claimed “Every time black people open their mouths, they are lying” or “Every time a woman opens her mouth, she is lying.” We’d be getting sued, or at least hauled before a human rights tribunal.
So why is it OK to run a letter which generalizes so unfairly against teenagers? It isn’t, really, which is why my gut instinct was to leave it unpublished. Doing so would only contribute to existing prejudices, I figured.
But, on second thought, I realized two things.
Firstly, the prejudice is already out there and one little letter probably wouldn’t convince scores of people to generally distrust teenagers if they didn’t already. Running the letter, in fact, might actually help break down the prejudice, especially if it prompted a reasonable response. And it did just that, as Mikyla Sherlow – one of the two high school students from Jasper who was selected to meet Peter Mansbridge last week, based on an essay that she wrote – sent in a letter of her own, cogently rebutting many of the points made in the original letter. (You can read Sherlow’s letter on page 6, and you can read about her experience with Mansbridge on page 2.)
The second thing I realized – and I hate to say this but I have to be honest – is that, while the original letter was clearly discriminatory, it’s not like the letter writer was coming completely out of left field with her opinion. Teenagers can tend to be arrogant. They often do mouth off. And they can frustrate adults to no end with know-it-all attitudes.
This isn’t a generalization. It’s a statement of fact. Not all teenagers are like this and it is completely unfair to assume that any given teenager is, based solely on their age. But it’s quite common for teenagers to act in ways – as I did – that they will look back on with some degree of embarrassment when they get older.
But that’s just part of becoming an adult. It takes practice to be able to express an opinion and assert yourself. There are bound to be growing pains along the way.
What we absolutely don’t want to do is discourage young people from speaking up, challenging authority and making their voices heard. It may be frustrating at times but it’s an essential process in raising a new generation of engaged citizens, which is key to maintaining a functioning, democratic society. That’s especially important now, with such widespread apathy out there, especially among young people.
I thought Mansbridge put it well when he spoke to Sherlow and seven other area high school students in Hinton last week. “We live in an age where a lot of people don’t seem to care about the smallest things – voting – and that doesn’t lead to a good, healthy democracy,” he said. “We want citizens to be interested in what goes on around them and to ask questions and challenge assumptions.”
That instinct comes naturally to young people. We ought to foster it, not condemn them for it.
DISCLAIMER: The Last Word is an opinion column, it is meant to provoke thought and debate. As such, any opinions written here are the writer’s own and do not reflect the viewpoint of any other Fitzhugh staff member or the directors of the Jasper Media Group Inc.