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The Federalist Diaries
I Don’t Want to Grow Up, Part 1
solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large
-Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist, 1901-1978
“I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys' R Us kid, there's a million toys at Toys 'R Us that I can play with! …” This was a commercial jingle in the Eighties, before the growing years of today’s high schoolers. The jingle was popular enough that it was reintroduced in 2001, so we have had back-to-back generations not wanting to grow up.
Really? Yes, really. The fantasy of never-ending childhood is part of American culture, so the fantasy translates into excellent advertising. “I want to be a kid”, said this bright eleventh grader, a debate student whom I had driven to Cal State Chico, that is, to the ends of the Earth, for the California competition of SAGE, www.csuchico.edu/sage. I had been so impressed with the high schoolers in competition that I had expressed the wish that adults treat the high schoolers as adults. She protested.
“Kids” is not part of my vocabulary when I talk about high schoolers. It is not as if some shining light appeared to me one night, as happened to John Travolta in “Phenomenon”. Changing vocabulary has not been easy; I will slip now and then, but I have become accustomed to saying “youth”, “young people”, “high schoolers”, and “students”. When another adult uses “kids”, I take notice—which means that I take notice often, as “kids” pervades and suffuses our culture.
I was delighted last week when two high schoolers and I met a representative of Kiwanis, the service organization which sponsors Key Clubs at high schools. I told him of my avoidance of “kids” and he agreed. Wow. So maybe, while having no rhythm, I am not completely out of step.
Why the obsession? What is the big deal? Is there not enough to worry about without having Angst over a common word, one which is often inoffensive, used as a term of endearment or sympathy?
Frankly, it is a big deal. “Kids” has a connotation when applied to youth, namely, that they are immature and irresponsible when compared with adults. Those supposed attributes of immaturity and irresponsibility shape how we adults treat youth: we lower our expectations and we impose stultifying rules. We make it difficult, if not impossible, for youth to grow up. Then, when we tell them that they are grown up, we are frustrated by their driving, workplace habits, and failure to vote. Also, we fail to realize that they could become leaders and organizers in addressing major challenges like global warming. Our treatment of youth as “kids” makes it hard for youth to help solve the problems which we have created and which affect them and us.
Our American fantasy of never-ending childhood does not end at age eighteen. How many of us refer to college students as “college kids”? When, then, is the magical moment when a “kid” grows up? And would the “kid” be ready for adulthood when we told him or her to be ready? Would that moment not be too sudden, too shocking, like being pushed into frigid water?
Granted that the real world is oftentimes an unhappy place, and treating young people as “kids” is a way to shield them from the unhappiness. But one could argue that we adults created that unhappiness and, then, created the shield against the unhappiness. Might we adults be perpetuating the unhappiness—be it global warming, crime and punishment, war, hyper consumerism, extreme poverty, job insecurity—by keeping young people from taking on roles to fight the causes of that unhappiness, roles for which they are ready, willing, and able, but unnoticed and uncalled by adults?
If we gave weight and credence to the optimism and idealism of youth, inviting them into adult roles commensurate with their skills and treating them as adults when they assumed such roles; would it not be reasonable for us to expect that they would make an effort, unblemished by our adult cynicism and selfishness, to alleviate the unhappiness, however small, however local? What would we have to lose if we let them try?
Should we not give high schoolers a chance, starting with a change in our adult vocabulary and outlook? And would high schoolers start helping us and themselves if their vocabulary and outlook changed because of our change?
December 7, 2007
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