The criticisms were inevitable. They rain down every time a teen speaks up. Jonah Goldberg, writing for USA Today, argued that the high school gun control advocates leading the March for Our Lives movement should “be brimming with gratitude for the world they are inheriting.” Bill O’Reilly took to Twitter to ponder whether the media should “be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases.” Rick Santorum wondered if may Emma Gonzalez should just take a CPR class. In voicing their disbelief that teenagers might have something to say worth hearing, these commentators join a rich American tradition of viewing teen politics skeptically. This has been going on since James Monroe took up arms against the British.
A little bit of skepticism does make sense. Teens haven’t been through life. Many of them haven’t yet worked their first job. They haven’t become independent, financially or emotionally. This lack of standing can make it challenging for an adult with more information at hand and more experience under their belt to listen to an opinionated teenager. But inexperience and naïveté don’t make teenagers wrong. Inexperience and naïveté make teenagers annoying. It’s an important distinction, especially when teens are becoming active in a political movement. Adults need to understand — and be reminded — that listening to teens requires effort and that such efforts are often rewarded in profound ways.
Before getting to why it’s important to listen to teens, let’s dive into the detail of why it’s so hard. The frontal cortex of teen brains, which is ostensibly there to control reasoning and foresight, is conspicuously undeveloped before the early twenties. Teenage brains are building connections and growing generally, but these organs are specifically poor at understanding and grappling with cause and effect relationships. The result? Erratic behavior. Teens seem like adults then they seem like mewling toddlers. They are impulsive. They are thoughtless. Their plans suck.
None of this is the teens’ fault. It’s biology. It’s part of growing up. For adults, however, it’s frustrating and hilarious to watch. And it invariably makes it hard to have serious two-way conversations. It’s difficult, after all, to take someone seriously on social politics when they were just in tears over what Bobby said to Justine about Timmy’s basketball tryout.
That said, teenagers also absorb information very well and are open to new ideas in ways that, yes, can be problematic, but can also allow them to envision real change in a way that their parents cannot (or, to be a bit more fair about it, likely do not). More importantly, they excel at doing something about the injustices that they perceive. And that bit is not a biological phenomenon, it’s a historical one.
Teenagers led voter registration drives in the pre-Civil Rights south, sat at lunch counters, and led the Freedom Rides. They protested Vietnam en masse. Many teenagers joined the Black Panther Party. Others occupied Wall Street. And whatever you think of these actions, they were effective. History is not universally kind to youth movements — Hitler Youth and the Quebec Liberation Front, for example — but it is unusual. The teenagers who sat in Wenceslas Square in the middle of Prague, days before the fall of the Soviet Union, are now lauded for their bravery. The teenagers who died in the Deep South at the hands of the KKK are martyred heroes.
These teens were dismissed in their respective times by the adults in their respective communities, but they were ultimately heard in profound ways. And this is an important thing to recognize about teens and teen movements. They may be difficult to hear at the time, but they often create message that echo for decades to come. The teens, after all, become adults.
It’s easy to look at the teenagers who led anti-Vietnam protests and consider them with pride, but it’s hard for us to extend that same generosity to teenagers today. There’s a simple reason for this. The teens in front of us don’t seem like righteous revolutionaries; they seem like idiots. But here’s the thing: those kids who picketed, protested, and fought against Vietnam were incredible and deserve to be honored, but they were also kids prone to doing dumb things. Many Vietnam protesters went too far. Activists in the Weather Underground accidentally set off an explosive in their Greenwich Village apartment, killing three. Did they do that because they were teenagers? Not exactly, but kind of. And that’s just a true for the people that did noble work.
When we lionize teens from the past, we tend to strip them of their teen-dom. This makes it hard to believe that the teens of the present might be exceptional. But, yes, they might — even if they do dumb things from time to time.
And here’s the thing: They need our help. They will not ask for it, but they do need it. And the best way to provide that help is by listening generously, shepherding conversations rather than shutting down lines of argumentation. It’s exhausting. It’s hard. It’s time consuming. And listening is a lot to ask of an adult with a mortgage who doesn’t want to hear about how monolithic systems will be easily replaced using the wonders of WhatsApp. But history is about change. And teens tend to see it coming early.
In an era where the youngest generation is consistently referred to as lazy, ungrateful, too sensitive, soft, and irresponsible, it’s easy to dismiss or mock teenage leaders as new nothing more than memes and to, in doing so, resist the changes that they might bring. Millennials have been blamed for the sissification of society, for driving up the costs of avocados, for ruining the economy and “killing” Applebee’s. Similar accusations will now be leveled at Generation Z. But wouldn’t it be better if, instead of being taken by surprise, adults listened to kids talking about the changes to come? Wouldn’t it be better for their businesses and their sanity?
After all, every single adult was a teenager at one point. We can all sympathize. Remembering how lost and confused we were, and how opinionated we were at the same time, may help us recognize ourselves in the teenagers of today and give them an open ear. They may not want our help, but providing it anyway could make a world of difference.