Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why Do We Distrust Teenagers?

Earlier this week, when I was trying to get our midday family meal ready (yes - one of the luxuries of homeschooling and a Dad with odd work hours), I was listening to NPR and heard this story:

With Pressure To Succeed, High School Suicides Rise

It was about teen suicide and the rising level depression and anxiety among teenagers.  I was mesmerized by what was considered as the possible solutions.  The causes, of course, were lack of parental connection, hyper competition and expectations and such, all of which were discussed in a way that I imagine means simply tweaking the status quo.  If parents offer their students a snack before asking about the math test, for example, it will stave off depression.  One caller suggested throwing out homework, but it was dismissed along the lines of tweaking it to make it more meaningful.  Apparently, the experts never read the  The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn.

One valuable thing mentioned was making real free time more available to teens so their entire lives are not school, activities and homework, but don't forget the culture of our society is wary of teens with too much time on their hands.  Often news stories imply that when teens are left to their own devices, they will resort to drugs, sex, and even crime.  Isn't it why we push for afterschool activities to be available.    Perhaps some of the anxiety teens experience is that they feel this profound distrust in the way we go out of our way to structure and regulate their lives.

Why is it off the table to propose completely revamping the teenage years?  Being told exactly what to do 6-7 hours a day is demeaning.  Studies show adults have more job satisfaction with higher degrees of control.  Teenagers are biologically adults even though our educational and economic systems necessitate that we tell them they aren't mature enough for real responsibility.  How bad would it be for them to be homeschooled where they would take on a challenging real life project or work part-time and read the great books?  How bad would it be if we let them explore the world more freely to find their own path?  It would certainly be better than all the students who rush through college lost about what to study and what career to pursue.

I think that the anxiety stems from the feeling that they have little control over their lives while having to work harder than adults often times.  At least adults have some, albeit sometimes minimal, choice about what job to have.  School plus activities plus homework is often more hours than their parents work and they have no choice in the school hours or the homework.  Working hard enough to become independent is not an option for them in our system, at least not at their ages.  They are probably also anxious when they see their twenty something counterparts struggling to become independent.  And why is independence so important?  Families used to live multigenerationally where it was expected that adults take on a fair amount of responsibilities often in their teens, but not necessarily that they achieve independence.  Independence, nowadays, is resource intensive.  Housing costs are high, planning is around cars, and internet access is almost mandatory.  This doesn't even cover the peer pressure to have more than the basics.  By the way, isn't school the best place to learn what happens when you don't fit in?  Your life is often miserable.

I have already mentioned work volume, but what about bonds in other aspects of life?  They can fall in love, but can't get married (or move in - after all it is OK for their parents to engage in cohabitation).  Their parents can have a beer after a stressful day, but it would be illegal for a teen.  Parents can vote when something in the society upsets them, such as it is given the money in politics, but teens can only write their representatives with no real leverage.  Parents can transport themselves where they want to go, teens must ask for a ride.  Parents can have friends over in the middle of the night if they want, teens can't. The laws support these restrictions too with curfews and limits on the number of teens in a car with a teen driver.

This is the quagmire - we have affirmed that teens are biological adults because their work volume is so high, but they get none of the choices in their lives as if they are children.  They have adult responsibilities, but few of the privileges.   Why is no one talking about the stress related to this which we have amplified with the hyper-competitive high stakes going on in school today?

What is scary is that we are too far down the road on controlling teens.  I can't imagine the media beginning to advocate for more free time for teens let alone real freedom.  We also don't offer them much at the end of all this extra homework and high stakes testing.  You would think after working that hard, we would have a living wage job available afterwards so that they don't need to put off the rest of their lives.  We don't anymore.  College is almost mandatory.  It comes with crippling student loans and no guarantee of a living wage.  In fact 40% of unemployed are millennials.  Many more are in low wage jobs even with college degrees.  They feel that they must put off starting families as a result.  Is it any wonder why teens are anxious or depressed? 

This is the just the general problem, of course.  Teens can have specific problems too.  What about health problems? Broken homes?  Specific problems fitting in? Bad breakups?  Poverty (21% of school children are in poverty)?  I can see where more teens are anxious and depressed.

Getting back to my original point, is distrust of teens a sort of sacred cow in American society?  I can't prove it but I think it may have replaced or be code for some of the distrust we continue to have regarding minorities.  Why is it so out of the main stream to consider managing the teen years differently?  Why do I only hear it discussed in homeschool circles if at all?  How many teens will need to kill themselves or report anxiety/depression to be able to have a conversation?

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