Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Thursday, 30 May 2002

I'm going to talk about this article on the problems that result from infantalizing teenagers, and this blog entry by Thomas Seay that's a response to it. And I'm going to agree with almost all of it, except that I want to take Thomas's last point and go further with it.

Society no longer permits any sort of gradual transition between being a child and an adult. That's been becoming true for a long time, and just keeps getting worse.

For example, my mom gave me my first alcoholic drink when I was about 14. (It was medicinal--I'd just had a particularly brutal visit with the oral hygienist and my mouth hurt.) After that my parents continued to let me drink alcohol when they thought it was appropriate--basically, when wine was on the table at a celebratory dinner. So, when I turned 18 and could buy my own alcohol, I didn't feel any great urge to do anything stupid--I'd already been drinking (under controlled, supervised circumstances) for four years.

Michigan raised the drinking age to 21 when I was 19, but that didn't have much effect on me.

At the time, in the mid-70s, my parents felt safe introducing me to alcohol in this way. Parents today can't feel so safe. It would be considered child abuse, and the children might well be taken away and put into foster care.

I submit that what my parents did is a much better way to deal with teaching young people how to drink alcohol responsibly than what the law requires now. I've believed that for a long time. What the article and Thomas's comments reminded me of is that it's the same for everything.

It's true of work for example. Child labor laws restrict people from doing any sort of meaningful work at just the age when they could be discovering that what they've learned in school is useful; that it feels good to produce something that's valuable and to contribute to the household.

Where I want to go further is where Thomas says:

The only answer is to reshape teen activities so as to more resemble adult activities, which means making life in the classroom more specifically applicable to the adult world.

That's an improvement, but it's second best. The solution is not to try to do a better job of simulating the adult world in school. The solution is to gradually, in a controlled and supervised way, introduce teenagers in the the real adult world.

Granted, it's better than we usually do now. I asked Barbara (Jackie's mom) when it was that she first started writing for publication. She said it was when she was in junior high, for the junior high school paper. By the time she was in college, that work and some work on the high school paper led to a small column in a real newspaper that she actually got paid for. It wasn't much money, but it provided experience and contacts that led to her first real job. So, she followed just about the model that Thomas proposes: simulated adult work in school, limited adult work in college, and real adult work only after graduating.

I think the reasons we make teenagers wait so long before they can do real work are mostly bogus. Workplaces can be dangerous, and the asymmetrical nature of power distribution in workplaces pose a danger of children being abused or exploited. Still, there are many workplaces that are as safe as a school, and a teenager who lives at home is in a much better position to escape an exploitative situation than a 21-year-old trying to support his or her new family.

There are plenty of activities that require little skill to do, but more than no skill at all. All such activities are learning opportunities, and all the more so if they're really worth doing and not just busy work. I remember getting my first checking account when I was about 16, and learning how to balance a checkbook. Balancing my checkbook was dull (I typically had about four deposits and one or two checks), so I got my mom to let me balance the family checkbook. There was even a brief period where I paid the bills (except for signing the checks). It would have been better if I'd done that when I was a few years younger and bored and annoyed with tedious math classes, but it was still better than the stupid personal finance unit I had in high school.

There is so much real work to be done--valuable work that can contribute to the economy and to households--that goes undone for one reason or another, that it is silly to try to manufacture simulated work in the classroom. Much of that work is about as interesting as balancing a checkbook. That is to say: Not interesting at all, except to someone who hasn't done it before. There is a lot of work that is worth doing, but only if it can be done very, very cheaply. Some of those tasks (those that are safe, especially those that teach a useful skill) should be made available to children at a much younger age than we start letting children work now.

My brother sent me a great quote today. Patrick Hefler, a recent graduate, was quoted in the LA Times saying:

"It just seemed retarded to work and not get paid when I was in school, but now I'd kill for two years' experience."

I didn't figure that out myself, really, until I was even older than a recent grad. I was just lucky that the thing I most wanted to do when I was in school was play with computers. If I'd been a bit smarter or had a bit better mentoring, I might have produced a thing or two worth showing off (today it'd be writing open software), but even without that, I did okay.

My advice for society is to bring teenagers gradually into the adult world; not by trying to fake-up a "play" grownup world in school, but by actually bringing teenagers into the adult world.

My advice for teenagers is to sneak into the adult world; not by adopting adult vices early, but by doing useful work early. Do the work that you won't have the time or energy to do when you're working for a living. Do the work that might be the truly important work that you'd devote your life to, if only you could make a living doing it. Do work that will impress the sort of people who might give you your first job.

Today is our anniversary. We've been married ten years. Our moms took us out to Timpones' for dinner, the same restaurant where we had the rehearsal dinner before our wedding.


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