They said, “All teenagers scare the living shit out of me!!” – My Chemical Romance, “Teenagers”
I primarily write YA fiction. There’s this misconception that writing for teenagers means you have to dumb your writing down. You know, pluck all the “big” words out of your prose because teenagers couldn’t possibly understand them. Make sure your themes aren’t too complicated, because those selfie-stick-toting high schoolers won’t get it. Insert as many pop culture references as you can, because young adults can’t relate to anything else.
That paragraph might have been dripping with sarcasm, but even still, it felt gross to write. Mostly because a lot of people actually hold these patronizing viewpoints and often don’t understand why they’re a problem. Sometime during adulthood, they developed the unfortunate habit of perceiving teenagers as this alien demographic with their own indecipherable language and set of behaviors.
Hey, wow, maybe talk to teenagers like they’re regular people. Because they are.
I think one reason a lot of people freeze up when it comes to talking to teenagers is because they don’t remember being a teenager well enough. They see how far they’ve come emotionally and intellectually and, as a result, the people they were as teenagers seem juvenile, stupid, annoying, out-of-control, etc. in comparison. In other words, they don’t give their teenage selves enough credit. It’s easy enough to do–I only stopped being a teenager three years ago and I do it sometimes.
But when you start applying your critical attitude toward your teenage self to teenagers in general, you create a blind spot in your empathy. You stop listening to them. And a lot of people think they’re justified in doing so, because they’re “older” and have “more experience” and are “more mature.” Only the first of those three is true every time.
Maybe I’m at a weird advantage because of my strangely vivid memory. I remember an astounding amount of detail about my 4th birthday party–not because someone repeated it to me later, but because I retained it. I remember the miniature train my parents rented for kids to ride on, and actors dressed as Prince Charming and Cinderella arriving at my house with an inexplicable pet ferret (which scratched me), and how embarrassed I felt when the teacup-patterned dress someone gifted me was too big. I also remember being 5 and thinking, after some adult had spoken condescendingly to me, “I will never forget what being five feels like.”
On top of that, my brain tends to categorize my memories according to age and year, an easy task since I was born in January (e.g. age 12 always = 2005, age 6 always = 1999, etc.). Ask me about pretty much any significant memory I have, as well as some insignificant ones, and I can name how old I was/the year. When did I get into Harry Potter? Age 8/2001. When was my first kiss? Age 14/2007. When did I get upset about leaving my friends’ house and say the word “bam,” which my dad misheard as “damn,” leading to a heated conversation about where I’d heard that word until my dad realized I was quoting something Prince Eric said in The Little Mermaid? Age 5/1998.
For some reason, it took me a while to figure out everyone’s memory doesn’t work this way. I was floored when I heard a friend in his late teens say he “couldn’t remember anything before age ten.” I’m similarly surprised when people say things like, “The kid said he was like, 8, or 12. Same difference.”
Uh no? Half the time, you’ll say a 7-year-old is 7 and they’ll be pissed you didn’t specify that they’re actually 7-and-three-quarters, thanks. You might roll your eyes at that or think it’s cute, but honestly, that stuff matters to kids. The year between, say, ages 7 and 8 is enormous because 7 years has made up their entire life so far. It was especially important to me, since I’ve always looked younger than I am. And I knew that if someone mistook me for being 6 when I was actually 8, I wouldn’t be taken as seriously (yes, kids pick up on that).
The real danger this creates is people misremembering how old they were when they were exposed to something, which leads to unnecessary censorship in the name of “saving the children.” I’ll ask people how old they were when they started swearing (or their peers started swearing), and they’ll say, “I dunno. 14? 15?”
Unless you were unusually sheltered, you’re a few years off the mark. I regularly heard peers swear around me at age 11 because, like a lot of people, I went to public middle school. If you grew up in a household where adults didn’t worry too much about swearing around kids, you were exposed to it at an even younger age. So there’s no need to freak out when the word “fuck” appears several times in a YA novel.
Same goes for sexual urges. They start early. People seem to forget that at the very beginning of puberty, your sexual urges aren’t normally directed at anyone. They just kind of exist and you figure out why they’re there, what to do about it, etc. But when a lot of people think “sex,” they think “with someone else,” something a child is definitely not ready for. They think that means young people need to be sheltered from even the idea of sex in a variety of ways, which is one reason sex in the media is more taboo than violence, and why that horribly ineffective thing called “abstinence-only education” exists.
Relax, people. I started having sexual urges at, again, age 11, but I wasn’t on the hunt for a sexual partner. In fact, I felt no desire to do that for another six years. So when you’re afraid to talk to a 13-year-old about sex because you’re worried you’ll “introduce something they’re not ready for,” you’re flat-out wrong. They’ve felt these things already, and they’d benefit a lot more from respectful answers to their questions than being told they’re not old enough to be feeling what they’re feeling yet. Plus, there’s the Internet. They’ve probably Googled it.
With all this in mind, I’m always confused by people who treat YA literature like this lesser form of art meant for brains that can’t handle anything too intellectual or mature. I once suggested to someone in a writing workshop that her novel read more like a YA story than an adult one. She said something like, “Oh, no, it’s way too hardcore and bloody for teenagers.” Really? Have you read The Hunger Games? Or, like, turned on a television? You know Spongebob regularly explodes into multiple pieces on his show aimed at little kids, right?
There’s another element to this: too many people posit that having more life experience means that their experiences are more valid, better informed, superior to a teenager’s, etc. In reality, there are millions of teenagers who have experienced something that you, hypothetical adult, have not.
Did you grow up with married, heterosexual, cisgender parents? Meet the kids who grew up in two households because their parents divorced, or who had one or more gender nonconforming parents, or who had two moms. Did you spend your adolescence in a suburb in Florida? Meet the kids who called NYC their playground, who went camping every weekend in Colorado, who went through grade school in Egypt, who bounced from place to place and never had a real hometown. Teens scroll through Facebook, go to Disneyland, start their own gardens, fight in wars, involve themselves with politics. Name any experience that isn’t, I don’t know, “turned 85,” and some teenager, somewhere, has done it.
If you want to talk to teenagers, respect them as you would respect any human being. Don’t assume they’re inferior to you or brush off what they say because of their age. See what you can learn from them. They’re not a mystery and they’re certainly nothing to be scared of.
*Avatar by Charlavail