FoxNews ran an editorial about teenagers. Specifically, it was about teenage sex, but for once, someone seems to realize that sex isn’t always just about sex and that teenagers are human beings just like the rest of us.
Author Glenn Harlan Reynolds argues that since society has infantilized teenagers, they’ve sunk to expectations. Given immature activities and no adult responsibilities, it should be no surprise that teenagers smoke and drink and sleep around. They don’t have anything else to do.
Reynolds went on to lament that twentysomethings are infantilized as well.
That’s been my experience. At work, I was called “a very bright child.” To my face. I was 25 or 26 at the time. What did I have to do to be an adult? In that place’s culture, the answer seemed to be to have a kid who was in college. I don’t like that standard. I was having to make car payments and monthly rent payments just like the person who called me a child. Half of the “adults”–maybe more–were divorced, so they’d made a huge and painful mistake in life that I hadn’t made. I don’t think anyone would disagree that I was old enough to be drafted into military service and die for my country… So why couldn’t I be treated like an adult?
As a teenager, I followed my parents’ ground rules. Most of them were unspoken, because to me they were common sense. About once a semester, I would go to a concert on a school night and come home late. I went to one party my whole high school career. I held down a job from the time I was 16 and was well-regarded by my coworkers and managers (at least the managers who were able to hold down jobs themselves–some weren’t). I didn’t spend my money frivolously. I never came home drunk or stoned. I didn’t get my girlfriends pregnant. I had respectable, if not commendable scores on all my standardized tests. I graduated high school with a grade point average of 3.53.
At age 19, I had a very rude wakeup call. My dad died suddenly. That left a number of questions of what to do with what he left behind. Those aren’t childlike questions. Mom handled a lot of it. But there were questions that didn’t have answers, and the fragments in my memory were the closest thing we did have. At age 19, I got a new part-time job: Help close down and liquidate a medical practice.
At age 20, I became treasurer of a decent-sized but fiscally irresponsible organization. I had to balance and manage a $100,000 budget and navigate the political waters involved in doing so. That wasn’t easy. I quickly learned that even though a $40 expense here and a $20 expense there wouldn’t make an appreciable impact on a six-figure budget, cutting a highly visible $40 expense could quickly alert people to the situation. That didn’t always mean they would want to do the right thing. But we have to try.
Reynolds pointed out that by the time they were in their 20s, great men like George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt had been making adult decisions for years. I would argue–from my own experience–that you don’t have to be a great man to be able to make adult decisions before you’re legally able to buy a drink.
So what’s this have to do with sex?
Nothing. And everything. Think about it for a minute. When you can’t have any responsibility, a boyfriend or girlfriend may be the only thing you can get. Well, the only thing that seems important, anyway. And if that person is living the same kind of miserable existence that you are–and chances are, s/he is–then what better way to keep that person than by helping them forget that existence for a while? Sexual activity is like a drug in its ability to help you escape the rat race, or the lack of one, for a while. But it has distinct advantages over a drug, doesn’t it? The risks are far less obvious and the consequences less immediate. And if you’re careful, you can mostly avoid the physical consequences. And if you do avoid them, it’s a lot cheaper than any drug.
I can’t tell you how many people in their 30s and 40s I’ve seen use it in exactly this way. Acting surprised or horrified when someone in their teens or twenties does it is a gross double-standard.
Besides, they learn it from the older generations. It’s on TV. Not only is it in the shows, it’s used to sell everything from alcohol to furniture. It’s what people talk about for lack of anything else to talk about. (I partly solve the problem by not watching TV at home.) But it gets worse.
“I had a big wake-up call when I started going to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings,” someone recently told me. “One of its tenets is that you don’t need sex in order to survive. That was news to me.”
“That’s news to a lot of people,” I told him. “I remember my college psychology textbook had a line that said it explicitly: ‘We all need food, clothing, shelter, and sex.'”
That textbook wasn’t written by a teenager.
Now the Bush administration is drawing fire for wanting to teach that sex isn’t a necessity of life like food and clothing and shelter. Unfortunately, like most political solutions, incorrect and incomplete knowledge is only part of the problem. Simply teaching abstinence won’t cause people to automatically abstain. Every smoker I know knows the tobacco isn’t a necessity of life and what kind of damage it does to them. But they still smoke.
Changing our teachings is only part of the answer. Granting responsibility is a bigger part.
Yes, I’ve seen as many twentysomethings fail to rise to expectations as I’ve seen succeed. But I can say the same thing about older people as well. I don’t think rising or falling has a whole lot to do with age. There are people who will always be immature no matter how old they get.
All too often when dealing with someone younger than ourselves, we ask the wrong question. We ask ourselves if we’ve seen any indication that the person will succeed. The problem with that mentality is that often a person’s mother is the only one who knows him or her well enough to be able to answer that question, and a mother is hardly an objective observer. Instead, the decision-maker needs to ask a different question: Do I have any indication that this person will fail?
And if the answer is no, then move. No one ever rises to expectations when they’re not given the chance.