What I think about “Words for Teenagers”

Words for Teenagers. Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/14/words-for-teenagers-judge-advice_n_1776337.html

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/14/words-for-teenagers-judge-advice_n_1776337.html

Recently I stumbled upon this newspaper article, citing a judge’s advice to teenagers. The original text is from 1959 and the article went viral from 2010 to 2012.

I am somewhere between mixed feelings, anger about most of it and agreement with tiny bits.

I want to share my “personal anger management therapy” with you, by going through this text sentence for sentence.

Guessing from the context, I assume it is that delinquents are asking this question which makes it so delicate. Used as an excuse for misbehavior or criminal acts this is not appropriate, but understandable. It is still a cry for help. So I have two objections:

First of all, there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with this question as such. Today there are thousands of internet forums where you can find millions of people basically asking the same question in billions of shades and colors. In the 1950’s, there have been advice columns in newspapers, Ask Ann Landers for example.

Second, from a Lean Self perspective, I sense a lack of empowerment. The 1950s, judged from 2013, were not really a time of empowerment in the USA. To name some topics: Cold War in full swing, Vietnam War started in 1959, McCarthy era, racial discrimination. I am sure this atmosphere had its effects on teenagers, too. Speaking of “my” part of the world: Germany was no paradise of (youth) empowerment in the 1950’s either.

“My answer is this: Go home, mow the lawn, wash the windows, learn to cook, build a raft, get a job, visit the sick, study your lessons and after you’ve finished, read a book.”

The advice as such is fine. It is the patronizing tone of the whole text which makes it dubious. Yes, empowering teenagers means to give them meaningful things to do. Work at home, compassion for other people, a hobby, learning. This is all acceptable. With one exemption: nowadays, “get a job” could be interpreted as wishful thinking on the part of the judge. I do not know how this was in the 1950’s in the USA.

The interesting fact is that these answers should come from the parents, not from a judge — preferably before and instead of a court hearing. It is very revealing that this text does not see a duty of the parents, as the next sentence shows.

“Your town does not owe you recreational facilities and your parents do not owe you fun.”

This one is extremely complex and has a lot of layers. Does a town owe recreational facilities to its inhabitants? Towns are a community and should function in all aspects of human life, including recreation. That does not necessarily mean the administration of a town owes it. But the community does. The mutual benefit for the community as a whole and its members, including teenagers, outweighs the question “who owes whom?” by far. For me, this is essential for a civilized community.

When it comes to the parents, the situation is different. There is a saying “The adults do not own this world. They only borrowed it from the children.” This is especially true for parents: they have a responsibility for their offspring. You could say, they owe their children the world. On the other hand, every parent knows how demanding a child or teenager can be. And they want their peace and freedom, too. My conclusion: Parents may not owe their children fun, but they have the duty to teach them how to have fun with or without parents. This is both a question of mutual benefit and of empowerment for children.

“The world does not owe you a living, you owe the world something.”

Who is “the world”? If this means “the universe”, the first part of the sentence is true but meaningless.

So again, only society or the community can be meant. Understanding this way, you must say society “owes a living”. It simply is part of the human rights, as stated in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. I am talking about the right to live, dignity and so on. One can disagree what the minimum required standard is, but there is such a minimum which society owes, unless you shed the concept of human rights. I fear a lot of people would not be too unhappy with the latter approach.

Regarding the second part of the sentence, I raise the principle of mutuality again. The main problem with the full sentence is its lack of symmetry. If a community takes care of its members, if it delivers value to them, then I can agree that the individual owes back. It is in the interest of both the community and every member to create a win/win situation, as opposed to tit-for-tat.

“You owe it your time, energy and talent so that no one will be at war, in sickness and lonely again.”

The question again is that of symmetry. The teenagers owe time, energy and talent. What about the judge, the parents, or the community as a whole? Let’s just say this is a belittling argument from a position of power, not some advice between equals.

Remember, this was 1959, the year the Vietnam War started. Some years later, a lot of young people in the USA did just what this judge said. They were treated as criminals (I do not know if by the same judge) because they opposed the war. If you look at it from this point of view, that statement is plain and simple bigotry.

“In other words, grow up, stop being a cry baby, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone.”

After a fair measure of condescension, even good advice develops a filthy taste. In that sense I agree with the judge’s general direction but not with how he stated it. I prefer to put it in Lean Self words:

“Start behaving like a responsible person.”

Again, it is not the message that is wrong, but the arrogant tone. Spoken from a position of superiority, the message clearly is “Do what I tell you. Do what the community norm tells you. Accept our values and act upon them.” Now, this is a neatly hidden value trap. It is manipulation and not helpful if you really want somebody to behave responsibly.

Wow! This is one of two sentences I agree with a 100%. It is empowering, not condescending. It has a nice symmetry of give and take. If the whole speech had started with this sentence, the rest of it would be much more bearable.

“It’s too late to sit around and wait for somebody to do something someday.”

I can live with that sentence. It is not the nicest one, but at least it is not totally off. But there is too much blaming in that message.

This is the second sentence I fully agree with. Maybe because reading it isolated as a call to action it can make you forget how the speech came to this ending.

One sentence is missing: the very beginning of the newspaper article.

“Northland College principal John Tapene has offered the following advice from a judge who regularly deals with youth.”

For a little bit of context, I need to cite another internet source, the site of the New Zealand Herald:

“The judge’s message has attracted praise and criticism in almost equal measure. It certainly has thousands of people talking, which Mr Tapene said was his intention all along, although he hadn’t expected those discussions to go global.

He said he didn’t agree with everything the judge had said, but put it in the newsletter to challenge people’s thinking and promote debate. He had since received emails from around the world.”

My opinion? Saying that one does not agree with everything is either due to the typical newspaper interview situation, or it is a cheap trick. Some kind of “inverse cherry picking.” For me, it lacks transparency. What does the Mr Tapene agree with, what not?

Now I would like you to tell me your opinion. Just leave a comment…

Posted in Action, Miscellaneous Tagged with: , , , ,

5 comments on “What I think about “Words for Teenagers”

  1. Peter on said:

    I liked your statement: “Parents may not owe their children fun, but they have the duty to teach them how to have fun with or without parents. This is both a question of mutual benefit and of empowerment for children.” Thanks for that.

    I think the gradual tonal shift you observed in the Judge’s speech is appropriate because it lends power to the whole message. The same speech rewritten without the condescending start that slowly shifts towards a praising validation end would risk being bland and unmotivating. Seems to be that the judge believes in both carrot and stick motivators for teenagers. So why be angry at the judge for that? I believe we should focus more on the actual effect of this kind of advice. I work everyday in inspiring people and I recognise that each individual is motivated differently. I could never be sure that a teenager upon self-reflection of this judges advice wouldn’t benefit from it. How can you be so sure?

  2. jane on said:

    Geez, could you dissect any more than you did? I can’t believe I wasted time reading this crap.

    When a judge is confronted with youthful offenders he makes decisions that can affect their futures. If a lecture delivered by a guy sitting on the bench in a black robe can keep a kid out of Juvie or jail, more power to him. Stop over thinking it.

    • Jens R. WoinowskiJens R. Woinowski on said:

      Well, Adorno wrote this before the judge cited here made his speech: The Authoritarian Personality (http://www.amazon.de/Authoritarian-personality-T-Adorno-al/dp/B00BN387WQ/)

    • Denise Achzehner on said:

      I agree with Jane. The words were said for a reason. I am old school when it comes to disiplining our children and there is nothing wrong with that so maybe if others got to be old school in disiplining and teaching that we would not have the problems we have now with our children. Children do not have to have “something” to do all the time or be in every sport. The judge was correct in every word he said. If the parents aren’t going to tell their children, then someone has to.

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