Do Children Matter?

[Content note: child abuse]

Someone posting in a Facebook group–doesn’t matter who or which group, since they were merely voicing an opinion held by many–said that censoring high school graduation speeches is acceptable because “I just don’t think people that age are mature enough to have free speech.”

(I will say that it was a group related to humanism, and I’m not sure what the fuck kind of humanist accepts the denial of constitutional rights to entire classes of people.  Not my kind, at any rate.)

There are two issues to discuss here, one surface-level and one a little deeper. I’ll dispatch the surface-level issue first.

I actually do think that there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in high schools, just as there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in certain spaces for adults, such as colleges and workplaces. The best argument I can think of is that these spaces need to promote certain goals and functions, and free speech, while a very important part of our public life in general, can quickly overwhelm these goals and functions. The creation of a safe learning/working environment is more important than letting everyone say exactly what’s on their mind all the time. However, that has nothing to do with “maturity” and everything to do with the particular goals of particular spaces.

First of all, what is “maturity”? Do people suddenly obtain it on their 18th birthday? Are all adults “mature”? If not, should they also be denied their First Amendment rights? How will we determine who is “mature”? Should people with developmental disabilities be denied First Amendment rights? Should people who have demonstrated a lack of impulse control (a potential marker of immaturity)? Should a 30-year-old who goes to wild parties every night and gets drunk and can’t hold down a job be denied First Amendment rights? Should everyone be required to take a maturity examination before they are permitted to exercise rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution? What would that examination entail? An interview? A neurological test?

I am not a constitutional scholar, but note that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans a similar concept, literacy tests for would-be voters, and that legislation has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

So hopefully that complicates this question of “maturity” at least a little bit.

The whole point of rights is that they’re not just for people we like or agree with. They’re not just for the people who have their lives together and always think rationally and critically. They’re not just for adults, or just for white people, or just for Christians. They’re not just for people whose brains work the way we think people’s brains should work. Rights are rights because they are for everyone, especially the people you don’t agree with.

Now on to the thornier part of this discussion, which is this: the attitude displayed by this person towards children and adolescents is very common, and very harmful.

It harms in several ways. One is that engaged, altruistic, passionate adults do not generally develop (at least not easily) from ignored, insulted, condescended-to children. If we tell children that they have nothing of worth to say or contribute until their 18th birthday, believe me, they will not wake up that morning with a sudden desire to write letters to the editor, vote, volunteer, and generally speak up for what’s right. They will be insecure and trapped by impostor syndrome. Not a recipe for an active citizenry.

Oh, I’m sure you’ll say that you hang up all your child’s artistic creations on the fridge and forward their best book reports to Grandma and Grandpa, but let me ask you this: do you think your child has important and insightful observations to make about politics, culture, ethics, art, literature? If your child said something with which you disagree, would you engage them in a spirited debate, or would you shut them down with “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Aww, that’s nice, sweetie”? If your child has criticisms to make about the way they receive their education, or about the extracurricular activities they participate in or the house or neighborhood in which they live, do you actually listen to them and see if there’s any way that the adults in your child’s life (including you) could be doing better?

If you’re reading this and you have children, chances are you do all that stuff, because you’re great. But do most American adults?

At this point someone will usually say “But what if my child says that they are morally opposed to eating vegetables or doing homework or having a bedtime see I can’t possibly take my child’s ideas seriously.” Here’s the thing, though. Even adults sometimes (often) say things that are totally unreasonable. If you truly respect another person and value their thoughts, you can engage their totally unreasonable opinions with reasoned debate. Obviously, In The Real World, we don’t always respect other people and value their thoughts, and that’s (broadly speaking) fine. But you should respect your children and value their thoughts. You can also take this opportunity to model good critical thinking and argumentation skills, by engaging their opinions respectfully and directly.

And I know that parenting is hard and you can’t be a good parent 100% of the time and sometimes you will say “Not now honey” or “That’s nice” because you’re exhausted and juggling 100 things and that’s how it is. I’m not giving parenting advice. I’m absolutely not here to judge who is a Good Parent and who is a Bad Parent. I’m simply offering a reframe. Children saying silly things doesn’t mean that they are silly people. You can engage silly ideas seriously, and thus send the message to your children that 1) backing up one’s arguments with evidence and reason is important, and 2) their arguments are important enough to be met with kind counter-arguments, not outright dismissal and condescension.

Ah, but do I have children, you may ask. No, I do not. I helped raise two children, though, and I carried those children out of a wrecked car and over broken glass once (no, I did not cause the accident), and I taught one of those children to speak, and right now I’m living at home and engaging in all sorts of serious intellectual discussions with those children on the daily. Today I had a discussion with a 13-year-old about the ethics of business, or, why ripping off other children to get nice Pokemon cards for cheap is wrong. This weekend I had a discussion with a 10-year-old about police brutality and racism. Given our privileges and where we live, it’s very possible that I have been, and will remain for some time, the only person to directly address racism with her.

I was also very recently a child. Probably not many of you reading this can remember your own childhood as well as I do. I was a very lucky child because my parents have always endeavored to send me the message that my thoughts are valuable, no matter how old I was. Yes, sure, they sometimes engaged in a bit of condescension, for which I usually called them out and sometimes won the resulting argument. But the fact that there was an argument, and not a “That’s just how it is,” is what matters.

More importantly still, my parents basically lived the whole idea of “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” You would probably be surprised to know that although they (probably) don’t even read this blog and (probably) wouldn’t agree with a word on it, they have tirelessly encouraged me to pursue writing professionally, to publish more and more widely, to speak publicly, to ask for payment and recognition. It never seemed to occur to my parents that just because I sometimes said something foolish meant that I shouldn’t have spoken at all.

As a child, I was often stung by my parents’ quick criticism, their rush to ask me for evidence and examples and clarity. I can’t say that it was always easy or pleasant. But I always knew that they loved and valued me. And moreover, that constant process probably contributed to the strength of my writing now.

Perhaps as a result of this aspect of my upbringing, I was editing my high school literary magazine at 16, writing a monthly column for a print newspaper at 17, and publishing in campus magazines and newspapers starting at 18. I started my first blog at 12, as soon as blogs became a thing. And I don’t mean an online diary, although I’d encourage people of all ages to do that to build their writing and communication skills. I mean, I was blogging about politics and society. At 17, I was trained in pro-Israel activism (I used to be a conservative; it went away) and used those skills online–the same skills I now use in the service of the causes I now support. At 18, I started this blog. At 21, my writing first started to go viral online, and that’s when I was invited to join FtB. At 22, I gave my first solo conference talk. (SSACon! W00t!) At 23, I started freelancing professionally.

None of this would’ve happened if the closest adults in my life had not said to me, directly and indirectly, over and over, that my voice matters. It mattered when I was 12. It matters now at 24. It will matter when I’m old and nobody thinks I’m pretty anymore. Maybe it will even matter after I’m gone.

Most children don’t have all the privileges I have that contributed to my ability to put my opinions out there like that. Moreover, not all of them have adults in their lives who encourage them to speak, and who hear them when they do.

And yet, even now, at 24, I hear constantly of how useless and naive and dumb people my age are. You’ve seen the tired millennial-bashing thinkpieces. Despite two degrees and a list of professional accomplishments and leadership positions that’s too long for a standard resume, people who are older constantly talk down to me as though I’m, well, a child. Their child, someone else’s child, doesn’t matter. I’ve thought (not too seriously, but still) about quitting writing publicly plenty of times, and it was almost never because of the violent threats and harassment I receive, although that sucked. It was usually because someone on my own “side” (ha, not really) made me feel like I was worthless and my thoughts are too. (There was one particularly horrid incident where a man insisted over and over, in an increasingly abusive fashion, that I should not write a blog post about a particular topic because, despite my degree in the fucking field, I was not qualified. I must’ve cried. I don’t cry about the internet a lot. I don’t really cry a lot at all.)

If that’s my experience, imagine the experience of young people of color, young trans people, young people from a poor background, young recent immigrants, young people who could not access university education.

We do not, as a society, value our young people. You may think we’re sexy (the white, gender-conforming, able-bodied ones, anyway), you might love it when we spend money on your products, you might love having a few of us at your events to make them seem hip and cool, but you do not value us.

Now for the most difficult and painful part, and that is this: when we do not value young people’s voices and experiences, we create a culture where child abuse is rampant.

This is always the hardest point to defend because adults immediately start telling me all about how they abhor child abuse and how dare I suggest otherwise.

Of course you abhor it. I’m sorry if I suggested otherwise. I am confident that if you believe that a child is being abused, you would do the right thing and notify the authorities.

But would you believe that the child is being abused?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their mom (your friend from the PTA, who’s always so friendly and nice) couldn’t possibly do such a thing?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their coach, who always finds you after the game and tells you what a great team player your son is, would never do that?

If we tell children that their experiences don’t matter and adults are always right, why would they even bother to accuse an adult of doing something so wrong?

If we tell children that they’ll understand when they’re older, why wouldn’t they just shrug and try to cope until it stops?

If we tell children that they are not mature enough to be granted one of their constitutional rights, which they learn about in school, which other rights will they assume they don’t deserve?

When will we start to matter? When we turn 18? When we turn 21? When we get married and have kids? When we pass your mandatory maturity exam? When we have stable jobs with benefits and 401(k)s? When we’ve paid off all our loans? (That day may never come for me, thanks to people who are much older and wiser than me.) When a neurological test shows that our brain is no longer developing? (You realize that brains continue to grow and change for our whole lives, right?)

Do any of these sound like rational, just standards by which to judge whether or not someone’s opinions matter?

I commit to doing a better job of listening to children, starting with the ones in my house. Their intellectual and moral development is more important than me getting to feel superior about myself.

~~~

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The Problem With “Teen Angst” and Why You Should Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

[Content note: depression and suicide]

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

I’m thinking about this now because last night I ran across this Facebook page. It’s called “No Respect For Suicidal Teens,” and please don’t click on it unless you’re prepared for the hateful victim-blaming that it promotes. (If you can, though, you should go and report it.)

First of all, it’s completely false that teens can’t “really” be depressed and suicidal. Although the age of onset for depression and bipolar disorder is most commonly in the late teens and 20s, many people report that their chronic mood disorder began when they were teens. (Count me among them.) Left untreated, mood disorders often get progressively worse, or they remit on their own but then keep recurring.

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

So a teenager whose emotional experience is characterized by “angst” can benefit from seeking help even if they don’t have a “Real Problem.” All problems are real; the fact that they can vary dramatically in scope and magnitude doesn’t make them any more or less so.

And what if every teenager needs help managing their mental health during adolescence? Doesn’t that mean we’re making mountains out of molehills and inventing problems where none exist?

Nope. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone changed their minds very quickly once I became so depressed I could barely function and thought about suicide constantly. Perhaps that could’ve been prevented had I gotten help earlier rather than taking everyone’s analysis of my “over-dramatic” personality to heart.

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.

Kids These Days

I am going to do something I rarely do–label something with an “ism.”

A post on CNN’s health blog, The Chart, points out that oral sex can increase cancer risk–valuable information, to be sure. But for some unknown reason, the blog frames the information like this:

Here’s a crucial message for teens: Oral sex carries many of the same risks as vaginal sex, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of oral cancers in America in people under age 50.

“Adolescents don’t think oral sex is something to worry about,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “They view it as a way to have intimacy without having ‘sex.'”

Actually, the author of this blog and the professor quoted in it might be surprised to know that adults also occasionally engage in oral sex, so this might be a “crucial message” for them as well as for teens. In fact, sometimes these adults even view it as a way to have intimacy without having ‘sex’!

But of course, there’s no need to miss another valuable opportunity to insert a “kids these days” reference into a completely unrelated topic. Which is, yes, ageism.

On another note, since when does a random doctor or professor get to unilaterally define “sex”? Just because oral sex undoubtedly carries risks doesn’t make it equivalent to, say, vaginal or anal sex. Different people ascribe different significance (or lack thereof) to different sexual behaviors. To many people, oral sex is not as “serious” or meaningful as penetrative sex. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be aware of its risks, but it does mean that no higher authority can or should try to define “sex” for everybody.