We Need To Take Teens Seriously About Guns
On a recent Wednesday morning, I happened to have a break when I heard chanting outside the window of my NYC therapy practice. The noises were not that unusual given that my Tribeca office is just a block away from City Hall, a frequent site of protests. It didn’t take me long to remember when I saw teenagers marching with signs that read “Never Again!” and “Gun Control Now!” My own daughter’s elementary school had planned their own (age-appropriate) walkout too.
Like a number of people I know, the weeks after Sandy Hook were the last time I allowed myself to have hope for gun control. However, these young people have moved me.
Of course, there can be a danger in idealizing youth. Youth, by definition, needs guidance and there is no substitute for experience in the world. And yet, there is more danger in not taking young people seriously. This might seem like a contradiction. How do you take someone seriously while recognizing that they need guidance? It can feel like whiplash. But I get frustrated that it is seen as one or the other. Teens are saying something important and they’re still somewhat new to the world.
The Dismissal Of The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Students And Their Emotional Reactions Reflects How We Cast Teens All The Time
In the case of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, their rage must be accounted for. The right-wing dismissal of them as spoiled, uninformed, impulsive and overly emotional in their reactions is precisely the manner in which we cast teens all the time.
You just have to look at advertisements for products as varied as washers/dryers or car insurance to see striking examples of how adults treat teens as if their feelings don’t matter. In my therapy with teens, I often caution parents and other adults in teens’ lives against dismissing their emotions as mere adolescent angst or moodiness.
Why Do Adults Dismiss Teens’ Emotions?
Why do adults have this tendency to dismiss teens’ emotions? On some level, it might be that teens haven’t fully lost the honesty of children and yet, have the physical stature and awareness of the world that is more or less grown up. It troubles us adults that teens are upset about such real things–they remind us of our own feelings and we’d just as soon not go there.
Perhaps (and I may believe this more), it is that humans, at this moment in our historical development, are better at management than influence. With younger children, management more or less works–you can tell a kid what to do and generally he or she will do it. If they don’t, then you threaten a consequence. For teens, though, as they get bigger, they become tougher to control as they are encouraged to be able to make their own decisions. In some ways, this is the definition of adolescence–physically and sexually approaching adult maturity yet still sleeping in their childhood bedroom. It’s less awkward biologically than culturally–a pairing of a near-adult with a parental set-up that wasn’t built for collaboration.
Taking Teens Seriously And Gun Control Are Really The Same Issue
No matter the reason adults dismiss teens, gun control isn’t just a metaphor for how we should take teens seriously. The tendency is for adults to dismiss teens as either: “Oh, you cute little teen, you think we can prevent mass shootings with gun laws” or “Oh, you naïve little teen, you just don’t know how hopeless this is.”
Effectively, the people in charge–adults–have decided that guns should be nearly as available as candy bars. While a whole lot of people are harmed by this, teens are especially vulnerable and so they’re pissed. And they’re doing what all teenagers do when they’re pissed–they’re expressing it in ways adults would prefer they’d not. They’re expressing their power politically. They just aren’t shutting up in spite of adult’s insistence and they’re also way, way better at social media.
I see the issues of “take us seriously!” and “get guns out of our schools and neighborhoods” as really the same thing. By way of analogy, I think about this in terms of education or Hurricane Katrina. If we really wanted to have decent, safe schools, we know exactly how to do that. We’d have robust security, hire bright people to teach and pay them well, fill schools with social services, educate parents and provide services to them. However, we just don’t want to spend the money. President Obama started saying this after the umpteenth school shooting, using the words “political will.” We have to decide whether or not we want to have the political will to make this happen. So the question of gun control is really a question of whether or not we care about teenagers, just as Katrina was about whether or not, to paraphrase Kanye, “President Bush cares about Black people.” It’s that simple.