DEERFIELD, Massachusetts (WOMENSENEWS) –Ask any middle schooler and they will tell you that lunch and recess are treasured time. A few years ago, when I found out my school was taking away half of this precious time, I was furious. My lunch period transformed from 45 minutes of eating and relaxing, into 15 minutes of rushed eating (which, by the way, is an unhealthily short period of time to eat and digest) and 15 minutes of study hall. I decided to act. I started a petition and attempted to set up meetings with various administrators to discuss the change. But the administration – the school’s principal, vice principal and multiple teachers – dismissed my efforts. It wasn’t until I went to the Board of Education that the school’s adult leadership started listening to me.
As a young person, it hurts when adults reject your ideas. My experiences with my school’s administration made me feel small, unintelligent and unqualified to be talking about the subject. Even though this change directly affected me, I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion about it because of my age.
Many of my classmates are scared of adults and that perplexes me. Why do they find it daunting to ask for an extension on a project? Or to tell their coach about an injury? Or to complain to an adult about a teacher assigning an unfair amount of work? It’s because we’ve taught kids that adults are to be revered and glorified. They are to be treated with the utmost respect, are full of knowledge and wisdom, and they should not – under any circumstances – be challenged!
Thanks to my high school advisor, who is an adult, I’ve learned to take this social construct with a grain of salt. She has advised me to remember that adults and teenagers are more similar than they are different and to view the adults in my life like regular people, as opposed to flawless humans.
Adults can be wrong, too. Sure, they have more experience and know more about how the world works. But young people have a different perspective, and our opinions are equally valuable. As such, we have to learn to demand as much respect for our point of view.
This is especially important in school settings. Since teachers are given nearly complete authority over students, it’s sometimes hard to remember that teachers are human. They can make mistakes too. Still, it can be difficult to imagine yourself on the same playing field as adults.
Last year, my math teacher constantly encouraged us to identify mistakes in his work in class, on tests, and even during extra help sessions. It seemed a strange concept: a teacher being wrong? How could that possibly be? Throughout the course he did indeed make mathematical errors, and our class learned to point them out. It wasn’t awkward, nor were his mistakes perceived as a weakness or lack of knowledge. He encouraged us to embrace the fact that none of us are perfect, including him.
Gender is also at play here. I’m automatically more comfortable around women than men. I find it easier and less intimidating to express my thoughts and challenge ideas in front of women. Maybe I’m playing into stereotypes but at least the more practice I have interacting with adults, the better I will be at it with all adults, no matter the gender.
As a senior in high school, I think this often. I am on the cusp of entering the “real” world and heading off to college, a place where I’ll have to function more independently, and where I’ll more often be encouraged to think for myself and to challenge authority. How can young adults begin to navigate this environment when we’re taught as children to do the complete opposite: to do as we’re told and not to ask questions?
My suggestion to young people is two-fold. First, reject the notion that adults are flawless, all-knowing creatures of wisdom. It’s important to appreciate and respect their experience and education, but they’re not always right! Second, never lose confidence in yourself. You may have just as much to offer in a conversation as a 27-year-old or a 54-year-old. Again, younger people have a different perspective than adults, but it’s not necessarily less valuable.
Age alone shouldn’t determine how much value is placed on what you say. If you suspect that an adult is discrediting you based solely on your age, don’t be afraid to point this out to them (respectfully, of course), and to encourage them to really listen to what you’re saying, rather than just focusing on how old you are. Standing up to adults can be hard, intimidating even, but with practice it can boost your confidence and show everyone that what you have to say has value.