Last weekend’s local teenage mob and police action was the subject of some discussion at my school. A few of the kids were there, and everybody wanted to know what went down. So we had this awkward conversation before we could return to the glorious banality of Week 20 vocabulary….
Them: There was just a big crowd of us, and there wasn’t anyone fighting, we were just hanging out, so why did they have to use pepper spray?
Me: What were all those people doing down there? Were people about to fight? Did it look like they might?
Them: Well, yeah.
Me: And didn’t some people fight later, in the parking lot?
Them: Well, yeah.
They need to know to pay attention to situations that become dangerous and get the hell away. A lot of them already know this, which is why they’re sitting in a college prep school, rather than locked up.
But my first thought when I saw the story was, where on earth do you want them to go? Basic discipline mistake: tell a kid not to do something, but don’t give any suggestion for what the kid should do instead. That is not discipline. Discipline includes teaching. There is no suggestion for these kids. We will handle them with curfews and banishments. What they are learning is that they are not worth teaching. We grown-ups already know how to act right, and we don’t care if you kids ever learn.
Well, everyone complains, their parents should know where they are and set curfews. What parent would forbid a teenager to go to the Plaza? My parents didn’t. And I had a curfew, but it wasn’t nine o’clock. Then people complain, parents should be with them and teach them to act right. Ah, of course. No teenager would ever do anything to displease or embarass a parent!
We keep limiting the geography and activities for teenagers, and then wondering why they’re all wandering, congregating, bored, and unruly in the few places left open to them. Banning them from entertainment districts. From movies. The trouble is, if you keep them away until they turn 18 or 21, they will have no idea how to eat in a restaurant or have a drink in a bar or see a movie. They’re probably going to act like rabid squirrels whatever age we choose to integrate them into adult nightttime activities. We’ll just have to work with them and sometimes we’ll have to put up with a little noise and obnoxiousness.
They have to be able to move around the city and explore. They have to get away from their parents and try some things out. They have to learn to spend time in pubic being social. They have to find and experiment with romantic relationships. They need the whole city working with them to help them grow up.
They need smiles and politeness to show appreciation for good civic behavior. And, as necessary: dirty looks, shushing in movies, demanding a tip, kicking them out, calling the cops. Absolutely you will be confronted by the cops if you’re acting crazy, or looking like you might get crazy. You probably won’t like what happens. Lesson learned: don’t mess with cops. Carrot and stick are teaching tools. But not banishment.
I also wanted to tell my students, the strangling force of urban crime doesn’t disappear when you turn 21. I often avoid going out Friday and Saturday in good weather. There are too many people out drinking who lack basic drinking skills and etiquette. Sometimes people get shot. Even adult freedom is limited– by balancing benefits and risks. They need to practice finding that balance before they are handed full adult freedoms. The truth is, we will pay for their education into adulthood, one way or another.
Link to news story: