Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On "Teenagers"

My wife and I love to watch "The Office" on NBC. This is our routine most Thursday evenings.

I was intrigued by an interchange in a recent episode between Michael (the dysfunctional boss), and Oscar (the Hispanic accountant). It's not verbatim, but the dialogue went something like this..

Someone refers to Oscar as "Mexican."

Michael: "Is there something else we could call you that would be less offensive?"

Oscar: "Less offensive than what?"

Michael, uncomfortably: "Less offensive than Mexican."

Oscar, confused: "But that's what I am, Michael. I am Mexican. Why would that term be offensive to me?"

Uncomfortable as it is, this scene provides valuable social commentary to all who will listen. Michael obviously adheres to an unhealthy stereotype of the Mexican community, to the extent that the term "Mexican" itself holds a negative connotation in his mind.

Think for a moment of all the terms that illicit strong stereotypes in our culture: Republican, Democrat, Evangelical, Attorney, Chiropractor. You get the idea.

Now, consider the following baggage-laden term: Teenager.

What thoughts come to mind? Responsible or Lazy? Respectful or Disobedient? Selfish or Selfless? Agents of God or Objects of Ministry and Correction?

I think I know how most adults would answer this question. Let's face it, the word "Teenager" does not carry the most positive connotations in our culture.

For this reason, I try not to use it.

The past couple of years I have tried hard to replace the word "Teenager" with "Student" in my personal conversations. In the churches I have served, it is common to speak of "the Teens" as a collective entity. Another troubling term, I'm afraid. I prefer to speak of "the Student Ministry" when referring collectively to our group of students. (Did you catch that - our group of students.)

Don't discount my point here as a mere semantic preference - there is much to say for the names we call things. Let's face it, Shakespeare was an idealist on this issue. Call a "Rose" a "Tumor" and you immediately understand it differently.

Now, just to be clear, the term "Teenager" is not inherently bad. Just as "Mexican" accurately describes a particular people group, "Teenager" accurately categorizes a group of particular age. Fair enough. Perhaps we retain specific use of the term "Teenager" for categorical purposes. If so, only because it accurately reflects the age of this people group in question.

With this in mind, let me expand my point one step further.

If "Teenager" proves troublesome as general reference to a young person, the word "Kid" is far greater still. Surely you have heard someone (maybe a well-intentioned youth worker) refer to the "kids" in their youth group? At least, with "Teenager" we find an accurate age distinction. "Kid" is synonymous with "Child" in the English language, implying all things childish: behavior, dependency, need for discipline, etc.

Is this how we view our students?

Now, we all know those students who rightly earn the "Teenager" branding, for all the wrong reasons. This does not mean that all of our young people deserve the stereotyping that comes with this distinction. One bad apple should not spoil the whole barrel.

So, the next time you refer to the young people (those aged 13-19) in your church, school, community, consider carefully the implications of your terminology. Our students will rise or fall to our expectations. What could we possibly expect of "Teenagers" or "Kids" in our adult world?

Set the bar higher, please. Call our young people Students.

- DB


Cary said...

Thank you for this. I've been meaning to write on the terrible practice of calling college students "kids" for a long time. A lot of implicit expectations are communicated with our terminology.

caryn777 said...

I find it interesting that the word "teenager" itself is actually a new term. Before WWII there was no such entity. Maybe we should question why this segregation of the age groups even exist.