The awfulness of young people… Really?

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Have you ever wondered where the dreadful, scary stereotype of young people comes from? All too often teenagers are portrayed as lazy, loud, drunk, substance abusing, hoodie-wearing hooligans with no respect for anyone or anything, semi-criminals at best, who eventually have to be forced into jobs to stop them scrounging off the state.

Um – do you actually know a young person like that?

What got me thinking about this unfair perception was something my son wrote as part of his studies and posted on Facebook.

Now, in some ways my No. 1 son might be held up as an example of the awfulness of youth – he wears a hoodie, he plays in heavy metal bands, he didn’t work as hard as he should in school and spent a year doing very little, and yes, he even claimed job-seekers allowance! I know he formed part those threatening-looking groups of teenagers who hang around street corners and outside shops. He has masses of friends who include several who were definite trouble-makers at school, and he loves HUGE parties (I should know, he had about a hundred kids at our house for his eighteenth birthday party).

Like most parents of teenagers, I’ve been furious, frustrated and anxious about him. But I never worried that he’d get into serious trouble. I knew he was a good and extremely bright person. So, now he’s studying and wrote this article. The mother and the writer in me were both extremely proud of him, because eloquently and without pomposity he denounced from the heart the insidious, “bantering” kind of sexist, laddish humour that objectifies women and trivializes serious issues such as rape.

OK, I knew he was an intelligent and right-thinking boy. I was proud though not surprised by the views he expressed so well. But I think what did surprise me was the number of “likes” and messages of support from his massive circle of peers, male and female, from all walks of young life, and I began to draw a few things together in my mind, the sort of things that probably feed misperceptions in general.

That ominous crowd of teenagers I’d glimpsed him among in our village one Friday evening – I only realized he was among them because he and his pals yelled at me. “Hello, Mum!” he said, while his friends called “Hi!” to me by name. I’d known most of them since they were at primary school. They were loud and there were many of them, but they presented no more actual threat than a group of older, well-to-do people leaving the opera. Yet some passers-by still gave them a wide berth, because they were perceived as threatening.

And those hundred kids roaming all over our house and garden for his eighteenth birthday, drinking, smoking, dancing, jumping, would you believe, on a bouncy castle – they must have looked and sounded pretty scary to strangers. Yet if I had to use just one word to describe their behaviour that night, it would be “respectful” – towards my husband and me and our property, as well as towards No. 1 Son.

Now, I know this isn’t always the case, either among street gatherings or at parties. I know there are drink-fuelled idiots and bad guys out there, and the rest might not always behave as we’d like best. But seriously, did young people ever please the previous generation? That doesn’t take away the good in them.

My No 2 son, not yet eighteen, works with special needs kids and in his own inimitable way is one of the most caring people I know. He and his brother are always there for their friends and that seems to work both ways. Among their friends they number youth workers, boys who’ve volunteered in Africa, musicians, budding teachers, artists, actors, journalists, engineers and scientists, bar workers, trainee chefs, electricians and gamekeepers, struggling unemployed youths, students… They can be loud, occasionally stupid and frequently funny; many are disparaging about the establishment, but they’re thoughtful and passionate about social justice.

At heart, what is so different, let alone so awful, about today’s kids?

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