I wonder what would happen if we took young people seriously. And don’t nod in agreement too quickly, because you might miss my point. I repeat: What would happen if we took young people seriously? What if we didn’t obfuscate the opinions of a 17 year-old through the lens of age? I invoke us to all remember that moment, when we were 16 and 17, and we had an opinion, whether on our families, friends, society, etc—and many of us might recall that our opinions were full beings worthy of recognition. And I don’t mean to say that our opinions were necessarily right (whose really are?), but they were justified, not by their accuracy at least, but by a real synthesis of our cognition and lived experience.
I volunteer in a high school though a student organization that seeks to allow students to become civically and socially engaged, and everyday I am continually astounded by how developed students’ opinions are. Just recently we had a discussion on whether race, class, or age were the most important factors in our lives. And immediately, students erupted into opinions that even academics were arguing. At 16 and 17, students were participating in the race vs. class argument, some of them expressed that race shouldn’t be an obstacle to success, others said that no matter what you’re always Black. Sure, they may not have had the concepts or authors to help articulate their points, but they got the picture.
We as a society need to realize that young people are rational actors. Call it ageism or adultism or whatever you wish, but it’s time to stop being that youth cannot have informed decisions just because of their age. Sure, as we grow older, our opinions will change, we might regret certain decisions, but I would argue that this process of growth continually happens throughout our lives. Does this mean that our choices and beliefs shouldn’t’ count until we’re on our death beds?
Laws against sagging pants, unjust deaths of youths of color, the overly punitive habits of educational institutions—all in some way find a part of their roots in our inability to grant youth the dignity of their experiences, opinions, and thoughts. As a future educator, I intend on being an advocate for my students, and part of this means accepting that there are meaningful reasons for why they hold certain opinions, and I need to be sensitive to that. We all need to be sensitive to that.
So next time you encounter a 5 year-old who says something “mature,” or “smart,” don’t write it off as “cute.” See it for what is—an intelligent being in the making.