“The ‘teenager’ seems to have replaced the Communist as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding.” — Edgar Z. Friedenberg

I’m reading danah boyd’s dissertation, absorbing the news about Sam Adams, and — as I’m about to leave for the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, where I’ll see a lot of teen advocates — thinking about the dangers that come from living in a culture that enforces age segregation.

Just the other day, I was talking with a friend about the circle of adult friends we had while we were in high school.

Over the summer between 9th and 10th grade, we got involved with the Ann Arbor Medieval Festival. We were serious about it. We showed up not just for the rehearsals of our Intermezzi troupe, but to work on repairs to the set, to move a large costume collection, and later, when the festival’s survival was in question, to brainstorm fundraising strategies. At fourteen, we were some of the youngest people to dedicate ourselves to MedFest.

We got to be responsible. We felt valued. We were learning how to navigate in the adult world. (The adults, I should note, were mostly in their later teens and twenties — still not quite really adults, according to current research. But they sure seemed like adults to us.)

And while we were doing meaningful tasks, while we were expressing our ideas and being heard (I remember very earnestly trying to write skits based on Actual Medieval History, sigh) — sometimes, there was flirting. There were jokes about jailbait. There were comments about how we looked in our costumes.

That was part of the navigation.

Were my parents concerned that I was spending time with people older than I was? Yes. But they also knew, because I told them, that I was thrilled to have found a group who got my jokes, trusted me to be competent, and basically just seemed to like me.

I don’t know how common it is for teens today to have that kind of experience with a mixed-age social group, aside from online. (Teens reading this, please speak up, if you’re so inclined!)

I could certainly be wrong, but I don’t think it happens very often.

In an age-segregated culture, where we expect teens to socialize only with other teens, the default assumptions for an adult who voluntarily spends time with, speaks highly of, or otherwise engages with teenagers is that said adult is either a. predatory, b. giving of themselves to do Outreach to this Difficult Group, or, c. — if I may be excused for twisting the conventional meaning of this phrase — developmentally delayed, clinging to their own fast-vanishing youth.

This is problematic, to say the least.

As boyd states in Chapter 6,

Now, more than ever, teens are a constructed, controlled, regulated, commoditized, and segregated population. Adults continue to fear for and be afraid of teenagers, mostly because of the popular belief that adolescence and puberty render teenagers incapable of making rational decisions (Bradley 2003; Strauch 2003). Teens’ lives are shaped by these beliefs, especially when adults seek to protect teens by heavily restricting what it is they can do and learn.

And age segregation is self-reinforcing. Teens are warned to watch out for adults who take an interest in them — except for adults who are in authority over them. Parents, teachers, social workers, librarians, religious leaders — those adults, teens should respect. Of course, they don’t always, and they shouldn’t always, either.

Sara Zarr wrote recently about recurring themes in writing. One of mine is flawed mentors, like Aurora in Rules. Is she a fabulous role model? Well, not (tiny spoiler) for sobriety — but for being passionate about your work, yes, she is. If Battle had gone straight (pardon) from her parents’ house into a dorm, she wouldn’t have seen the way those aspects of Aurora’s personality played out. And I think (well, of course I do, I wrote the damn book) Battle would have been poorer without that experience.

Am I advocating for 45 year olds to pursue 18 year olds, or vice versa? Absolutely not. But I am saying that when the opinion of the dominant culture is that any significant interaction between adults and teens is essentially suspect, it makes it a lot more difficult to define appropriate boundaries.

P.S. I have not read the work — Coming of Age in America — from which the title quote is taken, but based on it, I intend to.

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  • sara z.
    January 25, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I got involved with community theater when I was 16, and I loved spending so much time with adults at all stages of life, including young parents and senior citizens. I mostly worked backstage, and it really helped build my independence and self-confidence to have things I was in charge of, without a parent or teacher micro-managing me.

    Of course, I was jailbait 16 and through theater fell in love with 25-year-old who became my husband. So there is that. (The heart wants what the heart wants.)

  • Karosa
    January 28, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I’m 18 and I’ve been working with a non-profit for almost three years now, and I’ve often looked at the mixed-age group there and thought how lucky I was – the older people take the younger ones under their wings, but on the whole, age is irrelevant. I think cross-generational friendships are more common in certain fields, like MedFest or community theatre or non-profits.

  • Georgia
    February 3, 2009 at 5:08 am

    I’m the youngest of five kids, and oldest sister is thirty-eight to my eighteen, and the sister closest to my age is twenty-four, so I’ve always had a lot of contact with adults through their friends and been treated as an equal age-wise. It’s been very beneficial – now that I work in an office, I find it really easy to fit in and get along with my colleagues, who are all about ten years older. A lot of friends from high school say they still have trouble talking with anyone older because they don’t have that experience and see them as authority figures, even if they’re equal.