What Teens Know That Adults Forget

What Teens Know That Adults ForgetThe other day, we were in the middle of reviewing literary devices when I asked for a student to remind me of what sarcasm is. “It would be like someone saying, ‘I reeeeally like that blouse you’re wearing today’.” Sometimes, I just walk right into. My stomach hurt by the time we all got done laughing.

Truth be told, I imagine most adults have been outsmarted by a child or teen at some point. A clever quip, an unforeseen loophole, an infallible counterargument. But this week I was absolutely amazed to realize that when it comes to purposeful living and personal finance, teens know quite a few things that we seem to forget as adults.  

S.E. Hinton penned the short story that evolved in The Outsiders when she was 15 years old. The full-length novel was published when she was 18. That means somewhere between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, she crafted what I would consider to be one of the greatest universal truths about money and mindfulness:

“Rat race is the perfect name for it. We’re always going and going and going, and never asking where. Did you ever hear of having more than you wanted? So that you couldn’t want anything else and then started looking for something else to want? It seems like we’re always searching for something to satisfy us, and never finding it.”

I’ve had the fortune of teaching The Outsiders for two years now, and this was the first year that I decided to have my students react to that specific quotation. I was expecting puzzled looks, raised hands, silent keyboards. Instead, my seventh graders pecked ferociously at their keyboards with looks of great resolve, pleading for more time to write. In the ultimate sign of don’t-bother-me-teacher-I’m-thinking, I even watched a few tongues poke out of corners of mouths.

I was bracing for mediocrity at best, utter confusion at the worst. I mean, to begin with, it’s impressive that a teenager came up with that quotation. Surely, she must have possessed some special talent or keen insight that set her apart. I teach wonderful kids, but published teenage authors they are not.*

Instead, I was floored. Paragraph after paragraph contained remarkable kernels of truth. Even my students who struggle with comprehension or sustained writing tasks baffled me with their insights.

Rather than having me paraphrase or summarize, I thought I’d share some of their wisdom with you:

  • “It’s about being bored. If things come too easy to you, you have to find something else to work at. That’s why it’s bad for things to be easy. You need a challenge.”
  • “Sometimes people do stuff just to say they’re doing stuff. They don’t have a goal. It’s just everyone else is doing things, so you want to do those things too.”
  • “It’s why people are never happy with what they have. Especially the rich ones. They don’t appreciate it. Instead, they always try to get more money.”
  • “Like the Socs, some people have way too much  money. And when you have a lot of money, you have to find ways to keep making more otherwise you don’t feel good about yourself anymore.
  • “People who have a lot of money only worry about themselves. They should think about everyone. Don’t just make yourself good. Make other people good.

While I may have adjusted for commas and capitalization in some instances, the content is all theirs. Ideas about purposeful living, independence, uniqueness, excess, consumerism, charity littered their pages.The discussion was even richer when they had opportunities to elaborate on their thoughts and when some were emboldened enough to make personal connections. Like all of the best conversations in life, I left my classroom that day with more questions than answers.

  • How do we forget these concepts so quickly?
  • How much of the blame can be placed on advertising, on social media, on friends and family?
  • What should schools and communities do so that this wisdom isn’t forgotten but rather nurtured?

* Yet. It is my biggest teacher fantasy to have a student of mine get published at some point in his or her life. Every year, I promise to buyallthecopies when they make it big.

So Tell Me…Care to pose an answer to any of these questions? Did their responses raise other questions for you?


What Teens Know That Adults Forget

12 thoughts on “What Teens Know That Adults Forget

  1. This story is very moving. How satisfying it must be to have this kind of impact! I’m especially impressed with “Make other people good.”

    We can blame social-media all we want for the pressure felt by teens (and adults) but it’s up to us to set the standards for ourselves and our families. Making time and space for real conversation and self-reflection is a start. The dinner table and the bedroom are good no-gadget zones.

  2. I think most teens are pretty inundated already with what they’re supposed to want, and plenty of them buy into it (as it were). So I’m not sure how much we forget.

    Maybe the introspection comes from being teens and not being able to afford what they want?

  3. Wow, this is amazing. I absolutely loved reading The Outsiders (‘Stay gold, ponyboy.’) in school & this is an excellent exercise that you held with your students. I’d like to reply to the last bullet point about “Make other people good.” This something I still struggle with, finding that intricate balance of saving for myself & reaching my goals, but also giving to others (whether time and/or money). I struggle because time is a finite resource and there’s only so much I can accomplish – but when I have tunnel vision only focusing on financial goals for myself & family I am failing to do good for others that I am not directly in relation to. That’s incredibly fantastic for that student to capture that point.

  4. I think as teens we focus on the social. Not that we don’t as adults, but for teens, a social life is far more important than money, which is maybe why they’re focused more on people over dollars? I think that reverses as we get older. Not necessarily a good thing.They also have a lot more time to think. Haha. At least I did then vs me now.

  5. Wow.

    Thinking back to my own experience as a teenager, I definitely remember feeling idealistic, like I wanted to do good things, help others, and make the world a better place rather than simply joining the rat race. I think I’m less idealistic now (unfortunately), and I think this has a lot to do with gaining more personal experience. When I was a teenager, sentiments like “I want to help people” or “I don’t want to join the rat race” seemed like cool abstract ideas, but now I understand better that “helping people” takes blood and sweat and tears and time, and “I don’t want to join the rat race” can in some cases be roughly equivalent to saying “I want a low salary and all the anxiety that is associated with that.” I guess for me the challenge would be to try to regain some of my former idealism *even though* I now have a better understanding of what types of sacrifices I might have to make to pursue those ideals.

    (Not to suggest AT ALL that your students are naive — they may be far more mature than I was at that age, and/or have more real world experience. I’m mostly just musing about myself here.) 🙂

    Also, I had no idea that S.E. Hinton was so young when she wrote this! Crazy. Or not crazy, if we take into account the wisdom of teenagers.

  6. I think this wisdom starts to wear off once you approach graduation day and everyone begins to worry about finding a well-paying job as soon as possible. For a few months, you hear about others getting lucky and others getting not-so-lucky and eventually as you enter the corporate world, you forget that its not ALL about the money because everyone around you (i.e. other young adults, middle aged people and those who are about to retire) feels that it IS about the money.

  7. This is such a great reminder of how naturally insightful we all are before we start doubting ourselves and following all the conventional wisdom. Looking back, I literally never thought about money and how much of it I wanted to earn one day — I just knew I wanted to be a rockstar in my career, and achieve a lot. But it didn’t take me long once I started working to realize that yeah, titles are great, but I really wanted the earnings, and didn’t care as much about achievement because working wasn’t what I thought it would be. So after years of chasing the dollars (within reason!), Mr. ONL and I finally realized that we were right early on — we don’t care about the money, don’t even really need the money, but instead want the freedom to “achieve” the life that we shape ourselves. Kids are so wise. 🙂

  8. It’s so good to give kids an opportunity to ponder the bigger questions (and find their own answers.) I think it’s a big motivation for most bloggers: we write to help us figure out our own motivations, goals, plans and dreams. It would be cool if the kids had a chance to practice the things they considered.

    If you don’t have a published author in your group, you will still score a few bloggers. =)

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