Protecting the Young Protects No One

If you in fact are our targeted audience of young, skeptical adults, then I’m sure all of you have had the experience of a parent or other adult loved one hiding something from you in order to “protect you”. Young people who are curious, perceptive, and intelligent often have the experience of ageism in the form of a parent trying to keep them safe. This was brought home to me very recently when I found out that my mother was feeling extremely guilty that she had not been able to keep some things she viewed as “harmful” from me when I was a child.

On the other hand, my father’s reaction to finding out that I knew these things was “duh”. It appears that my father understands an important fact of life that many adults ignore: children are at least as perceptive as adults, if not more so. The difference is that children have not yet learned how to process the information they perceive, or ask about it in an adult, mature manner. Children often pick up on all sorts of things because they are in a stage of their life where they have to be observational: they don’t yet entirely know what sorts of information will be important to them and which ones they can ignore, so they take in a whole lot more information than an adult might. Very rarely do adults’ secrets remain secret, but often what is more damaging for a child than the secret is the lack of trust the parent displays, or the fact that the child now has to learn how to deal with a difficult situation all alone. Children can also perceive if something is not supposed to be open or talked about, and they can’t ask their parents for comfort or reassurance if they know they’re not even supposed to know about a subject.

This assumption that children will not notice things is simply sloppy thinking. As skeptics we should be skeptical of our own preconceived notions about age. Evidence is showing amazing things about young brains, but time and again adults discount the intellect and creativity of young people. While children can’t often deal with many of the difficulties or complexities of the world, they do need help navigating things at their own level, and can often astound you with what they can understand or perceive. Leaving them to sort it out on their own, or pretending that their brains are incapable of understanding any element of a situation leads to stifling information and stunting the growth of a child. More helpful is asking them what they see or hear, and then explaining to them (accurately and clearly) in a simple way what is true.

When I was working with young children this summer, I often heard them complaining that their parents thought they were dumb. One particularly painful example was when a first grader was talking to her friends and said “My Mommy thinks I’m so dumb because she keeps telling me there’s fireworks outside at night. I know better, I know it’s gunshots”. While it’s understandable that a parent would want to protect their child from these kinds of things, a child does pick up on the environment around them, and telling the child how to stay safe or what mommy and daddy are doing to keep safe is far more comforting than pretending it doesn’t exist.

Even more than small children though, adults tend to discount teenagers. Because a teenage brain hasn’t developed the strong emotional skills of an adult brain, a teen may come across as childish or immature, however many of the other parts of their brains that lead to complex thoughts, feelings and perceptions, as well as abstract ideas are developing. I recently read a review of The Fault in Our Stars that suggested that young adult novels about illness, self-harm, suicide, depression, or other difficult topics is entirely inappropriate for teens because they will begin to mimic that behavior.

The problem with that statement is that teens already perceive and feel elements of those issues, and their brains are advanced enough to read and really resonate with some of these books, books that can help them grow emotionally and learn how to understand or relate to people facing difficulties, as well as gain some empathy and support around their own difficulties. They have the intellectual capacity to read and understand these books at a high level. They may still need some parental support around handling the emotional fallout of reading difficult material, but hell, I’m 22 and I needed support after reading The Fault in Our Stars.

Feeling an emotion deeply in response to a work of art is not a reason to step away from that art, but a reason to move closer to it so as to understand self and others better. Being able to feel that resonance and connect with it is a sign of intellectual maturity, and a sign that we should give our young adults more access to topics that they care about, as well as the support they need to discuss their emotions and whatever issues are at hand. Young adults are more than capable of talking about these issues, and often have to handle them. Opening the door for a conversation does far more than pretending an issue doesn’t exist.

When I was 15, I had an ex-boyfriend call me to tell me that if I didn’t say “I love you”, he was going to kill himself. I had no idea what to do. I was not mature enough to handle the situation. But because my mother had talked to me openly about depression, and because I knew that I could go to her for help with these kinds of difficulties, I got through it. We discussed it. And that discussion made it far easier, not worse, for me as a young person.

Part of respecting everyone is giving everyone the information that they have a right to. It can still be age appropriate or developmentally appropriate, but everyone deserves to be fully informed and aware of the support they have.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. February 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm —

    Regarding young adults not reading certain topics because they might mimic the behaviour–all humans are impressionable by the media we consume (people we’re around, etc). Obviously some more than others, but it would take some proving to say that teens are significantly more susceptible to these influences than more developed adults. It could also stand to reason that to be notably influenced by a topic such as suicide/self-harm would require being surrounded by those ideas frequently over a considerable length of time. I haven’t done any research on this, but to say that a teen would emulate self-harm because they read about it in a book and not because they had an illness just because of their age is ludicrous.

  2. February 24, 2013 at 2:04 pm —

    Yes, this!

    Adults over some age (30, if we believe Bob) can’t be trusted to remember what they knew and perceived when they were little. (Those of us cursed with certain kinds of memory do, though.) This means that they may have forgotten that little kids can get pretty good at pretending they don’t notice the things that they figure out their parents don’t want them to notice.

    As for teenagers, one approach is to convince adults of the following: The damage you do for not trusting your teenage offspring to have valid feelings and valid understanding of the world is greater than the benefit of being paternalistic. That’s an intermediate step for many adults. The truth is, though, that the teens in question generally do actually have an understanding of things that is a) valid, b) different from that of the adults in some ways and c) not really comprehensible by the adults, thus invalidating the paternalism.

    I think that adults are also worried that they will not be credited for their time-earned wisdom. Which they may or may not have.

    I’m really happy to see you young whippersnappers addressing agism more and more these days. Is it too late to make a CONvergence panel on this?

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