Why Being a Teenager Sucks and What You Can Do about It

The dirty truth about democracy is that it often doesn’t apply to people under 18.

You’re a citizen of the country you live in, but you don’t have all the civil rights that adults enjoy. You can’t choose where to live, who to live with, or how to spend your days. You aren’t allowed to make your own decisions about sex, smoking, alcohol, and other “risky” activities. Depending on where you live and how old you are, the law may even dictate things like whether you can be home alone (in Illinois, you must be 14) or walk around your own neighborhood without an adult.

And that sucks.

Teens put up with age discrimination on a daily basis. It’s easy for adults to forget—or ignore—what it feels like to be followed in a store because your age makes you a suspected shoplifter, deal with age-restrictive laws like curfews and graduated drivers’ licenses, and have to respect the authority of adults pretty much everywhere.

For people in abusive households or in other unusual situations, legal emancipation may be an option. Honestly, I think emancipation should be accessible to more teenagers. Most societies throughout history have been a lot more flexible than modern Western societies about when people become adults and what roles teens can play in society.

But let’s assume you’re not  in that kind of situation. Your life is okay, or at least tolerable, you just want to figure out how to create more freedom for yourself in the time between now and the magic 18. Here are some ideas for how to get started.

  1. Have a real talk with your parents about what you want to be doing with your time. If you dislike your school, look into other options. Transferring to another public school or private school may be helpful in some situations. Or you may want to consider something more radical, like unschooling or going to a Sudbury school. Two books that can help you convince your parents (and you!) that a nontraditional education won’t ruin your life are The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn and College without High School by Blake Boles. You may also be able to work out flexible situations like going to school part-time, taking a few weeks off to pursue another activity, or graduating early, especially if you have your parents’ support. And there are always summers—take advantage of them while you can.
  2. Work. Even a basic job, like babysitting or working at a restaurant, develops business skills like solving problems, handling conflict, and customer service (which is useful whether you’re working construction, selling paintings, or leading a Fortune 500 company). And, of course, a job also gives you cash of your own, so you can make some of your own consumer decisions.But those aren’t the only options. I know teens who teach tae-kwon-do and coach volleyball. You may be able to help out for a few hours a week at the workplaces of your parents or of someone else you know. Or look into internships, paid or unpaid, with a cause that’s important to you or in an industry you’re interested in. If a place you want to work doesn’t have an internship program, go to them with your own proposal about what you could do for them and how.The brutal truth is there aren’t as many opportunities for teenagers as for adults, so if you don’t find a job that appeals to you, think about starting your own business. This is a great time in your life to try things like opening an Etsy shop, patenting an invention, or offering a service to people you know (I like the show Shark Tank for “start your own business” inspiration—and harsh truth).
  3. Contribute. Be the change you want to see in the world. Get involved in organizations you like–sometimes there are more opportunities for teenagers as volunteers than as paid employees. Start your own organization (all you need is two people and a plan). Ask questions (“Is our school’s roof painted white?” “Can we plant a community garden in the vacant lot next door?”). Go to events that sound interesting in your community, either alone or with a friend. Sign up for newsletters from your congressperson, governor, mayor, alderman, or any other people who represent you—even though you can’t vote yet, you can still participate in community meetings, write letters to your representatives, attend protests, and otherwise get involved in politics.
  4. Prepare yourself for life as an adult. School, and the adults in our lives, often don’t do a great job of this. Learn how to cook your own food, maintain your own stuff (clothes, technology, bike, car), and manage your finances (get a bank account, take baby steps toward investing like opening a CD or buying a few shares of an index fund—but don’t get loans or a credit card if you can avoid it).Or think about career skills you want to have, like marketing, networking with people, or web design. Start developing those skills by reading, watching videos, or reaching out to people who already have those skills.The great thing about developing skills is that even if the people around you don’t take you seriously, you know what you can do. You know you are a force to be reckoned with.
  5. Make your own media. Your generation is so much better at this than older people are. And if you have really strict parents or a really busy schedule, changing schools or taking on an internship may be out of reach, but you can still get your voice out into the world with videos, zines, blogs, fanfiction, etc. Remember two things: it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, and it counts just as much even if no one ever sees it except you.
  6. Avoid people who don’t take you seriously. Easier said than done, I know. But if you can, transfer out of the class of the teacher who doesn’t respect her students or try a different activity instead of putting up with a church youth group leader who belittles teens. This goes for your peers, too: if your friends laugh at your ideas or your boyfriend thinks your commitment to feminism is “cute,” time to hang out with some other people.
  7. Become an activist for teen rights. When you see teens being treated unfairly because of their age, speak up, start discussions, and ask questions. Do youth curfews really decrease crime? Does your school’s uniform policy achieve what it’s supposed to achieve? Get involved with organizations that are working to improve teens’ legal rights, like the National Youth Right Association or Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions.

And when you do become an adult, don’t forget what it was like to be a teenager. Do your best to treat people of all ages with equal respect.


Epic Projects

It’s probably no shocker that I have an affinity for epic projects. I’m a novelist, after all. Novels are projects that often take a year or more and god-knows-how-many hours of work before anyone reads them, plus another infinite amount of work before they’re decent enough to show to the general public. And I’ve never been very good at writing short stories: even the paragraph-long documents on my computer are mostly intended to be the beginning of novels.

As if that process weren’t punishing enough, I have a tendency to take on epic projects in other areas, too. When I was 12 or 13, I was sitting around bored in a genealogical library somewhere waiting for my parents to get done researching when I came across a book called Reading Lists for College-Bound StudentsThis book included a list of 100 of the “most often recommended” books. At the time, I was planning to go to Harvard (I had no idea what Harvard was really like, but I was smart, and Harvard was where smart people go). I figured I should get on that. I copied the entire list out into a notebook and spent eighth grade reading spectacularly age-appropriate books like  The Glass Menagerie and The Stranger by Camus. (I also read 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, so it wasn’t all a baffling trip down existential lane.)

I actually did quite well on this list, eventually. By the time I graduated high school, I’d read more than half, and a college career that included Great Books courses and English classes knocked out a lot of the rest. The very last books on the list–five or six, including Native Son and Don Quixote–are still on my reading list today. I fully intend to read them someday.

When I was in college, the American Film Institute released its “100 Years…100 Movies” list, and I decided I needed to expand my cinematic education. I’d probably seen 20 or so already. Thanks to the college library, some understanding roommates, and a lucky Film Club showing of Birth of Nation (abridged, but close enough when you’re talking about a silent Ku Klux Klan epic), I watched all 100 before graduation.

A year or so ago I decided it would be fun to listen to all the number-one Billboard songs from 1942 forward. When I have a slow day, I add some more songs to a YouTube playlist I’ve put together. So far, I’ve made it to the mid-eighties. I watch a few videos when I wake up in the morning, or play them in the background while I do a task that doesn’t require full concentration. The forties were eye-opening (you wouldn’t believe how many songs I thought were just children’s songs were actually the top of the charts during World War II), and the seventies were a slog, but now that I’m into an era I remember, I’m sure I’ll finish this one eventually.

This attraction towards epic projects also has a darker side. Several years ago, stuck in a job with too much down time, I decided to transcribe my diaries. All 28 volumes.  That one was an epic waste of time. Though it was enlightening to really read them all through, if I’d just read them–and scanned them into the computer–I could have cured cancer by now.

And way back in fifth grade, when I was going through my first bout of depression, I designed what has to be the weirdest, saddest epic project of all. When I was 10, we moved from a small town in Minnesota to an army base in Germany. A year later, I still ached to go back, to a town that I remembered as safe and stable, unlike the constantly changing, unfamiliar world of the army. When my Minnesota best friend sent me a yearbook from what would have been my fifth-grade class, I sat down with all five of our elementary yearbooks and made a big chart. The chart tracked which kids had been in the same class together–for instance, Jeremy, Misha, and I had been in Mrs. Sutherland, Mrs. Lindquist, and Mrs. Blomme’s classes together before being split into different classes in fourth grade. It took forever, but eventually I came up with a small list of pairs of kids who had been in the same classes five years in a row. I guess this project was partially inspired by my budding love for math and statistics, but mostly it was a pathetic grasp towards continuity, an attempt to find a piece of this world I could understand. Looking at little black-and-white pictures of my old classmates was a lot easier than trying to mend the fights I was constantly getting into with my two current best friends.

The secret about my epic projects is that most of them (well, except the novels) are easy. They take persistence, and they may expand my mind, but they aren’t difficult to actually do. They’re something to turn to on the days when my to-do list is too daunting, when even the simplest tasks are turning out much more complicated than I thought. They’re a way to feel like I’m accomplishing something without really moving forward. They’re comfort tasks. And as long as I can keep them in their place, on the fringes of my life but not at the center, I’ll keep taking them on.