Words for teenagers meme

There’s this Facebook meme doing the rounds called “Word’s for teenagers”. At first I thought it had some good points. Sure it’s a Judge having a rant, so I made some allowances for it being a little intolerant. Especially of youth. Especially as he has to convict them all the time. Then I thought about it some more. Now, while we ALL know some teenagers that probably need this rant (below) tatooed onto their foreheads, I’m still troubled by it. Disturbed in fact.

Northland College (NZ) principal John Tapene has offered the following words from a judge who regularly deals with youth…..”Always we hear the cry from teenagers ‘What can we do, where can we go?’…My answer is, “Go home, mow the lawn, wash the windows, learn to cook, build a raft, get a job, visit the sick, study your lessons, and after you’ve finished, read a book. Your town does not owe you recreational facilities and your parents do not owe you fun. The world does not owe you a living, you owe the world something. You owe it your time, energy and talent so that no one will be at war, in poverty or sick and lonely again.” In other words, grow up, stop being a cry baby, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone. Start behaving like a responsible person. You are important and you are needed. It’s too late to sit around and wait for somebody to do something someday. Someday is now and that somebody is you.

The problem is that it’s one big finger pointing at the bored kid who acted out in some socially unacceptable fashion, and that big finger just says it’s YOUR FAULT! And no doubt many things are their fault. But here’s something the Judge doesn’t have:-

  • Peer pressure that is so overwhelming it feels like the end of the world when your group turns their back on you for being uncool.
  • Raging hormones that tell you the world is fine one moment, and falling apart the next.
  • Massive identity questions, and every corporation in the world eagerly trying to shape your identity moving forward into the future. The Judge knows who he is. This (hypothetical) kid doesn’t know he is, has never earned a serious pay-cheque or balanced the books or had to say no to a door to door salesman or maybe even kissed a girl yet.

But worse than all this basic life development stuff is the fact that today is an era crying out for role models that actually inspire kids. Who do they turn to? Action heroes? Comic book stereotypes? With divorce rates as high as they are, marriage and parenthood are probably not being modelled. With alcoholism and gambling and TV addiction and substance abuse as high as they are in the adult population these kids are meant to look up to… is it any wonder kids today look for the easy quick fix, and long for entertainment and escape? Because they are on the run. They’re on the run from themselves and their identity problems, from their parent’s divorce, from their parent’s generation failing to solve global problems like global warming and energy security and saving the tiger and whales and fresh water supplies and poverty and malaria and everything else we see on the messed up TV every night. So while the Judge certainly can point his finger at this hypothetical kid, there’s a finger pointing right back, asking who this Judge is and what he’s done to help make this world a place the kid actually wants to belong to.

Because when you think about what the last 2 generations have done to this kid’s future, with global warming and peak oil and biodiversity loss and rainforest destruction and bland suburban sprawl robbing the kid of any real connection to his neighbourhood, then isn’t this really a case of the pot calling the kettle black?


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14 Responses to Words for teenagers meme

  1. I don’t agree completely, in regards to whether a person needs to be in a perfect environment in-order to learn to do the right thing. I DO agree that being a kid is tough in today’s climate, but does that suggest it should make their actions justified to the point where laws, or “doing right” don’t apply to them?

    You sort of toned-down an important aspect of what was happening here… This was a judge, which means that the teenager in-question would have been involved in illegal activities, not merely “acting out in a socially unacceptable fashion.” I think that distinction here is important, especially when the defense he’s speaking against is merely “What can I do? Where can I go?” not, “well all my friends were doing it” or “my parents do it”, or “everyone else does it.”

    This identifies that the teenager seems to have known, and agreed with the ‘system’ that what they were doing was wrong. I feel it’s important to suggest that if we all know right from wrong, and are acting wrong despite knowing better, it is important to sometimes have that finger pointed at us that says “it’s your fault” because we are responsible for our own actions. It’s a reminder that despite whatever else is going on in our lives, we still should be trying to do what’s right, rather than taking the “path of least resistance.”

    The part which made the judge’s message resonate in my own head, was in the beginning, where the judge listed things like “make a raft.” It seems silly, by itself, until you realize that it’s essentially an example of a project that will consume time, energy, and have something to show for it once it’s been completed. It could also lead to other things, like where you might use the “raft”, or whatever, or maybe even discover an interest in fields related to it. Getting a few friends together, acquiring materials, or earning money to get materials, and actually making something like that, could really do wonders for a kid (or an adult) in terms of a valid use of time. It’s possible to do without worrying about negative peer pressure, and might actually propel you forwards, in terms of social acceptance with folks around you… perhaps even turning you into a role model for the next teenager looking for something to do. Maybe a “raft” isn’t cool/fun enough, but there’s other stuff that might be more readily applicable.

    Point is.. responsibility lies within. A person could have lousy parents, bad role models, and bad peers, and yet still find something wonderful to do with their lives, that enriches themselves and others around them. They will NOT do this if you hand them excuses that “well life sucks, and noone’s been nice to you, so we’re not expecting much from you” and they spend their time breaking the law, or plugged into a videogame or TV, rather than doing something that they can maybe learn, or identify with, and grow with.

    We all know the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You still have to lead that horse to water, or they CANT drink, and that’s what I believe the judge’s words have done. The self-identity thing you listed as being something the judge should take into account, is precisely what the judge’s directions would achieve. How is a kid without a job ever going to get their first paycheck? It’s not like we all just suddenly have a self-identity, it’s something we create through our life experiences. The judge’s thoughts conveyed a way to get that which would differ from the life experiences the kid was getting through illegal means.

  2. specialletters says:

    Now then Julius get off that chariot you are not going to the Coliseum again – read your scroll and do some homework on your abacus and go whip the slaves – there is a good boy. Nothing changes does it. That judge is a red neck

  3. Leah Alethia says:

    I was doing some thinking on this meme. I agree with what you said about the obstacles faced by young people. I also agree that some lack positive role models and families. It would be hard to overcome all of that. But just because it is hard, doesn’t mean they can’t do it. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. I am a middle school teacher and something I have noticed in my ten years of teaching is that some students show up with an “entertain me” attitude. College courses in teacher prep even talk about having teachers trick kids into learning. I feel like that is doing our students a disservice. We need to teach our kids that even if something is hard, they can do it. They should do it even if it is boring. They can be the change. And, I guess what I’m saying is, this meme isn’t all bad. I just wish it would have added a note to adults, “Make a boat with a kid, read a novel with a kid, talk with a kid about problems in the world that need to be solved. Then, tell the kid they can do things that are hard.”

    I have known a number of kids in the past that would really feel liberated by this Judge’s rant. They are the independent ones who want to do everything on their own, or first. Let this inspire those kids, and for the rest, they won’t listen anyway. For them, us adults will have to show them a few times, do it with them for a while. And, that’s OK.

  4. I saw the meme on Facebook and traced its story to http://www.thepiercecountytribune.com/page/content.detail/id/501139/No-holds-barred-message-to-teens.html?nav=5011.
    When I googled, your blog post was the #1 organic hit, so I hope you don’t mind if I post “the rest of the story” to save other googlers a little time.

    – Tim

    Open letter to Teen-ager

    Always we hear the plaintive cry of the teen-ager. What can we do?…Were can we go?

    The answer is GO HOME!

    Hang the storm windows, paint the woodwork. Rake the leaves, mow the lawn, shovel the walk. Wash the car, learn to cook, scrub some floors. Repair the sink, build a boat, get a job.

    Help the minister, priest, or rabbi, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army. Visit the sick, assist the poor, study your lessons. And then when you are through – and not too tired – read a book.

    Your parents do not owe you entertainment. Your city or village does not owe you recreational facilities.

    The world does not owe you a living…You owe the world something.

    You owe it your time and your energy and your talents so that no one will be at war or in poverty or sick or lonely again.

    Grow up; quit being a crybaby. Get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone, and start acting like a man or a lady.

    You’re supposed to be mature enough to accept some of the responsibility your parents have carried for years.

    They have nursed, protected, helped, appealed, begged, excused, tolerated and denied themselves needed comforts so that you could have every benefit. This they have done gladly, for you are their dearest treasure.

    But now, you have no right to expect them to bow to every whim and fancy just because selfish ego instead of common sense dominates your personality, thinking and request.

    In Heaven’s name, grow up and go home!

    – Judge Philip B. Gilliam of Denver, CO, “a highly respected judge in the Denver Juvenile Court and Juvenile Hall from 1940 until his death in 1975,” South Bend Tribune, Sunday, Dec. 6, 1959.

    More about how the clipping is going viral at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/14/words-for-teenagers-judge-advice_n_1776337.html

  5. Mike Justice says:

    I hate this meme, and I’m disappointed in each and every friend of mine on Facebook who posts it, “likes” it, or otherwise reacts to it positively. Being indignant and restless in childhood is what prompts entrepreneurship, to fly the coop, go against the grain, change culture. It enables free societies to progress. If children were all little adults running around, then nothing would ever change. If mowing lawns and washing windows were the only ways to build character and turn into responsible adults, then NOBODY would be a responsible adult because every damn person in the history of time complained that there was nothing to do when he or she was a teenager.

  6. I think Judge Gilliams words from 1959 (he’s the one that the principal quoted) still applies today. http://www.thepiercecountytribune.com/page/content.detail/id/501139/No-holds-barred-message-to-teens.html?nav=5011

    Yes, it’s true that role models for children are few and far between these days, but it was the same thing for me as an Asian American growing up in 70s and 80s. Who were my role models back then? None of us had the ideal parents. Everyone had a bad childhood. Basically the judge was saying stop making excuses and start thinking about how you can contribute to society instead of waiting for something good to happen. Too late to pine about our childhood. The very act of doing something positive takes you out of a helplessness spiral.

    And other people think it’s very relevant too judging by all the “likes” and “shares” on Facebook.

  7. I’ve raised 7 Kids, 3 Blood, 4 Heart, All of Whom were diagnosed with some level/type of learning disability. I have 14 Grandkids. When We are Blessed With Precious Innocent Children, It is Our JOB as parents to TEACH Them Respect & Responsability. It is NOT Our job to be their friend, nor to spoil them to the point of being stupid, Nor to expect Nothing of them. We are here to TEACH them; not saying to stiffle thier independent thought or imagination. We Must Encourage them, show them they CAN stand on Thier Own 2 Feet, Teach them to Fly. So that when it is time for them to leave the nest, THEY CAN SOAR!

  8. “It’s not your FAULT” yes, but it’s your RESPONSIBILITY to deal with it. don’t mix up the argument.

  9. Eclipse Now says:

    Our alcoholism and gambling and divorce and negligible role models are *our* responsibility to fix, not teenagers. Their *actions* are their responsibility, yes. But teenagers need inspiration and encouragement because they are in a situation the judge has successfully escaped decades ago. That judge grew up in a time so different to today that it may has well been a different planet. Who is he to judge these kids?

  10. waltbx says:

    Such a good blog. Thanks for your energy and commitment.

    I trust that you will share with me a willingness to correct a firestorm of injustice. My mother was the author of “Letter to a Teenager” incorrectly attributed to Judge Philip Gilliam, a good man, who has acknowledge he wasn’t the author and “never pretended to be.” It is so unfair to my mother, who has since passed. My sisters and I would be deeply grateful if she would receive the recognition she deserved.

    The letter was written in response to a near riot after a football game in 1955. The teens involved said they “had nothing to do, nowhere to go.”

    I have substantial documentation.

    I have copies of two letters, one from The Reader’s Digest of September 15, 1958 and the second from Abigail Van Buren dated January 16, 1978 acknowledging her authorship. I would post copies if I knew how.

    Abby says in the letter “Dear Doris: You, dear, modest, generous lady. I am returning all the documentation per your request. As I recall, a judge in Denver, Judge Gilliam (or something like that) took credit for the letter you wrote. And several others had the nerve to claim authorship.”

    The Reader’s Digest letter says, in part: “We were delighted to have your letter and to learn that you are the author of ‘letter to a Teen-Ager,’ which we reprinted in our August [1958] issue. Our payment check for $80.00 is enclosed… You may be interested to know that since your letter appeared in the Digest it has received even wider circulation, for we are now receiving reprints from all over the country.”

    In her correction piece, Inez Robb, whose syndicated column appeared in 140 papers, wrote: “Since about 50 per cent of my correspondents attributed the letter to Philip B Gilliam, the widely-know judge of Denver’s Juvenile Court. I telephoned to ask him when he had first written it.
    ” ‘But I am not the author, I didn’t originate it,’ Judge Gilliam said. “I don’t know who wrote it. As best I can remember, I received an anonymous letter from an irate parent seven or eight years ago. He or she laid down the platform that has since become known as ‘Letter To A Teen-ager.’ ”
    ” ‘A few months after I received it I was speaking at Boys’ Ranch in Amarillo, Texas,’ Judge Gilliam continued. ‘I used the advice in the talk and the Boys’ Ranch publication reprinted it, and credited it to me.”
    Well, if Judge Gilliam is not the author of “Letter To A Teen-ager,” who is?
    Stop the press! The mailman has just delivered a delightful letter from Mrs. Doris Burvill (sic.) of Hibbing, Minn., who says she wrote the famous letter “several years ago after a near student riot in Hibbing, following a basketball game.”
    “It was first published in the Hibbing Daily Tribune” the author says “And was picked up by The Readers Digest.”
    Mrs. Burville: Front and center, and take a bow!”

    Here are several links to Abby’s columns where she corrects the false attribution to the Judge. Her column is syndicated and you will find that article in many newspapers carrying Dear Abby.

    From the Chicago Tribune: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-10-29/news/9510290386_1_dear-abby-open-letter-sick

    The Bryan Times, July 2, 1985. (go to page 3 upper right) http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=NtGNdKbuCngC&dat=19850702&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

    Inez Robb, Lewiston Evening Journal, March 26, 1963 (jump to page three) http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1913&dat=19630326&id=f7QgAAAAIBAJ&sjid=vmkFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2309,2430303

    Thanks for your consideration.
    Walt Burville

  11. Patty Waddle says:

    Wow, responding to some of the comments here. Way to turn this into psychologically damaging. I equate this to asking your toddler to throw away the bottle and pacifier. Some of us who were raised, apparently by redneck poor parents, paid attention when they said find something to do when we said we were bored. Basically, not my job to entertain you. I’m from another time, not only did we not have the option but our parents didn’t have tons of money to buy us I-pods, I-pads, I-phones, X-boxes or buy us name brand clothes and shoes and we we were not allowed to talk on the landline all day and night with our friends. No Facebook or Instagram. We got spankings, not timeouts. They took us to church and we ate dinner at the table together everyday. We could talk, listen, express ourselves, laugh and eat some in between. The judge is saying what youth should have already been told before they are standing in front of him. What’s more, they probably had been told, but they didn’t listen, didn’t learn and they are now self-absorbed teens and could turn into the same kind of adults. What was right is now wrong and what was wrong is right. I was just looking at a list of over 6,000 people arrested in three counties in one state in 60 days. A majority were in their 20’s and 30’s. You tell me if taking a chance some kids hear what this judge said or will read this meme is as damaging as having a criminal record, no job, a drug or alcohol addiction or a future because no one tells them the world really does not revolve around you.

  12. Eclipse Now says:

    Hi Patty,
    first let me say that I agree with a lot of what you say. You spell out some of the ingredients about successful parenting and imparting resilience. My point is that generally speaking (and there will always be exceptions to the rules), most of our troubled youth did not experience these things.

    Yes, recent studies have shown that being a Christian (or following one of the other core faiths) gives meaning and purpose to young people, and generally makes them *more* psychologically balanced, not less. As you said, “I’m from another time”, probably a time when Americans went to church. There’s not as much of that going on now since the 60’s sexual revolution and the consequent divorce rate skyrocketing, and church attendance with Millennials has gone down even further in this internet age.

    “not only did we not have the option but our parents didn’t have tons of money to buy us I-pods, I-pads, I-phones, X-boxes or buy us name brand clothes and shoes”

    That’s the corporate branding machine at work. Unless you play the *latest* games and wear the latest clothes, especially at school were tribal cultures exist based on certain clothing brands, then you don’t know who you are and are worthless. The American tribe-by-brand identity package particularly bugs me, as I live in Australia where kids are spared all that horror by wearing a (in most schools) affordable school uniform. (The private school uniforms are outrageously expensive, as are the fees!)

    Young people are targeted by smart-bomb marketing. It makes the marketing you were exposed to look trite and silly. The corporate owned world we live in is highly individualistic and wants to maximise consumption of their money-wasting clothes, time-wasting games and reality TV shows and soul-destroying junk, and in many cases in the absence of functional parenting, these forces take over.

    “and we we were not allowed to talk on the landline all day and night with our friends.”

    That would imply parenting. But with a divorce rate over 50%, where’s that coming from these days? So the kids turn to their peers for direction. If their peer groups are decent, then they’ll probably end up decent. If not…

    “No Facebook or Instagram.”

    You mean you grew up without smart-bomb advertising and 24 hour social pressure, had parents, had time to think and unplug and do human things with real people, and yet you still feel comfortable siding with a judge who simplistically rants against kids who *are* growing up with all these pressures? We have not even discussed what universally accessible pornography is doing to the values of young people. In many cases young people are not being *privileged* by Facebook or Instagram, they’re being consumed by them. Even kids from church backgrounds are struggling with this stuff, and we try to encourage them to install different ‘safe eyes’ software on their devices.

    “We got spankings, not timeouts.”

    You got parents, not a single mum or dad working 2 jobs to try and put food on the table. You belonged to a culture that pretty much agreed on worldview, not the fragmented multicultural multi-faith anything goes society we’re pushing kids into today.

    “They took us to church”

    Excellent! But church attendance is really dropping off with young people today. Part of that lack of modelling I was talking about above.

    “and we ate dinner at the table together everyday.”

    Great! But exhausted single mums that have been working 2 jobs on minimum wage are often just starting their afternoon or evening shift when little Johnny is sitting down to his microwave meal.

    “We could talk, listen, express ourselves, laugh and eat some in between.”

    Unbelievably valuable! I hear you! But again, there’s that 50% divorce rate and single parents working 2 jobs and the weekend. When is all this talking and listening meant to happen?

    “The judge is saying what youth should have already been told before”

    There’s telling, then there’s showing. There’s lecturing, then there’s caring. Young people who find themselves in trouble did not experience the showing and caring. The modelling. That divorce rate and all. In fact, divorce is having such a profound impact on kids that I recently heard an interview with a secular feminist atheist lady who claimed that instead of viewing marriage as a trap in a patriarchal, male dominated society, women should start to see a stable life-long commitment to marriage as a women’s rights issue on the behalf of their children!

    “What’s more, they probably had been told, but they didn’t listen”

    When dad abandoned the family for the secretary and mum got lumbered with that second waitressing job, what are they listening to again?

    “didn’t learn and they are now self-absorbed teens”

    Well, social media consumed teens that produce teens unable to think clearly in a world of a thousand different corporate voices screaming “Live MY way, consume MY products!” To someone outside their generation they probably do look self-absorbed. But to youth workers (as I have been in the past) and people studying some of these mega-trends in society, they are suffering some of the societal experiments we are throwing on them like 24/7 smart phones & social media & peer pressure, absent parents, unfair societal economic systems, etc.

    “and could turn into the same kind of adults”

    You mean like the adults that were not there to demonstrate how to live in the first place?

    In summary: I completely agree with you on the right sort of ingredients that would make more resilient young people. However, the judge above could do with a few years in social work to learn why, statistically speaking, his rant ignored the reality of the very different pressures on young people today.


    They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things — and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning — all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything — they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.

    “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint”.
    (Hesiod, 8th century BC)

    “The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”
    (From a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274)

    But this is my favourite quote: Chesterton was so good at turning a phrase and making his point!

    “I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.”
    (G.K. Chesterton)

    Also, before we completely write-off young people, let’s remember that they are also statistically less likely to be racist and more likely to care about big-picture environmental issues than some of their parents. The same selfish individualism that led to the 1960’s sexual revolution also backfired into American climate denialism. Young people are less likely to be swept up in all that hyper-republican anti-science dogma, and more likely to be upset by the scientific realities. Overwhelmed and depressed by them in fact. Global warming sure wasn’t something you grew up with, but it’s a REALITY these kids are facing as OUR generation tries to burn all the coal and oil and gas, leaving nothing for our grandchildren. One of my online email group friends was a bright young man studying engineering. He studied all these environmental trends, concluded that civilisation wasn’t going to make it and took his own life! So before you come down too hard on young people today, ask yourself if there’s a reason they’re diving into social media and superficial TV rather than grappling with the real world, because the real world we are leaving to them can seem a rather grim place!

  13. Teens and kids will do well in SpikeBoarding. The sport is life long physical literacy that recreates and transports. Good sector that will grow.

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