Brave new world of teen autonomy: Teen-agers today are influenced by other teen-agers, television, celebrity endorsements, music, gang standards. Not by adults

Globe and Mail, July 13, 1998

It has been said that one can construct the history of a civilization merely by studying its garbage, but I prefer the rummage sale. The one at our local church always provides grist aplenty for the amateur social historian’s mill. Little bits and pieces of dated pop culture line the tables in a sometimes humorous, often instructive array. The Darth Vader shampoo dispensers, Elvis busts and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks seem to say more than even the most historically relevant coffee grounds and banana peels ever could.

I found an especially striking relic one year — a grey, hardcover textbook from the 1950s called Into Your Teens, which promised to “go right to the heart of the real problems of real boys and girls as they move along into adolescence.” One cartoon follows two clean-cut teen-agers on the ideal date, providing advice for both parties at each critical juncture. Gallant Young Man: “Don’t rush the girl right out of the house. Stay a few moments and talk in a friendly way with her family.” Gracious Young Woman: “At a movie, you follow the usher and the boy will follow you.”

The most cursory glance reveals that the “real boys and girls” of this book are from a bygone era. Relying on anecdotes and earnest drawings (apparently, everybody was white and middle-class in the fifties), it explains everything from “Which Hairstyle for You?” to “learning to be friendly” to “Hints for Planning Parties.”

When I compare my own adolescence to it, I wonder if I belong to the same species as Ray, Lucy and the other “typical teen-agers” of this book. The anecdotes follow a simple pattern: Misguided youngsters (usually identifiable by their cranky expressions and unkempt clothing) are shown doing the Wrong Thing. Then we see upstanding young citizens, hair perfectly combed and teeth sparkling white, demonstrating the Right Way.

The wrong-minded teen-agers make a number of simple, rather childish mistakes. Ruth is not hospitable to Sarah, a new arrival in the school. Tom becomes convinced that he’s a “sissy,” because he prefers playing the violin to baseball. Nowhere in this book is the Grade 8 crack dealer or the 15-year-old mother. Poverty, abusive parents, anorexia, and physical and mental disabilities are all strangely missing.

I consider myself lucky to have what all the teen-agers in this book have — a stable, comfortable family and a life free from any real danger. But even so, it’s difficult to identify with the flailings of the young people of this book. They seem so very earnest about everything — like docile sheep, in awe of the shepherding skills of adults, eager to be shown the wholesome path toward happiness and fulfillment.

It seems improbable that the teen-agers of only 40 years ago really were so dramatically different from those of today. Perhaps the characters in the book are more ideal adult visions than realistic reflections of the book’s audience. Maybe James Dean influenced a 1950s adolescence as much as Into your Teens.

Be that as it may, adults today would never dare be so all-encompassing in their directions to teen-agers. Into your Teens is intended for use in a classroom, probably in guidance class. My own classes of this type are thoroughly technical, focusing on detailed explanations of acne or the use of a condom. If a textbook or teacher of the nineties tried to prescribe the etiquette of dating or provide instruction on “learning to be friendly,” my classmates and I would respond with apathy or hostility.

That the authors of this book expected a naively pliant audience is clear from a two-page spread recommending specific hairstyles and dress designs for young women of varying body types: No modern adult writer would even try this. Teen-age fashion today is influenced by many things — celebrity endorsements, sports affiliations, gang colours — but definitely not by school textbooks.

Adults simply no longer have the impact on the lifestyles and values of young people that they once did. Teen-agers today are united by the influences of television, music and consumer products aimed at us exclusively. Today’s adolescents are much more likely to identify with someone their own age on the other side of the continent than they are with the adults with whom they interact on a daily basis.

The importance of adults in teen-agers’ lives has plummeted to such a degree that they no longer even try to exercise the pervasive influence which the authors of Into your Teens took for granted. My generation, more than any before, seems to be free to define itself as it pleases. Into your Teens shows just how quickly society reinvents itself, because it and the situation it represented are as alien to me as Saturday Night Fever would be at a rave.

Noel Semple is 17 and lives in Toronto.