For any relationship to function, there has to be mutual respect. Here, two teens describe how they felt disrespected or stereotyped because of their age. They reaffirm the importance of keeping an open mind when working with youth.
A Child in Tow
By Erin Baldwin, 18
It was as if I had stepped under a microscope, my community dissecting and picking me apart. As I entered the supermarket, heads turning in my direction, women whispering, I felt discomfort beyond the teasing and taunting of any high school drama. In that moment, I was a teen mother – or at least others assumed I was – and I would not be seen as anything else.
Yet I was simply shopping with Will, my 2-year-old half-brother. I’ll admit, with a full head of blond hair and a magnetic personality, he’s adorable. But I got the feeling the double-takes I was receiving came from people with ulterior motives.
Shopping list in hand, I perused the isles, stopping occasionally to ask Will the color of fruits as we were passing them.
“What color are the bananas?” I asked.
“Yellow!” Will screamed.
“And the apples, what color are they?”
“That’s right! And mommy wants some red apples; they are on the list.”
I glanced up to see a cross-looking woman sneering at me. Rolling her eyes, she flipped around, greeting me with her backside. She must have assumed I was talking in the third person, calling myself “mommy,” when I was only commenting on the shopping list my stepmom had compiled.
Moving on to the dairy section, I asked two young women for the time; they seemed to be a few years older than me. Cordially, they smiled, checking their wristwatches to help me. After giving me the time, however, they proceeded to whisper and laugh at me as I struggled to keep Will in the shopping cart seat.
“That is so sad,” I heard one of them say.
My face burned as I thought how horrible it was for them to judge me without even asking if I was, in fact, a teen mother. And if I were a teen mother, how dare they judge my life? I could only imagine what actual teen mothers had to endure on a daily basis. In that moment, I felt ashamed to be seen with Will.
Still, the worst was yet to come.
As I walked down a narrow cereal aisle, a woman and what appeared to be her two sons (one called her “mommy,” so I assumed she was) approached me. The smaller boy, riding in the shopping cart much like Will, screamed and waved his arms about.
“Mommy no, I want them! Pleeeeease?”
“No! No frosted anything,” she said as her eyes caught mine. Looking me up and down, her eyes darted from me to Will and back again.
“It’s a good thing your mom has some sense, honey,” she said to her son. “Otherwise you’d be in tough shape.”
Shaken, I passed the woman, smiling through gritted teeth.
As my shopping progressed, I noticed the most degrading reactions and least respect from the very group I thought would sympathize with me: women shopping with children. Most frowned and averted their eyes. Others whispered or smirked. Still, many older men and women were more than polite to me. Some smiled, and one woman even waved at Will. And the supermarket employees were just as friendly as I remembered them, before I ever had brought Will shopping with me. They seemed not to notice the flashing “teen mother” sign above my head, or at least they didn’t treat me differently.
One local teen mother told me that employees and those paid to be courteous are the only ones who treat her with respect. Otherwise, she receives dirty looks and disrespectful comments everywhere she goes. Not until I was in the checkout line did anyone ask who the energetic youngster in the cart was, and until then, I never felt that anyone wanted to know.
In so many eyes I was branded, my motherhood and status assumed.
Respect Us; We’ll Respect You
By LeBrie Rich, 16
We baby-sit your children. We bag your groceries. We pump your gas.
I’m talking about teenagers. We’re in limbo between childhood and adulthood, and let me tell you, it is not easy. I am constantly trying to be what I think is myself, and I never know whether I’m supposed to act like a kid or an adult. I don’t know if I want to be treated like an adult, because I’m not one.
But I do know that I want to be treated with respect. The two assumptions I make are people – teens and adults – have to feel valued before they can function, and we feel valued when we are treated with respect. I have been in situations where I was treated without respect, and I got the feeling I didn’t matter. All because of my age.
A friend of mine dances in a troupe, and this year she performed at Festival of the Trees. While she was backstage getting ready, I stood in an unbelievably packed audience for 30 minutes. I watched dancers in sequined outfits and scoped out a place to sit.
During the intermission, a family that was right next to me was packing up to leave. I asked the dad if I could have one of their seats when an older lady sitting behind them piped in to say that she knew someone (who was nowhere to be seen) who had been waiting longer than I had and needed that seat.
So I couldn’t have it. The dad gave me a helpless look and left. Maybe this woman was exhausted and fed up with all the people. And I can look back on this now and refer to the woman as an older lady instead of what was on my mind at the time. But when the incident happened, I felt angry and insolent, and I wanted to fill a teen stereotype by telling her off for treating me as if I didn’t matter.
Another example happens at a video rental place in town. When it’s not busy and I go in with my mom, the lady behind the desk immediately hangs up the phone and is friendly, etc. When I go in alone, I have had to stand at the desk while she gossips with her sister before checking out my movie. It’s the little, day-to-day interactions like these that make me feel unvalued. And it makes it very hard for me to do my best when I am treated without respect.
I’m not asking for anything special. Maybe teenagers don’t have the skills or life experience adults have, but we are human and we are worthwhile. I am asking for patience and an open mind. I am asking to be treated as an equal. If teenagers aren’t treated with respect, how can we be expected to act respectfully?
© 2002, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
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