Like the Cell Phone, the Teen Is on Silent

I have 12-year-old students who have fancier phones than I do.  Despite the fact they have these high-tech gadgets, they struggle to communicate--with me, their parents, each other, and, probably, themselves.

What teenager wouldn't want a fancy phone?  It plays music. It takes pictures.  It connects them to the Web.  It does everything.  It does everything for them.  So we have a population of Latinos growing up with a sense of entitlement I had only witnessed in white culture.

I've been in education for sixteen years.  I remember the struggles of my Latino students at an alternative high school in 1995.  They just wanted to survive, get their diploma.  They were scared about what came next.  At another Southwest Side high school about ten years ago, the Latinos
knew they were better off than those living in Pilsen (before it got more gentrified) or Little Village.  But I don't remember the arrogance--the
"booshwazee" attitude.

The housing boom helped many families leave Latino low-income neighborhoods around the time my wife and I did nine years ago.
They, we, moved to West Lawn and other Southwest Side communities.  The housing crisis now, however, has these same families who "got out" struggling in a lifestyle that is difficult to keep up.

I've heard more than one parent say, "We give them everything."  But the problem is that many of the kids are not giving anything in return.  One young woman I know is planning her cotillion.  I told her she swears so much, she's probably going to let an F bomb slip out when she's welcoming her guests.  She joked: "I'll be like, 'You're all bitches.' "  We laughed.  She's been a lot quieter in class since our conversation.

Then there's the other type of rebellion.  Teens (and pre-teens) hide in their closets to text, talk, or Facebook all night.  They keep passwords from their parents.  I wonder if the parents ever read the texts.  Parents will say there's trust.  But there's also the unknown.  Who's texting?  At what time?  What kind of pictures are they sending?  How many contacts do they have?  Who's Rooster?

When parents don't instill the value of responsible communication at home, it makes my job as a writing teacher much harder.

I know most parents' intentions are honest: we want to give our children what we did not have.  But with these new objects and opportunities, we
must give them the values to be responsible with the phones and with themselves.  I know I will struggle with this as a father.  I think about it
every day.

I understand how necessary it can be to silence the conflicts in our lives like we can silence our phones.  We can reject our calls--kindly even, with a text.  So I think many parents who are struggling with house payments and car loans want to silence the challenges of adolescence.  "It's so I can call you anytime," the mother says.  But the kid may not accept the call.

It's not just the lower-income families who face this problem.  More-financially-stable families also run this risk, maybe more.  Parents see giving them everything as an investment in the future, but my concern is that the teens are growing up with the idea that opportunities can be bought, assumed.  And like many in my generation, the next generation of Latinos will grow up in extreme debt buying cars, TVs, phones that distract us from problems and possible solutions.  Or they'll wonder, "Why doesn't the school give me more financial aid?"

Until then, we can focus on the present.  We can limit how much time our kids spend with the portable DS video game thing my own kids have.  We can take away phones at night.  We can get their passwords.  We can sit next to our teens and review their posts and teach them to respect
themselves.  We can make them get summer jobs--even if they don't get paid.

Most importantly, we can hear our kids and they can listen to us.

Originally published May 17, 2011 on Ray's first blog.  A version of this also aired on NPR's Tell Me More on June 17, 2011.

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