What Students Need, But Don’t Get

In a stack of papers called Reform.

  • Feb
  • 18
  • 2006

Teenagers need control. Adults need to help them not make stupid decisions. Everyone needs to realize that some things are only learned through experience. Schools need to help students find their vocation. Students need power.

Teenagers often don’t know what to feel passionately about. They live in a dusk of life, a transition time where things are not well defined as day or night. Are they adults? Are they children? Neither. They are something else. And due in part to the fact that things are not very well articulated and in part to the fact that they haven’t experienced very much of what life has to offer, teenagers don’t yet know what their interests are.

To make matters worse, any sense of power they feel to find that passion regularly slips away from them. As a teenager, a 13-year-old is bound by society to live out the same household roles performed when aged 10. And 10 is a whole lot different than 13. Yet adults often see a person of 10 and a person of 13 in the same category: child. Someone who is 13 doesn’t have any more rights than someone who is 10. The arbitrary age-defined privileges don’t kick in until 16 (in California, anyway).

Generally speaking, society doesn’t give teenagers much control over anything. Why do you think piercing, tattoos, dye jobs, sex, and drugs are so popular in teenage years? Your body is one of the few things you actually have control over at that age. It seems that school would be a perfect place to try out a few different areas in order to find an interest, to find a passion. But our system is not set up that way.

Our public school system often seems set up to accommodate the adults working within it, not the students traveling through it. Mom and dad control the classes for next fall; teachers dictate the amount, timing, and direction of work; administrators decide which teachers a student falls under the tutelage of; students frequently have no say in their academic direction for the entirety of their teenage years with the exception of picking a few electives off a rapidly-shrinking list.

Watch as the feeling of, “I can control my own life” degrades into, “Oh, who cares? Someone else will decide for me.”

We look at apathetic youth and scratch our heads. Yet we rob them of just about every opportunity to have input on the direction of their lives, arguing that we know better by virtue of the fact that we are older. I’m not suggesting that apathy is due exclusively to lack of power. What I am suggesting is that lack of power is one of many things apathy is linked to. Teenage apathy, specifically, is linked also to hormones, role models, society, peer pressure, environment, family, disenfranchisement, and the list goes on.

Schools don’t really have any say in those other things, but we do dole out the amount of power students have. Currently, the serving size is a pretty small one. As an experiment, increase the portions and allow students more choice in their education. Make high school more like college in that regard.

I am a very passionate person. I care about a lot of things and I care about them deeply. But saddle me with requirements that are not of my own choosing in any way and I’m pretty apathetic about doing them. Why do you think I don’t have much of retirement plan, my dishes are unwashed in the sink, and I don’t balance my checkbook…ever?

Students need power to control the direction their lives take. Yes, they are young and need to be protected. To some degree. One of the safest environments in which to practice how to wield the power we seem so afraid to let go of is school, a microcosm of the world, an arena that could easily be set up as an experiment for students to figure out how to live in the world after compulsory attendance.

I know there are some teenagers out there reading this right now. Tell me what I’m missing and show me what I still don’t get.


1. Danielle says:

[11/27/2007 - 8:50 pm]

I would just like to say that you are brilliant. My entire English class thinks so. It is incredibly refreshing to find an adult who sees things from our point of view. I think that its important for parents to realize the damage they could be doing by shielding their kids from the world to the extent that they do.
Thank you for taking the time to understand us.

2. Hannah says:

[11/29/2007 - 12:48 am]

Hello, nice job on the thingy.

I’m fourteen and yes i know its hormones, but i also recognise the lack of power, peer shitheads, and general bleak, grey “enviroment”. Sometimes i have large bouts of apathy. Everything doesn’t matter and all that. Once i even wrote a disgustingly teenage poem about it and scared myself.

Most of my classmates are apthetic, have no direction and no hope. I don’t go to the best school, but neither do i go to the worst. middleclass suburbia if you will.

i get up at a certain time, go to school, i sit and talk about the same things with the same people i eat the exact same packaged food, i get back on the bus, i do my homework eat dinner with a single parent, talk and go to bed.

week and weekend sports and extra-curricular time fillers are taking over my life. occasionly i have projects that send me into a pointless hell. i have no time, nobody has time but it always seems like i’m beng pushed everywhere.

everybody is labled, i must be one thing or the other, no compramises. you must stay cool.

have you noticed we all listen to the same bloody music. Read what we are told.
I am becoming a lawyer. I am a writer however.
sorry for burdening you with this.
just in a bad mood i guess.
nice article anyway.

3. Hadley says:

[2/24/2008 - 12:20 pm]

Hello, I’m a 17-year-old male living in Saskatchewan, Canada and I had to say I enjoyed this article. I found it simply by googling “teenage apathy.”

I really agree with what you said about school not being set up to help students find their passion. Something I hear every day from at least one peer, often myself, is “I just don’t care anymore.” And what at school are we given to care about? Some students may be lucky in that they thoroughly enjoy math or biology or an english class. Other than that, our primary motivation is a supposed bright future that we will achieve through good marks.

And what have we really seen of this bright future? We’ve seen only the adults in our lives (especially our parents) and we’ve seen school. For someone like me, neither of those look promising. I am not enthused to end up like my parents or end up in what seems like school with a paycheck. I feel like somewhere there is a place for me, but I will never hear about it.

I hope this input helped in some way. If not, it was good to rant :)

4. Todd says:

[3/16/2008 - 12:44 pm]

Thanks, all. Keep the comments coming.

5. Steve says:

[9/12/2008 - 7:31 am]

I’m happy that there’s someone out there that sees this situation like we do. I’m 13 and live in New York. Our world is so confusing. There are the peers who cause the pressure and there are the peers who so badly want to stop it but don’t know how. I’m not the kid that gets in trouble all the time but when I do, it goes around the school and everyone looks at me as if I just was released from prison. The kids that beat on everyone else, every day, every hour, they are always verbally putting someone down or physically putting someone down, and when this happens to other people, everyone laughs at them, even I used to. But that was until it started happening to me. Lately this rage has been building up inside of me but I have kept myself calm whenever that happens. I know this article never mentioned bullies but they are everywhere. And I know that there are more victims than just me. Whenever I get bullied, I go into this sort of a depression phase. I can never seem to talk to anyone about it. If my mom asks me whats wrong, I just say “nothing…” I’ve watched shows about students who have committed suicide from consistent bullying. It may not look like that kid isn’t hurt from it in school but believe me. It hurts. It makes you feel low. But I know I’m not low, I know that I am important but I, and several other students worldwide are afraid to go to school because of bullying. The thing that sickens me most about this is that the bullies get “the pretty girls”, “the girls that everyone tries so hard to get”. But these girls have no idea what they’re boyfriends do in school, what they do after school. Like drugs, shoplifting, and cyber bullying as they call it. I wish to tell these girls what they’re getting into but they wouldn’t believe me. There really is no cure for bullying but I just needed to bring up another point about what us teens go through.

6. Atypical says:

[9/16/2008 - 2:00 pm]

Steve.. No cure for bullying? That’s a lie! Try to beat the hell out of them the next time they try something. If you fail, someone is bound to notice, right?

7. Ben says:

[9/18/2008 - 3:53 pm]

I’m so grateful for this essay. I totally agree with the powerless standpoint; how we’re just pinballs in the pinball machine, and everyone else gets to push us around. I think this really inproves my own standpoint on Apathy. (I’m writing an essay on apathy, so this really helped.)


8. Kathryn says:

[12/22/2008 - 5:59 pm]

So tell me, all you apethetic teenagers, coming from a mother of a 17 year old senior in high school. He just needs two classes to have enough credits to graduate and he doesn’t care whether he passes these classes or not. His father and I separated 1-1/2 years ago, and it affected him much more than I ever expected. So I’m sure grief may be playing a large part in the way he feels.

What can I do or say to get him motivated enough to get through this. He has seen a counselor, I’ve talked to, and encouraged until I’m blue in the face, I tried all the traditional methods: grounding, taking away car, taking away phone, making him ride the bus. I’m at the point where I just want him to graduate!!!! If he’s going to eventually work through this, I would rather he come out of it with his diploma, than without.

Any thoughts?

9. Stephanie says:

[7/23/2009 - 3:03 pm]

As for your teenager and graduating, you have to understand, having just listed all the things you’ve tried, that you made a mistake. By trying to control teenagers lives, you push them to rebel. I’m sure the school year has already ended for him but that’s the problem there.

I’m 23 but remember well being a teenager and can tell you what went wrong, although I didn’t fully understand the big picture at the time. Teenagers need some control and authority figures (parents, teachers, administrators) need to give us some credit. Teenagers are so close to being on the same level as adults but yet adults believe that anything they do is wrong and they need to be “controlled”. Let us make mistakes! And give us some trust. (I still feel like a teenager sometimes.)

10. C.H. says:

[1/14/2010 - 6:47 pm]

Hi. I am a sophomore in high-school and I really like the fact that there is at least one adult out there that understands this and gets us teens. My mom lets me have enough freedom so I don’t really feel apathy nor do i really rebel. But, many of my friends go through this and I hate seeing them go through it. So maybe if they know that there is one adult out there that gets them, they might feel better.

Also thank you for writing this out. It really inspired me to write for my essay on teenage apathy. Yeah, I get to write a paper like one of the other fellow commenters((is that a word?)) on this thing. So really, thank you.

11. Matt says:

[10/6/2010 - 7:59 pm]

I appreciate that you took the time to write this, although I know this comment will likely go unacknowledged since it looks like you posted this quite a while ago.

I’m doing an argumentative essay for my senior AP English class about the problem of teenage apathy and how it should handled. I chose the topic because it’s always been something that’s disgusted me with both my peers and myself. I’m working on defeating my own apathetic ways, but I know that not everyone has recognized that this is a severe problem, in America especially.

Although I may not end up quoting this article directly, I am thankful that you chose to write it, however long ago that was. You offer an extremely valid and rightfully sympathetic opinion here, and I’m confident that students in general would find their motivation more easily if more teachers thought like you do.


12. Anonymous says:

[2/1/2012 - 2:10 pm]

I was one a teenager. As was every adult. Here is what you realize as adults:

No matter how important things may seem to a person when they are a teenager, it not too deep into adulthood that the vast majority of those seemingly critical priorities, pan out to be comparitively trivial.

For example, there is not a single friend from my teenage years who plays a major role in my life. I used to place so much importance on those people and what they thought of me. And by the time I was out of school, they were insignificant in my life.

Here’s the kicker; What soon became important as a responsible adult is STILL important today. Let me put it another way. I have likely lived half of my life-expectancy, yet the vast majority of what was important to me when I graduated from college remains a priority today.

I consider myself in tune with a teenage mind. I remember being one. I understand the feelings. And I am not insenitive when I tell you that one day, you will look back at some of the drama you may feel today, and realize it was all just a learning experience, and not anything dire at all. You may even find yourself laughing at your former self.

Understand, I am not talking about the real life events like divorce and death. Those are issues we all have to deal with and the pain and grief has nothing to do with your age.

Take life one day at a time. Live to give to others while keeping true to your self. The popular kids will be forgotten and you may become the most popular person in your field because of your effort and accomplishments, not because of the way you wear your hair.

And the number one thing you can do for yourself that will last you your lifetime and become more and more important each day on Earth…take care of your health!