For most of my adult life, my jobs have called for me to work with children–adorable, slobbery faced babies, chubby cheeked, bow-legged toddlers, and loveable, chattering preschoolers. When these children fuss or act out or throw a tantrum, it’s vexing, but manageable–after all, they’re still small enough for the average adult to pick them up and carry them off, which is a strategy I heartily endorse when your kid is losing it loudly in public.
Yet as well all know, these little kids grow up to be bigger kids, and eventually they end up in that fresh hell of adolescence(1). They are taller, ganglier, smellier, stronger, and just as determined to say “No!” and push boundaries as any two year old. Unlike with a toddler, however, we can’t just pick up a thirteen year old and haul him out the door. We have to talk with him, just as you do a toddler, but at longer length, and with a conversation partner who can respond, question, and prod you with much more than just a screamed “No!”
It’s easy to love babies and toddlers. They’re designed that way–big eyes, easy smiles, chubby limbs. It’s hard to love your average teenager. They slouch, they sneer, they argue–but they’re designed that way. They’re trying on personalities along with their clothes and hairstyles, and they’re trying to find out who they want to be in the world. Once they know who they are, they’ll find out what they want to do, and begin to take a wider interest in the world. Teens are designed to have an intense preoccupation with the self, because they are trying to figure out who that “self” is. And is there a better place to pursue this self-discovery than the library?
The best libraries and best librarians know these things about teens, mostly through observation. Just as it would serve children’s librarians better to take child development courses, it would serve teen librarians better to do the same. (2) Adolescence is a turbulent, fascinating time in human development, and if you don’t know what it entails and why it happens the way it does, you’re going to be confused, and that confusion will lead to anger, irrational behavior, and bad choices.
Erikson has a concept called “psychosocial moratorium”, which is a concept that adolescents need a time-out from “the sort of excessive responsibilities and obligations that might restrict the young person’s pursuit of self-discovery” (Steinberg p. 458). What does that mean? Teens need time to hang out, without being told what to do, as a developmental NEED. They are not lazy; they are not stupid; they are not purposefully trying to ignore you; when they sit there, with their friends, being obnoxious, they are actually HARD AT WORK, BECOMING PEOPLE.
Steve Teeri (3) understands this, and is doing good work in Detroit supporting teens’ need to discover, push boundaries, and explore. He also makes a good point about remembering your own time as a teenager, and the stupid crap you probably did/said/wore:
Young adults are at a pivotal time in their lives. As they near adulthood, teens try on different personas and identities, in an attempt to figure out just who the heck they are. When I was a teen it was the exact same process. For me it was being preppy with my letter jacket and khakis one day. Doc Mart[e]n steel-toe boots with a black shirt and jeans another. Maybe a Hypercolor color-changing shirt and cut-off pair of jean shorts that we won’t talk about any further. Matched together with this quest for identity, is a rush of hormones and limitless teen energy. It’s enough to make any settled adult run for cover.
When speaking about our teens, I try never to say “the teens,” it is always “my teens” or “our teens.” I take full responsibility and ownership of their experience and growth as people when in my department. It sounds basic, but I have heard stories about YA staff who do not want to interact with their teens. If that is the case, hit the eject button and get out of YA immediately.
Yet when you consider that Erik Erikson considers young adulthood to last until forty (yes, 4-0, with 13-19 being more precisely “adolescence”), you can scarcely be a librarian period without working with young adults.
Which leads into Justin’s heartfelt plea for more teen librarians. Or librarians for teens. Which, sadly, is not likely to happen any time soon; it takes a rare kind of person to work with teens well, and there just aren’t enough of these people to meet the demand. However, what teen librarians can do is foster environments where all library staff treat teens with the same professionalism and courtesy that is accorded older adults, and the same indulgence and patience that is accorded to children. They can advocate for teen spaces, services, and programs and set an example for their coworkers to follow.
Sometimes this will be a fairly easy task. Susan Kunkle, at the Forest Park Public Library, was able to reclaim a room in her Youth Services Department that was being used by an outside agency and turn into a teen space. She was fortunate to have the support of her director, board, and staff, and most importantly, the teens.
Sometimes this will be a struggle, if you lack support, or funding, or both. My friend Gordon has limited hours and funds with which to make things happen for the teens he works with, but he does the most and best with what he can. Last year he garnered tremendous online support to win a free visit from author Kimberly Pauley, and I’ve gathered lots of anecdotal evidence from his online professional development that he cares about and understands his teens deeply. So no whining that without flashy gadgets you can never hope to catch and keep the attention of teens; all they really crave is positive interactions with adults (also a developmental need).
So the title of this post. Many of you might be familiar with make it happen, which is an attitude and an edict and a way of approaching your work and your life. I would like to suggest that once you start making things happen, you need to keep it going and look at how you can make things better–which, in my opinion, is what librarianship is all about. Everything you do and collect has the potential to make someone’s life better. By offering a photocopier and assistance in using it, an elderly man will be able to send in the forms needed for his disability card, which will make his life better. By giving a frazzled parent a copy of The Happiest Baby on the Block, you’ll make that parent’s (and that baby’s) life better. By offering free ESL classes and materials, you’ll make a non-native English speaker’s life better. By giving teens the time and space they need to become themselves, you’re making their lives better. By doing these things, you are a better librarian and a better person.
Know a librarian who is making it better? Tell us about it. I could use some good news.
1: Ruby Oliver, the main character in E. Lockhart’s funny Ruby Oliver novels, calls adolescence “Mocha Latte”, which sounds so much nicer, doesn’t it?
2: Add Childhood by Laurence Steinberg and Roberta Meyer to your professional development bookshelf immediately. Easy to read, clearly laid out, and concise, it will arm you with information from infancy to adolescent with ease.
3: It’s hard to not type Steve’s name with a million Es, and in all caps.