The Great Thing About Getting Older
“Just ’cause things are happening to you right now doesn’t mean that they’re always gonna happen to you. And things will change. And you know, you never know what’s going to happen next. And that’s what makes things exciting. And scary. And fun.”
— Kayla’s advice to her future self in Eighth Grade
It gets better.
In the past few months, I’ve seen a number of teen-themed films — Love, Simon, Eighth Grade, The Hate U Give, and Dumplin’ — that reinforce the old adage. It’s gets so much better, whether you have parents as sympathetic and “This is your future” attractive as the ones played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel (in Love, Simon), Josh Hamilton (in Eighth Grade), and Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall (in The Hate U Give) to guide your through the awkward stage, or a mom as un-maternal as Jennifer Aniston’s aging former beauty queen in Dumplin’ to make it even more challenging.
Insecurity and clunky romantic entanglements never stop being a thing, and bullies will follow you into your old age (Step away from the Twitter, President Donald Trump), but thank God, as we get older, we typically get better at negotiating all of the above than we were from middle school to high-school graduation.
How can the experience of adulthood benefit teens in need of emotional rescue? Grown-up hindsight, though potentially encouraging to a discouraged teen, might offer little real solace to an eighth-grader currently suffering mean girls, horny boys, and growing pains.
Grown-up hindsight, though potentially encouraging to a discouraged teen, might offer little real solace to an eighth-grader suffering mean girls, horny boys, and growing pains.
And even if it does, buying what adults preach when they say “It gets better” might prevent put-upon teens from living in the moment — and dealing with it, too. As a former bullied teen, I wish someone had helped me figure out how to deal with the insults and physical threats that were regularly hurled my way. I knew things would improve in the future, but that didn’t get me through today during my middle school and high school ’80s. I wasn’t sure what to do in the there and then.
The here and now
More than 20 years later, I still don’t have any solid answers.
Yes, it has gotten better, though not in the sense that my problems suddenly disappeared just because I now am older and wiser. Bigots and homophobes come in all ages, and they don’t prey on teens only. Several years ago, my big brother had a physical encounter with homophobia in Toronto when a man spit on him and called him a faggot after my brother complimented his t-shirt. The guy then went inside a nearby bar, while my brother called the police, who came and arrested the man.
It was the perfect reaction to the assault and the sort of example that we need to be setting for our kids. Fight back. When confronted with bullies, it’s important to stand your ground and defend yourself, not necessarily with physical violence (though sometimes fighting back means throwing the second punch), but with actions (alerting the police or some other trusted authority figure) or with intelligent words, which can be as useful a defense as any weapon.
Terrible teens, go away
Those terrible teens can be torture, and it’s so easy to wish them away, like Kayla mentally fast-forwarding to high-school graduation and giving advice to her four-years-older self at the end of Eighth Grade. I’ve been there (I spent most of middle school and high school thinking in future tense), and I wish I’d known then what I know now: how to handle racists, homophobes, and bullies, how to win friends and influence people, how to be alone, how to take a decent picture.
A good grasp of the latter might have prevented the slight mortification I felt several years ago when a Facebook friend posted a photo of the 16-year-old me at the beach with her and some other friends. As I stared at the snapshot, I almost didn’t recognize myself.
Who was that scrawny kid striking the campy sideways pose in the back? I don’t think I could re-enact that one today if I tried. I’d never condone the cruelty of children, but I can understand why some of them might have been tempted to pick on me. I was such an easy target!
Cruel as kids can be, I can understand why some of them might have been tempted to pick on me. I was such an easy target!
Not that being older and wiser is without its special challenges. The joints start to creak, the muscles ache and hair comes and goes in all the wrong places. Still, I wouldn’t trade my middle age for anything in the world. If you’re lucky, as you get older, you become more skilled at expressing yourself, dressing yourself, and posing in more flattering ways — or rather, not posing at all, because that is the secret to taking great photographs. I didn’t really learn that until I got older.
As better as it gets, that’s not the only message we should be sending to tortured teens. Those of us who have improved with age need to explain how we got over, what we did to start winning at life. It’s not an automatic process, or a guaranteed one.
There are 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds who are no more well-equipped to deal with the world than a 16 year old (yep, Trump, again). And some of them still don’t know how to take a decent picture.