Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws - Photo by Lorie Shaull

Opinion

Today's Entitled Youth

As Parkland students advocate for gun control, some critics say teens are too entitled and immature to be taken seriously. My experience working with young people says otherwise.

Eva Harder

One of the more interesting arguments to emerge from critics of the Parkland students advocating for gun control is a refrain older generations love to return to like it’s their favorite song from the eighties: Young people today are so entitled.

“As a child, I was grounded, had toys confiscated, spanked, and it taught me to have respect,” read one tweet I recently came across in a thread about #safeplaces, one of our Five Promises. “That’s what’s wrong with teenagers in society today—they have no respect for adults, they think they are adults.”

I shouldn’t have to point out that having a gunman enter your school and kill 17 of your peers and teachers isn’t exactly the hallmark of a carefree adolescence, but apparently that’s where we’re at as a country.

Others have argued that teens lack the emotional maturity necessary to inform policymaking. “Children and teenagers are not fully rational actors,” Ben Shapiro wrote in the National Review. “They’re not capable of exercising supreme responsibilities.”

As a writer and editor at America’s Promise for the past three years, I’ve interviewed dozens of young people across the country, listened to their stories, and helped them shape essays and blogs that capture their experiences, including bullying, poverty, homelessness, and yes, gun violence.

“We were the generation of millennials facing gang violence, teen motherhood, growing dropout rates, drug use, and juvenile delinquency incarceration,” former America’s Promise youth trustee Ola Ojewumi wrote in 2015. “Going to school every day was like entering a battlefield; far too many students were slipping through the cracks of the public education system and falling into a cycle of poverty.”

I’ve spoken to DACA recipients who go to school under the threat that they or their families will be deported, teenagers who had to choose between getting a diploma and paying their parents’ rent, college students who spent their childhoods and teen years homeless or in foster care.

Some of what I’ve heard echoes what others have already pointed out—gun violence has been a daily threat for many youth of color and youth from low-income neighborhoods for their entire lives, with devastating, long-term impacts. For them, school being a safety risk is nothing new. Trauma is nothing new.

And yet, the thing that has always set them apart in my mind is not their trauma, their tragedies, or their tough backgrounds—it’s their resilience. It is often the young people who have had the most taken from them who become most committed to giving back, starting nonprofits, becoming police officers, and committing to causes that can prevent other kids from experiencing what they went through.

“My lack of childhood education and homelessness has every reason to bring me down, which it once did, physically, psychologically, and emotionally,” one college student wrote for us. “However, I’ve learned that the past does not define who I am. Despite what I have been through, faith and determination have made me victorious and not a victim.”

It’s a common, easy thing to dismiss young people who demand a better world than the one they were born into as arrogant, spoiled, and even naïve. It’s a crutch as old as history. Yet the Parkland students and too many other young people like them have survived extreme trauma only to emerge braver, wiser, and more mature than anyone should have to be at their age.

In my view, that does make them entitled—to share their story, get an education without fearing for their lives, and, one would hope, have adults listen.