As youth workers we often hear about teenage achievement, test scores, and participation rates in extracurricular activities. The media leads us to conclude that being a teenager in America has never been better. In Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Chap Clark begins by reviewing current research. He finds that it largely misses the reality of teenage life, and concludes that mainstream research into the lives of today’s adolescents is missing something crucial.
In the opening pages of Hurt, Clark acknowledges that the reader might whole-heartedly disagree with his methodology, his observations, and his conclusions. He never claims to support the stories in his book with overwhelming empirical data and accepts that analytical types may well reject his views on that basis. Clark made use of a research model called ethnography (Google that and see what you learn) and presents a convincing case for his audience to continue reading the 200-page summary of his year-long research experience.
He argues that today’s teenagers need someone to listen to their experience instead of simply handing them a fifteen-question survey about their recreational drug habits. He explains that adult perceptions of the youthful years are flagrantly skewed by their own teenage experience; this leads most adults to quickly dismiss the problems facing youth as something “everyone goes through in high school.” Clark’s work is a wake-up call for anyone who cares about kids.
One of the first notable things that I appreciated about Clark’s writing was his use of the term “middle adolescent.” He spends a good portion of the first part of the book explaining the origins of American adolescence and the evolution to its current state. Traditionally, early adolescence referred to the junior high years, late adolescence to the high school years. The college years are largely ignored as an ambiguous non-adolescent, non-adult stage in the lives of most youth. The reality is that despite legalities, many 18, 19, and 20 year-olds do not consider themselves adults due to their financial dependency on their parents and their migratory lifestyles (from childhood bedroom to dorm room and back every few months). Clark introduces a new model with his use of the term “middle adolescence” in reference to the high school years. This model clearly acknowledges that adolescence extends into the college/young adult years. Clark calls for this shift in the developmental model because he strongly believes that adolescence today is a much different experience than it was even a few years ago. And he would know; he spent months as a long-term substitute teacher at a high school in southern California. He took on the teaching position as a research tool, a way to dig into the lives of middle adolescents and see if the statistical research was giving a clear picture of their experiences. His casual conversations, his hallway observations, and other interactions with teens lay the foundation for the book.
The most compelling idea of Clark’s book is what he calls the “landscape of the world beneath”: the eight areas of teenage lives. He leads the reader through an examination of peers, school, family, sports, sex, busyness and stress, ethics and morality, and the party scene as they function in the lives of today’s middle adolescent. Along the way, he interprets the common misperceptions the adult community has about teenage reality. He doesn’t point fingers at teenagers, nor does he excuse their behavior.
Clark points out the hurtful ways adults push youth to make damaging decisions. He describes youth culture as a “culture of abandonment,” suggesting that youth have been abandoned by adults to fend for themselves. This abandonment is present in our parental structures, sports leagues, classrooms, and yes, even in our congregations and youth rooms. Clark makes a compelling case that institutions initially created to nurture and support youth have become one more avenue for the “adult” agenda. Kids are wise to this and have learned to live a surface existence, while engaging in a real life that happens “in the world beneath.”
Our efforts to empathize are lost on this generation of middle adolescents. “Try as you might, you just don’t understand!” Throughout the book, Clark articulates that the world today is a much more hurtful environment for teenagers than ever before. He says that our efforts to compare it to our own teenage experiences only add to the problem. It is on this point that most readers will balk, but the struggle is precisely what Clark seeks to engage. He wants us to talk about it, disagree with him, agree with him, but no matter what–pay attention to what is really happening in the world of today’s teens. He believes that deep inside, most adults know the world we have offered our children is not “okay” and that many kids are really not “just fine.”
Our job as youth workers is to identify their hurts and understand that we have inadvertently contributed to the problem. We can intentionally reverse the damage. Whether one agrees with Clark’s premise or not, Hurt can be an amazing asset in identifying and understanding the teenage hurt of today.
Hurt hits the spot for those of us who want to reach the youth exactly where they are. While Clark occasionally dabbles with language more familiar to university classrooms, overall he writes for an audience that actively works with today’s teenagers. He places a new framework of understanding on the lives of today’s teenagers that demands adult attention.