Teenagers Are Not the Problem

The problem is the culture of your library. 

Teenagers are library customers. That’s it and that’s all. But library staff love to vilify them as “problem patrons”, messy, loud, and disrespectful. 
The fact of the matter is that no other demographic of library users is spoken of with such disdain and regularity. The problem is not the teenagers. It’s the workplace culture. 

Workplace culture is defined by those who lead it. Yet leaders don’t necessarily hold managerial positions. Instead, it’s oftentimes the vocal minority who set the tone. They speak the loudest in staff meetings (or maybe their words aren’t at a high volume, but their body language is screams). They are passive-aggressive, such as when they have been asked to work on a project but do so with painfully slow speed so as to make their colleagues work harder to pick up the slack (yet when praise is offered, they are there to accept. Or when criticized, they remind others of their absence from the project). 

The vocal minority’s attitude towards teenagers effects the way other staff communicate with or about teenagers. Let’s say you set out to treat all of your customers equally, even if you do prefer the book club sort who want to talk about mystery characters or which romance novelist writes the best smutty parts. You don’t have an opinion of your teenaged customers, but wish they wouldn’t leave their junk food wrappers in between the cushion and arm of the comfy chairs. One day a certain colleague rants to you in the break room about those stupid kids who leave their trash everywhere. You may feel a touch frightened to disagree, or perhaps you simply nod while you eat your leftover chicken pot pie. But silence allows the bully to feel empowered, to feel as though they have found an ally. Next time they complain about a teenager, they know you’re safe ground and so they complain to you. Again and again. After a while, maybe it rubs off on you, and 3:15 pm becomes your most dreaded time of the week because that’s when the school bell rings, releasing those monsters to your library.

You don’t greet them anymore. You aren’t kind when you ask, “Remember to grab your trash on the way out, guys.” And when something a bit bigger than discarded Cheetos bags happens, you don’t go to bat for them or give them the benefit of the doubt. You’re ready to fillet and fry them. All for what reason? Because you never had the courage to stand up to the bully that first time and say, “I get the trash thing. It’s unsanitary and not kind of them to leave behind. I’ll talk to them about it and circle back with you. But remember, they’re our customers and deserve to be treated well.”

You – and all who stay quiet or who nod “politely” when the bullies rant – are giving them permission to create the culture of “We don’t like teenagers being here.”

Don’t be complicit in the poor treatment of teenagers any more than you would be in the poor treatment of seniors, individuals with intellectual disabilities, those with mental illness, or loud children.

Libraries are for everyone, and everyone should start acting like it.

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