Cori Gauff is an inspiration – like teenagers everywhere

WimbledonTennis - Wimbledon - All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London, Britain - July 7, 2019 Cori Gauff of the U.S. during a practice day REUTERS/Tony O’Brien

 ‘Why is it that, prodigies aside, when we think of teenagers, what often comes to mind is an angst-ridden generation of ‘snowflakes’?’ Photograph: Tony O’Brien/Reuters

At Wimbledon, 15-year-old Cori Gauff, in her first grand slam match, dismisses her role model, Venus Williams. Then she pulls off an astonishing comeback against Polona Hercog. Another 15-year-old, Alex Mann, wows Glastonbury with his star turn, plucked from the crowds by rapper Dave. And, of course, Greta Thunberg, still just 16, continues in her astonishing quest to push the climate crisis to the top of all our agendas, this week squaring up to Opec chiefs, who branded her campaign the “greatest threat” to the oil industry. Teens are definitely having a moment.

So why is it that, prodigies aside, when we think of teenagers, what often comes to mind is an angst-ridden generation of “snowflakes”, unable to cope with the mildest criticism? They are stereotyped as obsessed with celebrity, shopping and self-promotion. Or our minds conjure up gang violence: the most menacing, destructive form of youthful bonding.

Recently a friend heard a mother say to her young child: “We won’t go into that park, there are teenagers in there.” A worker at the local secondary school told me that whenever she tells people she works with teens, they give her a look of pure pity. Yet there is a disconnect between perception and reality. In a poll for a report by the Royal Society of the Arts, Teenagency, adults were asked to choose from a list of words to describe teens. The most popular were “selfish”, “lazy” and “antisocial”. In the same report, 84% of young people surveyed identified with the phrase, “I want to help other people.”

One of the report’s authors, Laura Partridge, says: “We really do underestimate teenagers and young people and, when we speak to them, there are so many doing great things; so many have a culture of giving back.”

She suggests that such unfair, negative stereotyping can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “This … could seriously undermine teenagers’ confidence about their ability to make a positive change in the world.”

I have spent the past two years interviewing teenagers from many different countries for my book. Honestly, it has been a joy. They are proof that you don’t need to know one end of a tennis racket from the other to be extraordinary. They are everyday heroes: volunteers, social entrepreneurs, fundraisers, campaigners or simply young people making the right choices in difficult circumstances. They explain how they have improved their own lives and others’: from dealing with bullying at school, to upcycling clothes for the homeless and preserving Britain’s beaches.

Revellers walk past a Greta Thunberg mural at Glastonbury Festival at Worthy farm in Somerset, Britain June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
 ‘They may not be on the stage at Glastonbury but they are the young people on our streets and they should make us proud.’ Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Cameron Osburn, who was 17 years old when I spoke to him, was left on the subs bench at football because cerebral palsy meant he couldn’t run as fast as other players, so founded his own football team for children with disabilities, Adversity United. Will Kilgannon, who was just 15, lost his father to prostate cancer, and has campaigned tirelessly to increase awareness of the condition.

I also spoke to Amika George, then 19, at the forefront of the campaign against period poverty, and Maya Ghazal, also 19, a refugee from Syria who is now an advocate for refugee rights, while studying to become an aviation engineer. There’s Zainab Gulbano, 17, who thought she’d always be the class clown but now puts her energy into helping rebellious kids as a youth worker at her old school; and Amarni, 17, who stepped away from the fringes of gang violence and now inspires a group of other teens to focus on their love of music.

They may not be on the stage at Glastonbury but they are the young people on our streets, on the bus, shuffling to school in their parkas or hoiked-up skirts, and they should make us proud.

It became clear to me during these conversations that, very often, it is the right kind of support from someone who believes in them that can propel a teenager to do the right thing. We adults, whether parents, grandparents, carers or teaching staff, can fall into the trap of being too judgmental, forgetting that it’s their “job” to disagree with us and make our lives difficult, all part of the process of separating and growing up. Of course, as a parent I’ve been judgmental myself. We believe that we always have the answers our young people seek but sometimes other young people can be the influence and inspiration they need. Adults tend to see this kind of peer influence as a bad thing, but it can be transformational if the ones they look up to are achieving something positive in the world.

Their age means that teenagers are hopefully not yet world-weary or jaded by constant rejection. If they have had a vision for the change they want to see in their own lives, the community around them and the wider world, they are well placed to articulate it. We should listen.

Lucy Gavaghan, who at 14 persuaded Tesco and other major supermarket chains to pledge not to sell eggs from caged hens, put it like this: “There must be something about being a teenager that makes me feel that this is a great point to look around and think, ‘Is this the kind of world I want to grow up in?’ I think my age helped me. Everything seems so clear to me.”

 Margaret Rooke is the author of You Can Change the World! Everyday Teen Heroes Making a Difference Everywhere