What We Can’t Tell You

November 1, 2005

What We Can’t Tell You: Teenagers Talk to the Adults in Their Lives

Author:Kathleen Cushman and the youth of What Kids Can Do

Publisher:Next Generation Press



Some three dozen teens from around the country speak out about their lives, and what troubles and cheers them about their relationships with parents, guardians, mentors and other key adults. Connect for Kids Editor Susan Phillips says their distinctive voices are what makes this book worth reading.

Reviewed by Susan Phillips

The teens are watching. Also listening, worrying, and sometimes even admiring. In fact, teens are regarding the adults in their lives with many of the same mixed and powerful emotions with which adults regard them. That's one of the key themes in this book from the folks at What Kids Can Do, a non-profit that works to elevate the voices of adolescents by documenting their views, work and learning.

It may be that all that anxiety and emotion on both sides of the conversation is what makes a book like this useful. It's as if the teens involved can sit on the other side of a screen and tell adults what's going on without risking too much.

With chapters on topics such as respect, trust, structure, work and the future, What We Can't Tell You is arranged a bit like a workbook. Each chapter is a quote-heavy survey of what the adolescents interviewed had to say on topics such as a parent's role, how teens feel about being criticized for their choices in friends or clothes, and how differently teens relate to adults who are not in the parental role in their lives.

The chapters end with "homework for adults", exercises that ask the reader to put themselves in adolescent shoes. And between each chapter is a particular teen's story that illuminates a particular situation—a boy whose father died when he was in middle school, a girl who was in foster care and recently returned to live with her family, a boy struggling with when/how/whether to come out to his conservative Catholic parents about his homosexuality.

While the book can seem repetitious, that is probably due to the enormous importance teens place on particular issues, all of them relating to the adolescent push-and-pull of needing both freedom and guidance. Respect, trust, independence, privacy—these are huge concerns for this group. The concept of home as the place where adolescents can drop their public personas and relax also comes up again and again. Maria put it best: "When you get home, you release your face."

One of the strengths of the book is its inclusion of teens from so many different walks of life—middle class kids, rural kids (and yes, it sound like it's really hard to be a teen in a place where going to the movies is a major outing and almost every neighbor is also a relative who will report on your comings and goings), kids from tough urban neighborhoods, kids being raised by single moms, single dads, grandparents and foster parents.

Perhaps the most powerful section is "Lazaro's Story," about a homosexual teen whose parents clearly suspect his orientation, but haven't really come to grips with it yet. "My Mom, she's like, ‘If you're like that, you can come to me, blah, blah blah'—but it's a lie... But then the next day she's like, ‘Oh, I hate gay men, they're so dirty and nasty.'"
Lazaroalso talks about the fact that he is unlikely ever to have children "from my own blood," and how sad that makes him.

What We Can't Tell You contains no startling revelations, but instead offers remarkable evidence of the yearning many adolescents have for more meaningful relationships with adults, as well as some insight into overcoming the barriers to communication between teens and adults.