And in 2012, that letter has gone viral. Here's a sampling of it:
Always we hear the plaintive cry of the teen-ager. What can we do?...Were can we go?
The answer is GO HOME!
Hang the storm windows, paint the woodwork. Rake the leaves, mow the lawn, shovel the walk. Wash the car, learn to cook, scrub some floors. Repair the sink, build a boat, get a job.
Help the minister, priest, or rabbi, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army. Visit the sick, assist the poor, study your lessons. And then when you are through - and not too tired - read a book.
Your parents do not owe you entertainment. Your city or village does not owe you recreational facilities.
The world does not owe you a living...You owe the world something.
You owe it your time and your energy and your talents so that no one will be at war or in poverty or sick or lonely again.
Grow up; quit being a crybaby. Get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone, and start acting like a man or a lady.
I shared the letter with my girls--but I didn't tell them when it was written until the end (they assumed it was a recent thing). And then I told them how proud I am that they already do a lot of the things this judge recommended, and are eager to get out into the world and do more.
The funny thing is, teens didn't used to be as aimless as they started being by 1959, at least if that letter is any indication. And, sure, not all teens are entertainment-seeking and allergic to responsibility; like all stereotypes, the fact that it is true of some teens doesn't make it true of all.
But teen culture is still depressingly lightweight. There is still a sense out there that teens are "owed" some expensive recreational opportunities, from spring break vacations to proms that cost more than their parents' weddings to rooms full of the latest technology. That sense of entitlement, coupled with an absolute expectation that teens will rebel, had to come from somewhere.
And when we look back five or six decades or so, we see that the teen years gradually shifted from being the years of "adult-in-training" to being the years of "play, pay, and disobey," and that there were at least two major forces behind that radical attitude realignment.
The first force was the phenomenon of delayed adulthood. Perhaps a rational response to the too-soon adulthood experienced by young men and women who came of age during World War II, the pendulum-swing in the opposite direction has had some negative, if predictable, results. The expectation of college for all, the sense that "thirty is the new twenty," and the push to see all teens as helpless children who still need Mommy and Daddy to bail them out of every bad situation they ever get themselves into all contributed to the delayed adulthood idea. But the truth is that a young man or woman at seventeen who expects to be responsibly employed, married, and contemplating a family in two to five years will often not behave in the same way as a man or woman at seventeen who expects that it will be at least five to seven years (or more) before he or she finishes his or her education, and another three to five after that before he or she feels like settling down (with a live-in partner and no plans for children, perhaps, but still relatively "settled" compared to his/her previous existence). With "real" life so far off, and with the same dislike of delayed gratification as a two-year-old, why should a teen even try to be an adult-in-training?
The second force that led to the judge's letter in 1959 and endless variations of it today can be summed up in one word: marketing. Sometime early on in the age of rock & roll, advertisers realized that teens had money to spend, that they spent only or mainly on luxuries (since their necessities were provided for in the home), that they spent regardless of their parents' values or sometimes in direct opposition to those values (the rebellion motif), that they were more susceptible to ads that preyed on peer pressure, the desire to fit in, the "coolness" factor, etc., and that they were even more easily manipulated than adults by "sexy" ads or ads that hinted at the kinds of "rebellious" behavior that were sometimes actually illegal. Little of that has changed, surprisingly enough--even in a media-savvy age, teens can be laughing at some viral ad that is deliberately lame or stupid while making plans to acquire the product being marketed. But you only have money to burn if you're not an adult-in-training. The eighteen-year-old boy who saves up his money in order to attend a local community college as a path to a specific job because he is driven to join the adult world is not the advertiser's friend. In vain will they dangle the carrots of immediate pleasures and shiny gadgets in front of him. The advertisers want his friends, the ones who sign up for a four-year college they can't even remotely afford and sign loan papers to put the payments off as long as possible; these kids will soon have credit cards, and will use them.
If we want our teens to think of themselves as adults-in-training, and to be driven, motivated, and eager to join the adult world, we have to be willing to help them explore creative ways to think outside the delayed-adulthood/advertisers' dream pathways. We have to treat them with respect and with encouragement as they venture forth to follow their dreams. And we have to remind them that the greatest rebellion a teen can possibly perpetrate on today's world is to be a debt-free, gainfully-employed, and vocation-minded person by the time they are in their early-to-mid twenties; they may miss out on some of the evanescent excitement sold to teens, but what they'll gain will be priceless.