Open letter to a teenager

I discovered a little mystery on the Internet last night. It began when I followed a link to the website, The Smile Collective. There I found ‘A Manifesto for Youth’ based on some inspiring words that had been doing the rounds online. It was a bracing, no-holds barred letter to teenagers, apparently written by a judge and quoted by a New Zealand school principal. I did a bit of digging, and found there was a much older, original version, written by a Denver judge over 50 years ago. I found two newspapers both taking credit for publishing it in 1959, and while most reports attributed it to Judge Philip B. Gilliam, another said he was merely quoting another author. At this point, I hung up my sleuth’s hat, and decided to simply share the words with my readers.

The Pierce County Tribune wrote:

“A little research on Judge Gilliam found him to be a highly respected judge in the Denver Juvenile Court and Juvenile Hall from 1940 until his death in 1975. During his time on the bench, he spent his time protecting children and ensuring their proper treatment in the court system.”

Open letter to Teen-ager

Always we hear the plaintive cry of the teen-ager. What can we do?…Where 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.

You’re supposed to be mature enough to accept some of the responsibility your parents have carried for years.

They have nursed, protected, helped, appealed, begged, excused, tolerated and denied themselves needed comforts so that you could have every benefit. This they have done gladly, for you are their dearest treasure.

But now, you have no right to expect them to bow to every whim and fancy just because selfish ego instead of common sense dominates your personality, thinking and request.

In Heaven’s name, grow up and go home!

– South Bend Tribune, Sunday, Dec. 6, 1959.

Rebel Without A Cause - James DeanIt seems the piece is aimed at someone like James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, a film released a few years earlier that depicted teens hanging around with nowhere to go, and out of boredom, racing cars to a cliff face before leaping to safety. Perhaps Judge Gilliam saw a lot of kids in his courthouse that he believed didn’t need to be there; kids that had they just “grown up”, “gone home” and stopped thinking the world owed them something, could have amounted to a productive adult.

But the message reads a little harsh to my 21st century sensibilities. Or am I just too soft? It’s just that I haven’t met one teenager I’d feel comfortable saying this to. Sure, they can sometimes be annoyingly self-focused and whinge about small inconveniences, but can’t we all occasionally? And I agree, teens do need to spend time at home, help out their parents, contribute to the community. But they also need time to hang out with friends and explore their neighbourhood. On the whole, the teenagers I’ve met are smart, considerate, funny, and care about social and environmental issues.

A Manifesto for YouthBut in case you do know or have a teenager who needs a bit of a wake-up call, print out this manifesto from Swish Design and stick it on the toilet door. It’s based on Judge Gilliam’s speech, but it’s a little kinder, more modern, and focuses on inspiring teens to contribute to the world to make it a better place.




  1. Michelle says:

    I know of 10, no 15 kids I would read this too in a heartbeat. My two kids went to big private schools (for better or worse) & let me tell you there are some obscenely spoilt, indulged kids that come out the other end of these schools. Kids that are now at uni – still getting their lunches packed by mum & whingeing that she hasn’t put enough mayo on their sandwich. Kids that have never had a part time job, who are given $100 bills for existing & have, to my knowledge, not given anything back to society.
    When my kids started at these schools I said to them ” as soon as you step through these doors… You start owing society back – because attending these schools is a priviledge, never a right”. Let’s toughen the kids up…

    • Thekids says:

      Wow Michelle, I must be very lucky then to know the kids that I know. Maybe we need to send you some posters and you can do a midnight poster paste-up job at the school :)

  2. No, you’re definitely not soft, Rachel. I found the first manifesto to be a little too harsh as well. The Swish Design actually made me, as a parent of future teenagers, inspired to raise them with these values. Thanks for sharing x
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  3. Michelle says:

    I think the older my kids get the tougher my attitude is becoming. Charlie just turned 18 & we had his 18th last weekend. All those gorgeous kids I met years ago are now young adults.
    A little arrogance & attitude at 12 years old can be cute & seem to show confidence. But morphing to an 18 year old – these traits are somehow less attractive. Not all his friends, but enough for me to comment on.
    One boy was wearing his chinos, navy blazer, old school tie & a cigar ( is this look still around?). I happened to be outside when he was & he said to me “don’t mention my cancer stick to me – I know it’ll kill me one day”. I hadn’t even talked to him at all. His attitude was one of “profound enui” as though life was so tough for him. This from an 18 year old. I felt a bit bewildered.
    Most of the kids were normal but there was this vague feeling in the room of “we rule this world”. I know this is a private school thing that boys particularly do grab onto but still …..

    • Thekids says:

      That story just made me laugh out loud. That kid, he’s playing grown-ups, don’t you think? But now, he is about to experience life, maybe at uni, maybe it’ll happen after, and he will probably have a tough time of it for a while and then he will really grow up and learn what it’s all about. And look back on himself standing outside your house with his “cancer stick” and shudder with embarrassment the way we all do at some of the pretentious things we said or did. Won’t he? Please tell me that’s what will happen? :)

      • Michelle says:

        You are so true that this kid is playing at grown up. But is it “playing” when he has access to unlimited cash, is given multiple cars, trips overseas etc. This kid – & a few others on the night – come from serious money & well known families. Now, I’m not saying that all kids of the wealthy are spoiled kids. But I know more than a few that are.
        Their parents have never held them accountable – never told them “grow up & get a job”. This is just one section of teenagers.
        There a great kids out there – don’t get me wrong – but the poster above is not aimed at the good kids. My son & daughter have friends they did aid work in Kathmandu with that are the most selfless, delightful teens that I know of. So I spose ive seen both sides. But my catch cry at home at the moment is HTFU (harden the F@@@ up) sorry for language but the use of vernacular seems to get through to the kids.

        • Thekids says:

          Love it. I think that is a most excellent use of the f-word. Whenever my dad used a swear word (“bloody”) we knew he was SERIOUS.

  4. No teenages.. but maybe a lil bit of myself when I was younger…
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  5. I like the Swish Design manifesto myself – I may have to print that out and stick it on the wall here! I sometimes have to remind my own kids about the real facts of life when an ‘attitude’ starts to rear its ugly head. I tell them how lucky they are and how things like money to go out, a mobile phone, new clothes or extra curricular activities etc are not a right, they’re a privilege that their father and I provide!

    It’s a sign of the times that we have Generation Y kids who feel they are ‘too good’ for entry-level jobs; too many of them don’t want to get their hands dirty, so to speak. I hate this attitude – it was good enough for their parents so it should be good enough for them too.
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    • Thekids says:

      Yes, things like mobiles and going out money etc can blend a little into living expenses and even as a parent I need to remind myself that I am really being quite generous!

  6. I love it! I think I need a copy of that one! :)
    Thanks for sharing! x
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  7. I like it. I think tough love is good and necessary, but I think it needs to start earlier and younger. We need to make sure that we are not letting little kids think the world revolves around them, only to confuse them as teens by telling them it’s the exact opposite.

  8. The interesting thing for me is that the original version goes back so far. Apparently the angsty, rebellious teenager is not a new thing, and there are plenty of them in every generation!? God help us all! ;-)
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