07/03/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2012

The Social Century

The incredible response to Anne-Marie Slaughter's landmark cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" (easily a hundred articles and blog posts, hundreds of thousands of shares on facebook, broken readership records at The Atlantic) serves as a cultural litmus test for issues ripe for debate. Slaughter writes that she'd "been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told [her] she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family." She then writes about her decision -- and her desire -- to move back from Washington to resume teaching at Princeton because she felt she was needed at home, where her son was experiencing a rocky adolescence. I wrote before that Slaughter deserves more credit than she's getting for the fact that she's been walking her talk in and out of the office for years now, but I also don't see many people opining, as I do, that her son deserves more credit.

This past Sunday, Slaughter participated in a live-chat hosted by The Atlantic about her piece. One user said to Slaughter: "... a bit of humility and self-respect (particularly with regard to your son's now-famous adolescent challenges) would, at this point, go a long way."

To which Slaughter responded: "... I would never have published my piece if my son didn't agree that it was ok and that in fact it could be important."

Slaughter wrote to me recently that "all the girls" her son knows are Facebooking her article, celebrating him as the "rebellious teenager." "He's basking in it!" she said. Those same girls' future prospects are also improved by the structural changes we're already seeing due to the debate his adolescent actions eventually fueled, a debate enabled by his subsequent decision to allow Slaughter's article to print. That decision is emblematic of those that deserve the kind of credit we ought to give youth -- and all too often don't, which is worrisome in this century, when most of the planet's population is under 30.

Folks, can we take a minute to thank a 15-, maybe 16-year-old kid for his contribution, without which there would be no million reads because there would be no article? Can we thank the kid who knew of a larger world out there for his support of his mother's role as role model to more people than simply him -- for the self-awareness and world-awareness inherent in his decision to allow the article to print? There hasn't raged an American-society debate like this since the Internet came of age, and it wouldn't have if his coming of age hadn't led to the article he permitted to be published; if his mother hadn't had the bravery to write honestly about the choice such rockiness presented her with; if he hadn't clearly matured from his (natural and normal, especially when a parent is absent or less present) "acting out" enough to recognize his mother's bravery by okay-ing their family story's passage to the newsstands.

Slaughter's been tweeting that her own response to the reader-reaction-clamor includes a change of opinion about how to look at this discussion: the best way to "frame" it, away from "Having It All" to something else. I'm not celebrating her son's rocky adolescence for its own sake, nor do I mean to detract from the fact that his mother's career and achievements are what drive the legitimacy of her piece. But as long as we as a society are proving with our overwhelming response to Slaughter's article that we are in desperate need of foundational changes to how we go about living and working, can we perhaps take the opportunity to reframe how we look at the "babies" and "children" this debate is, to a large extent, about -- to change how we see, and therefore treat, youth? Slaughter's son's early adolescence was proof of the fact that humans under the age of 18, 21 (and, if you're a car rental, 25) are absolutely in need of guidance. No doubt about that. But they're also in need of a voice, and worldwide, no less than our national security depends on giving them one -- which includes giving them the credit they deserve when they make wonderful choices.

Adolescence is rocky, period, and it's happening to more people on the planet than ever before. As an eternal youngest sibling, youngest cousin, and perennial unintentional-leaver-of-wet-towels-on-other-people's-beds, I was astounded to learn that when I turned 26 a year ago I was older than half of the world's population. When I began graduate school, I immediately looked for helpful ways to address this with my summers off. In summer 2011 I went to Kenya and mobilized the Survival Girls, a theater group for Congolese refugee girls aged 13-24 who kept the group going independently and delighted Secretary Clinton with their achievements less than a year after they began together. I'll be big sister to more and more of the planet's population as I grow older, and I'll never forget what the Survival Girls taught me, through the sheer amount of growth and accomplishments they achieved as part of this group, about the cruciality of being "seen" to the well-being of youth worldwide. Secretary Clinton has brought both women and youth in the developing world -- even international development itself -- to the fore of America's relationship with national security in her speeches and policies. (Actually, as long as we're giving a round of applause to young people, we might as well thank her employee Ronan Farrow for up-and-mobilizing the first-ever Global Youth Issues Task Force at State, which involved transcontinental travel to coordinate youth advisory councils at American embassies. Next month Mr. Farrow's off to begin his Rhodes, and I don't know of any other 24-year-old who's done as much for our country aside from those serving in the armed forces. Rock out, Farrow.) Secretary Clinton also said recently in a landmark speech in Tunisia -- in perhaps my favorite moment of any of her speeches, because of the slight lift of the eyebrow and great affection with which she says it -- to the youth gathered there: "The world ignores you at its peril."

Indeed. While ignorance has political consequences, which Mr. Farrow especially has worked to spread awareness of (he's reported what he learned in his work with youth as the fact that young people will be heard through peaceful, or if that doesn't happen, through violent and sometimes extremist means), ignorance is essentially a social phenomenon. While youth can't always tell when an extremist group is making false promises or imperiling them, they can pretty much always tell if they're being condescended to. The worst mistake I made teaching college students was attempting to break the ice during a first class day with a joke they found patronizing. I didn't know of their reaction until I read their end-of-semester evaluations. I never won their trust, nor, from their point of view, did I deserve to. Those particular students taught me: we don't just ignore youth at our peril; whether we mean to or not, we condescend to them at our peril.

The twenty-first is a social century, and not just because of social media. We need to remain ever-vigilant of the ways in which we may inadvertently deny youth our attention and our respect -- the global consequences of which couldn't be more serious. Social skills are therefore of the highest importance for anyone interested in doing development work or policy work, especially since developing countries are home to much of the youth population bulge. But whether in Africa or Princeton, it remains: you can know what's best for a young person -- and be right -- but if the young person senses or even suspects that they're not being seen or heard with respect, they will, as Slaughter put it, "tune you out," or even, in the worst of circumstances, do active harm. Slaughter enacted a 21st-century-friendly family model when she treated her child like a person capable of critical thought and community awareness by clearing her article with him first, and he responded admirably. Kudos to her -- and to him.