Teenagers Prove That You Can Simultaneously Know Everything and Nothing

As published in The Week on September 4, 2015

Teenagers fool us with their size, vocabulary, and swift mastery of new devices. They seem to be about the right shape to fit into the adult world. They drive cars. They know algebra. So it’s always momentarily shocking to find out that they don’t know how to address an envelope or operate a can opener.

My kids are the only people in my house who are as smart as my smart TV. I honestly have to enlist their help every time I want to change the channel. They know how to work Netflix, and they can figure out how to get WiFi anywhere in the world. And yet…

My son recently started a road trip by quickly clicking an address on his phone’s GPS. He then drove to the exact right address in the wrong state. It’s these little things that you’d never think to explain that turn out to be big things. When he was leaving, should I have added “Go to the right state!” to my standard “Make good choices!”?

My teenagers know Pi to 20 decimal places, but they do not understand why keys matter. Their house keys are used and discarded like tissues. I sat dumbfounded as my husband explained to them the etymology of the word “key.” The reason people refer to the most important part as the “key” part is that keys are really important. Seriously, I wondered, does this even need to be said? How could a person with the motor skills to operate a key not know this?


They know all the elements on the periodic table. They can name every starting player for every team in the NBA. But they were surprised to learn that chicken, left on the counter overnight, goes bad. At some point, facts like this become a matter of survival.

Of course some of this is just the teenage brain, designed like a sieve and with an incomplete prefrontal cortex. But it’s also just a lack of information. Their defense is simple and consistent: “I didn’t know that was a thing.” That explanation should find its way into a scientific journal.

I didn’t know that was a thing. This phrase echoes in my mind, bringing me back to those hazy, soupy teen years when I could only see a few feet ahead of myself. My parents probably shook their heads a lot, but they didn’t try to spoon feed me facts. No one waved from the bus stop shouting, “Have a good day! Don’t drink water from a still pond! Run in a zig zag if a bear chases you!” Everything I know I learned from cartoons or calamity.

There are a million things I never knew were a thing. When I was 19, I bought a used Volkswagen for $500. At the time I knew a lot about French literature and pretty much everything about William Faulkner. But I didn’t know you needed to put oil in a car. No one had ever told me, so I didn’t know that was a thing.

That same year I backpacked all over Europe with my passport in my back pocket. Now that I think of it, passports could be described as “key.” I didn’t know that was a thing either.

I can work myself into a panic thinking of all the things that my kids probably don’t know. Don’t drink soda and eat pop rocks, or your head will explode. Never put your drink down at a bar. A person who has to say “to be honest” isn’t going to be. If you see the shoreline rise rapidly, run!

This must be why parents just stick to the basics: Look both ways before crossing the street, wash your hands, don’t let the bedbugs bite. The rest of it is going to be filled in along the way, an education provided not by us, but by a series of small catastrophes that they’ll likely survive.