Ask an Agent: How to Attract a Variety of Teens?

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Question: Hey! We have a question about how to attract certain types of teens. Our library has been blessed enough to finally gain a small but steady teen group, however, this group has presented certain issues. This group is tight knit, and so excludes others when they attend events. Furthermore, they exude an edgy attitude, which has scared off multiple other teens. To be frank, they are troublesome – not the kind of kids parents like their teens to be around. While we don’t want to push these kids away, the library staff would like to see some other kinds of teens as well. What would you guys suggest?

Jan (Moline Public Library) says:

Do you have established (written) policies about programs and events? If so, you can use those to point to and let these teens know their behaviors are not acceptable. If not, you can lay out the rules orally each time, and make it clear that people who are not following the rules will be warned and then asked to leave. Most teens respect boundaries once they know exactly where they are. They will push and push to find them, so you have to make them clear and consistent. If these teens continue to make problems, then it might not be a bad thing to see them go.

Nikki (Cleveland Bradley County Public Library) says:

I have been in the same situation. I have a fabulous core group of kids – about 15-20 who come every single time the doors are open for a program. I love these kids but I can also see why parents and other staff members give them stink eye sometimes. Pastel  hair streaks. Nose rings. Combat boots and hoodies. While people out in the big wide world wouldn’t bat an eye, they are definitely unique in my little corner of rural Tennessee. They give off some major vibes and I think because they might not fit at school or in the homeschool co-op group, they’ve kind of claimed the library as their own territory (yep, you read that right.  I’ve got edgy homeschoolers). Which is awesome, right? It’s what we want. Teens to make a real connection with the library as a place to be.

But it’s also true that the public library belongs to everyone and it’s a place where everyone should feel welcome. At first, I was so excited to just have a group of teens coming. But after I came down from the high of success, I noticed that they weren’t always receptive to new kids in the group and that there was an “us against them” kind of thing happening. After a particularly rocky TAG meeting that left the group divided over whether or not to host a Doctor Who program with people voting not based on their like or dislike of the show itself but of the people who liked Doctor Who (convoluted, right?), I’d absolutely had enough and began to make some changes to the teen area and the way I run programs as a whole.

It’s been a long process and there are still struggles, but here’s what worked for me. First, I got rid of the big list of rules and simplified to these three: Respect the space. Respect one another. Respect yourself. Every kind of infraction can be covered there. Next, I assigned stricter responsibilities in TAG. I had kids who were coming for snacks and hang out time and disrupting the flow of  the people who were there to brainstorm and make things happen and just shooting down ideas to be stinky. Now if you disagree with an idea, it’s okay to voice that but you have to have an alternative suggestion to take its place. So, if you aren’t ready to work, TAG isn’t the place for you.

I also worked with our volunteer coordinator to find a volunteer who was exactly right to be an additional pair of eyes and ears at teen programs. She’s way cooler than me (seriously) and has been a tremendous help. The teens have taken her in as one of their own and she is amazing at engaging the kids who are on the fringe and rounding them up and introducing them to one another. While I’m running the program and working to keep my darling maniacs from climbing the shelves, she is able to give assistance to kids who need extra help with crafts or play a round of Fluxx.

I’ve also had to address the problem directly with a few of the kids and basically say that while you don’t have to like every single person on the earth , it is never acceptable to treat anyone as less than a fellow sentient being. You don’t get a free pass on meanness just because someone gets on your nerves. This kind of talk will happen privately, one-on-one to avoid embarrassment  for anyone involved and if I have to give more than a few reminders then I just let the teen know that maybe today isn’t working out and that they should leave the program and try again next time. I hate to ever ask anyone to leave, but it’s happened a few times and it’s helped them learn that I’m serious.

With big programs where I know that I will have  a lot of new kids or first-timers (summer reading kick-off or our fall masquerade) I do a big and silly icebreaker that everyone participates in like a candy tape ball. It gets silly and everyone loosens up a little.  And, even if you think you aren’t being biased, check yourself. My kids are wickedly funny and I get them.  They are my tribe. But I also believe so strongly that the library is a neutral territory and that every person who wants to be there has a right to participate (except the creepy old guy who is coming in to steal my Seventeen magazines. I know who you are. Just stop).  So put out vibes of your own. You can’t really stop the kids from forming groups and you probably won’t’ get some kind of magical Breakfast Club solidarity but you can insist that they all treat one another with kindness.


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