While the whole country stays at home, teenagers are under our control more than ever. Their freedoms and their future have also been eroded, writes Tainui Stephens.


I like teenagers. I really do. And my heart goes out to them. It’s always been tough and awkward to be one, but it’s harder these days.  

All my life I’ve heard it said that our youth are the leaders of tomorrow. I reckon, sadly, we adults are bequeathing our youth a tomorrow that looks pretty shitty.

The Covid-19 virus is working its way through all the people on the planet. It is only the latest and loudest wake-up call that our Earth Mother, Papatūānuku, labours under severe duress.

While the world copes with this malicious bug, teenagers are watching us. They’re observing how we, their elders, cope with the stress of a unique event in world history. This is not another bog standard economic or political crisis. We face a life or death situation that tests the character of all adults. 

Our young people will learn from our actions — or inaction.

If I was a teenager today, I’d be anxious about the world I’m about to inherit. A job, a home, a family, clean air, and fresh water are well on their way to becoming luxuries. Yet there is cause for hope. The beauty of our whakapapa and gene pool, is that each new generation of our children represents the newest and best version of us created so far.

I feel the truth of that when I observe teenage faces that start out looking like mum or dad (or both) then gradually settle into their own combo of inherited features. I also appreciate teenagers who try out all the emotional arrows in their quiver in an attempt to understand the freedom and responsibilities of being an individual.

Tainui (right) in his 7th form year, with his siblings Dale and Māmari.

When I was 13, the border of my world was as far as I could ride my bike. Getting my driver’s licence at 15 took me a lot further, but nowhere as far as the young people of today can travel. Thanks to more transport options and the internet, they’ve been able to get around New Zealand and the world, easily. They are already global citizens.

I believe the current crop of teenagers are special. They inhabit an era quite different from any other in all our history. Our species is halfway between the analogue world of yesterday and the digital world of tomorrow. As adults, our various duties of life and death colour our opinions at best, and compromise them at worst. There is a purity and clarity about the dreams of teenagers. They’ve had to grow up fast. We should pay more attention to them. They, too, are fellow citizens with the right to a point of view.

My own view of the world started to take shape during my adolescence in Christchurch. 

The 1970s was called “the decade that fashion forgot” for a good reason. I entered it wearing shorts and knee-high socks. Midway, it was all about flared jeans and tie-dyed T shirts. At varsity, it was the five-dollar pinstripe suits from the op shops. By the time I’d started working, Friday nights saw me tarted up in god-awful outfits like jumpsuits and platform boots.

Clothes are one vital step in figuring out a style of personal presentation that fits. Another discovery came courtesy of Harry, the local Merivale barber. To the 15-year-old me, the barber’s mullet was the epitome of fashion. But Harry said he’d get rid of my fringe. He swept my hair back. It took 15 minutes to change my look, and my life.

I had the usual teen concerns about pimples, and insecurities about friends. When I left home, my skills in self-preservation were honed by living in a decaying old house with flatmates who were total strangers to soap. I wondered where the hell I would work after dropping out of varsity.

I discovered I could make sense of it all with my love for the amazing music and films of the era. I’d also come of age in a time with a certain innocence. The unholy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that I savoured then was fun rather than toxic, as so much of it is now.

Today, thanks to the propaganda of porn, peer pressure amped up by social media, and incurable STDs, a teenager’s introduction to sex is fraught with danger. And, some drugs will take you so high they will bury you.

Rock’n’roll, or at least popular music, carries on with its mission to seduce a teen with beats, melody, and words that mean not much, or a lot. There is nothing I used to like better than to torment my mother and crank up the latest Led Zepplin LP record in my bedroom. Today, it cracks me up to hear K Pop, kapa haka and TikTok blasting out of our own teenager’s room. 

Despite too many instances of bad and even fatal childcare, there’s a terrific amount of good parenting going on in our communities. Our young have a chance to retain people values that may be a memory in the years ahead, when we old farts are long gone.

I see it around me in the small everyday acts of young people who have respect for their nannies and koros, who love their whānau and friends, and who stand up to bullies or racists. While they may haunt social media and celebrate celebrity, I know that some of the communications that fly out of their bedrooms late at night are because they’re checking in with each other. They’re learning what to do when their mates are living in fear, or distress, or coping with suicide. 

I see it in the actions of the young students from Ōtorohanga College who stood up against the wilful ignorance of our country’s history to demand that it be taught in schools. The petition they sent to parliament in 2015 ensured that our nation’s story is now to be part of our school curriculum. 

Ōtorohanga College students who presented a petition to parliament calling for the New Zealand Wars to be taught in schools.

On an international level, I see it in Greta Thunberg the 17-year-old Swedish activist whose words “How dare you!” to the United Nations last year made many of us face truths about climate change. 

For our Māori rangatahi, there’s one huge advantage that most — but not all — possess. More than ever before, they’re encouraged to be proud of their identity. Previous generations were denied that right and had to fight to reclaim it.

My own family’s history of leaving the Far North because of World War Two, and the opportunities of the big smoke, had erased our connections with our Te Rarawa roots. When I returned to Ahipara to reconnect with my iwi, hapū, and kaumātua, the missing pieces of my identity fell into place. I ended my teen years feeling whole.

Now, when I look at our talented, beautiful teenagers, and think of what they’re going through, I try to be sympathetic and supportive. Because I remember the heat.

Whakataukī or proverbs sometimes have different meanings. A popular one about rangatahi is: Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi. The old net is cast aside and the new net goes fishing. 

Usually, this is taken to mean the time for the elderly is over, and it’s now the turn of the youth. I always felt this was too literal, and a little dismissive of our kaumātua. 

The Tūhoe leader John Rangihau once gave me an alternative interpretation. He said: “Imagine an elderly man seated by the fire, tired, and reflecting upon his life. He sees a beautiful young woman walk by. He then observes a young man following her. There’s a certain glint in the youth’s eye that the old man remembers, and yearns for.” John’s rough translation was this: “As the elderly reflect on what was, they envy the young for what could be.”

I do envy the young. Not in a jealous way. I have a big idea of what they have yet to face, and I do not envy them that. I envy what they will discover. I envy what they will do to make the world a better place than we did. 

Most of all, I hope that they will pass on acts of love that they saw exemplified by us — in times like this.

Mauri tū: Mauri ora!


Tainui Stephens of Te Rarawa, is a producer of The Dead Lands. He’s been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.


© E-Tangata, 2020

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