Chris Rickert: It’s not up to the malls to let teens be teens

July 23, 2017 GMT

In their purest form, retailers exist to sell things to as many people as they can for as high a price as they can, and shopping malls are temples to this retail ethic.

So it’s not as if retailers want fewer people — of any kind — in shopping malls. It doesn’t matter to them whether you’re young or old, black or white, rich or poor — as long as you have the money to buy their products.

Limiting the pool of potential paying customers is not something retailers take lightly, in other words, and this is worth keeping in mind amid all the hue, cry and not-so-subtle allegations of racism and ageism against the owner of Madison’s West and East Towne malls, which recently announced they would soon ban unaccompanied children under 18 on Friday and Saturday nights.

I was curious whether the owners of the malls had done what a lot of parents do before depriving their children of a privilege — because from the sound of it, the malls can be second homes for some teens, and the mall owners, second parents.

If, say, my strong-willed older daughter decides to complain about going to her tennis class, cleaning the cats’ litter boxes and every other of the small number of minor chores I ask her to do over the course of a summer day in which she has no plans anyway, I might tell her that if she complains “just one more time, you are not going to the pool tomorrow!”

The malls’ owners, CBL Properties of Tennessee, made no similarly explicit “if this, then that” threat before lowering the boom, but CBL spokeswoman Stacey Keating did say “our code of conduct is posted at all mall entrances and on each property’s website,” that code specifies that patrons can be expelled for not following it, and “our security team has been diligent in enforcing” it.

So it’s at least partially fair to remind teens: You were warned.

And yet, “we have still received feedback from our retail partners and customers that unsupervised youth create a disruptive environment on Friday and Saturday evenings,” Keating said.

Of course, dogs gonna bark, cats gonna meow, haters gonna hate and, sometimes, teens gonna disrupt.

The issue is not a few restrictions on when and where teens can be teens; the issue is how many other places teens can still be teens.

On its website, the city lists 18 neighborhood or community centers spread out across town, including one, the Lussier Community Education Center, a mile away from West Towne Mall. There are also two parks each within a mile and a half of both malls.

About a year ago, the city of Madison, Dane County, the Madison School District and some 45 organizations launched a website called MOST, for Madison-area Out-of-School Time. Punch in your grade, address, age and when you’re looking for something to do, and the website comes back with a range of options, some of which are free.

Even if that kind of legwork doesn’t sound nearly as cool to the average teen as heading over to the mall, mom or dad can always do the legwork and suggest — or force — their kids to take some out-of-school time somewhere else.

MOST interim director Kay Stevens said she thought teens “will find other places to congregate” than the mall, although she acknowledged there’s less teen programming through MOST on Friday and Saturday nights.

But aside from structured programming, teens also need unstructured time at “places perceived as places that are safe by teens and adults,” she said. As a place where mom and dad aren’t looking directly over their shoulders, but also isn’t some dark street corner or alley, a mall fits that bill.

It still can, even on weekend nights after 4 p.m; teens just need to find a parent to accompany up to three of them, which is maybe what parents should be doing anyway if their kids are getting into trouble there. Maybe parents could form a mall-chaperone co-op, where they take turns being the parent to sit in the food court and drink coffee while the teens socialize.

Then there’s that most obvious of teen hang-outs: home, or preferably, one of your friends’ homes, especially if the friend has a big basement or her own room and a well-stocked refrigerator, and the friend’s parents are willing to give you and your friends a little space.

If teens can’t be teens at any of these other places, the question isn’t what’s wrong with the malls, it’s what’s wrong with the alternatives — especially if the alternative is home.