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Published on November 1st, 2012 | by Brett Harris

Judge Gilliam’s “Open Letter to Teen-ager”

Most people don’t know anything about Colorado Judge Philip Gilliam, except that he wrote a hard-hitting letter in a Denver newspaper in 1959 (called Open Letter to Teen-ager) that went viral on Facebook in 2012 — very viral, in fact.

How did this happen? Well, Judge Gilliam published his little op-ed on December 6, 1959. Just over half-a-century later, in 2010, The Pierce County Tribune in North Dakota (of all places) republished the letter on their website.

From there, a school principal in New Zealand posted his own rendition of the op-ed in his school’s newsletter (see above) — which found its way to Canadian radio station Mix 96.7, which posted the letter to its Facebook page, leading nearly 25,000 people to share it on their walls, and the rest, they say, is history.

Speaking of history, there’s more to this story…

If you only read Judge Gilliam’s words on Facebook you might come away with the impression that this was just a cranky old guy letting off some steam at the young whippersnappers littering all over his yard — and you would be dead wrong.

Judge Philip Brewster Gilliam was no stranger to the struggles of youth. He grew up during World War I, graduated from law school in the middle of the Great Depression, and entered the juvenile court system during World War II, when juvenile offenses were skyrocketing.

With fathers gone to war and mothers gone to work, hundreds of thousands of unsupervised young people turned delinquent in the 1940s, often ending up before men like Judge Gilliam on charges ranging from truancy and petty theft to arson and murder.

For a quarter-of-a-century, from 1940 through 1965, Judge Gilliam was the sole arbiter of these cases in the populous city of Denver, Colorado — sitting down each year with hundreds of young felons, troublemakers, and petty criminals. Early in his career he wrote:

“To work with delinquents requires limitless patience, and at times it seems almost an endurance test to those so engaged.”

Judge Gilliam endured for thirty-three years and was a tireless advocate for the young, wielding his substantial popularity to direct new resources towards preventing juvenile delinquency and helping those already in the system. Today Denver’s Juvenile Hall, located at 28th and Downing Street, is named in his honor.

At the same time, Judge Gilliam wasn’t soft on young people. One year, just a few weeks before Christmas, he took the time to pen an op-ed for Denver’s South Bend Tribune. Published on December 6, 1959, Judge Gilliam’s Open Letter to Teen-ager doesn’t mince words. But if anyone had the credibility to issue such a challenge, it was the dogged champion of the Denver Juvenile Court.

Here’s the original letter in its entirety:

Always we hear the plaintive cry of the teen-ager. What can we do? … Where can we go?

The answer is GO HOME!

Hang the storm windows, paint the woodwork. Rake the leaves, mow the lawn, shovel the walk. Wash the car, learn to cook, scrub some floors. Repair the sink, build a boat, get a job.

Help the minister, priest, or rabbi, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army. Visit the sick, assist the poor, study your lessons. And then when you are through — and not too tired — read a book.

Your parents do not owe you entertainment. Your city or village does not owe you recreational activities.

The world does not owe you a living… You owe the world something.

You owe it your time and your energy and your talents so that no one will be at war or in poverty or sick or lonely again.

Grow up; quit being a crybaby. Get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone, and start acting like a man or a lady.

You’re supposed to be mature enough to accept some of the responsibility your parents have carried for years.

They have nursed, protected, helped, appealed, begged, excused, tolerated and denied themselves needed comforts so that you could have every benefit. This they have done gladly, for you are their dearest treasure.

But now, you have no right to expect them to bow to every whim and fancy just because selfish ego instead of common sense dominates your personality, thinking and request.

In Heaven’s name, grow up and go home!

Wow! Reading those last few paragraphs helps you understand why that New Zealand principal felt like “editing” Judge Gilliam’s letter to be a little more politically correct and, well, nice. But now you know a little more of the history behind this Facebook phenomenon (and have the read the actual letter) — what do you think?

Join the discussion by answering the following questions:

  • Had you already seen the Facebook version of Judge Gilliam’s letter? If so, what was your response?
  • Do you think modern young people just need a “kick in the pants” Gilliam-style, or is this approach ineffective in challenging our generation?
  • Do you recognize the entitlement mentality Judge Gilliam was addressing in your own life? If so, explain how.

+ Join The Discussion +


About the Author

is co-founder of and co-author of Do Hard Things, along with his twin brother, Alex. He is married to his best friend, Ana, who suffers from a severe case of chronic Lyme Disease. He is the founder of Do Hard Things University — an online training program for young world-changers.

  • Kaysie

    WOW. Such a needed letter in today’s society! I love the encouragement to start at home.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Shelby

    This is great! While it is harsh, it is what’s need to jerk teens out of our selfish lifestyles.

  • Abby

    Teenagers have been given leeway and soft remarks all their lives…and in today’s society it is obvious that these downplayed forms of discipline are not working. They need to (quite literally) wake up to the fact that the world around them is falling apart, and it is up to this generation to fix it.

  • Cheyanne

    Amen! I love how Judge Gilliam worded that. As teenagers, these can be the most productive and constructive years of our lives or the most destroying and lazy years. My view on this is mostly the same but an added little touch of faith. As CHRISTIAN teens we are required to seek God with our whole hearts thoughout life. What hurt God should hurt us, what overjoys him should also be our delight. This blog reminded me of a verse.

    James 1:27 ESV
    Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

    If God views a pure religion as taking care of the afflicted and remaining untainted from the world, shouldn’t that be our number one goal? Thanks so mich

  • Michael R.

    I think we teens have been getting very selfish and lazy. Abigail Van Buren said, “If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” With that said, a good “kick in the seat of our pants” is what we need. (Let’s hope our rear end stays sore to keep us on our feet.)

    It’s so sad to see so many of our generation’s warriors wander around aimlessly, blinded by the low expectations of modern society and lack of responsibility. We need initiative, integrity, and commitment!

  • Peyton S. Weiss

    Totally agree; todays teens are a disgrace! Yes they do need a good kick in the pants,
    but even more so, the parents do!

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  • Gabriella

    Wow!!! Im going to answer the discussion questions asked:
    I didnt read this on facebook, this post was the first time Id read it, or heard of this man.
    Its a complicated answer, but I dont think a ‘kick in the pants’ is really what our generation needs. I do agree with everything said, but I’ll put it this way: If I was told I needed a kick in the pants, it would not be helpful because thats telling me what your going to do, its not telling me anything i can do, our suggesting Im strong enough to do anything. I DO think our generation needs a wake up call, needs to be told the truth as this man did about what we’re doing and how we’re wasting these years; yes we need to be told that. But most people in our generation who are like the teens this judge is referring too, have been punished and ‘kicked in the pants’ enough by teachers, principals, parents, but what they havnt had; is something like your book ‘Do Hard things’ to challenge them and encourage and strengthen them. So I DO think this article is extremely true but I do disagree with saying teenagers JUST need to get a kick, we do need to, but we also need challenges and encouragement.
    I totally recognize this in my own life, all of it really. It addresses doing Big Hard things, but really addresses doing everyday normal things well and makes them sound like a big deal which they are!!!
    I think this is an awesome reminder, Thanks so much for posting it!!!

  • Caroline S.

    This message might be a tough one to swallow, but it is one everyone needs to hear. This came at the perfect time, thank you so much for posting.

  • Stephanie

    I think it’s really good! The hard thing about letters is that you can’t hear a person say it. But from your article, I gather that he meant it with utmost sincerity and compassion. With that in mind, yes, I think the teenage generation needs to be challenged. You won’t ever rise to the challenge until someone challenges you to do it. However, too many adults do it just because they are mad or frustrated with their immature teenager. You have to do it with God’s love.

  • Kimberly Justice

    This is something alot of teens need to be hearing,including myself! I can’t pretend that I don’t need to be told these things,because I do,so many of us have been allowed to fail or fall behind in our duties and if we look around you can see the affect of it. One of my biggest problems is that I’m constantly tempted to fall back,to be lazy and not care. How I wish temptation was easily defeated!

  • Kate

    I wish more adults felt this way and had the courage to say it.

  • Ember

    Someone once told me that her dream was to “Get rich without working, get smart without studying, and stay skinny without dieting.” I feel that this letter hits this kind of attitude right on the head!

  • Phoebe Engel

    Question 1 – I did not see the facebook page, unfortunately, but I’m glad I got to read the letter here!
    Question 2 – I think a kick in the pants is sometimes the only way because if adults give it gently, we’ll likely take it lightly. However, I think that a good follow-up to the swift kick would be a brief description of what it looks like to be responsible as it applies to your own I-can’t-afford-a-trip-to-Africa-I’m-not-old-enough-to-get-a-job life. That’s why I ‘m glad that he listed off a ton of stuff that would be pretty simple for all us teens to do. Small-hard-things, as it were, but that will get us out of our rooms, off our computers and away from our cell-phones and get us to do what will actually benefit us.
    Question 3 – I think I’ve fallen into the trap of not giving time the respect it deserves. With every long walk I take or movie I watch, it’s a couple hours I could have used to show my siblings how much I love hangin’ with them, or clean up my room, or donate some stuff that I don’t use anymore, or get some extra schoolwork done.

    This letter has been really helpful. I might make it my desktop just so I don’t forget it! Thanks loads!

    In Christ,

  • Genesis

    Well, my first feeling when I read this was excitement. I’m 15 and I’m not friends with crazy teenagers or delinquents, but my friends and I at church are way too comfortable. We need a good kick in the pants to get out there and work or read a book. I want most of all a backbone not a wishbone.

  • Kala

    We definitely needed this! He’s so right! DO HARD THINGS

  • Karissa Paull

    I agree with Gabriella and Phoebe… :)
    I had never seen this on Facebook; but was interesting to read it on here. :)
    Thanks for sharing! It was good to read.. And something I needed to hear! :D

  • Trae

    A kick in the pants won’t do crap.

    The smart ones. The ones who pay attention. Will fix the problems.

    The rest of them….not so much.

    However, the fault is on everyone. The Teens. The Parents. The Schools. Society as a whole.

    Unfortunately, a letter, won’t change much.

  • Phoebe Engel

    @Trae – you make a good point. I think the reason WE find this so helpful is that we already consider ourselves Rebels. We already WANT to change. This letter acted as a sort of battle cry us. But when you think of it from the perspective of a kid who has no desire to follow God, or do more with his life than what he or she is doing, it’s probably more a curse than a blessing. This kid is gonna see it as another lecture, like the kinds he gets from his parents, his teachers and his school principal. He’s gonna see it as some dead dude complaining about them youngins. He’s going to probably figure that it’s yet another attempt to “fix” him. For this kid, it’s probably MORE effective to be annoyingly patient and heap coals on his head rather than throw fire at him. This is all just my opinion. I also believe, however, that some kids, even if they DON’T wish to follow God or improve their lifestyle, might find this useful. It might be something that gets stuck in their head that they just can’t stop thinking about until they find the true meaning behind it, like a song on a loop in your head.

    Again, just my thoughts. I, personally, found the letter quite useful and challenging, but since I don’t know every teenager on the planet, it’s impossible for me to say, for sure, whether this would be viewed by all in the same way it is by myself.

  • Samuel Lockhart

    It is most assuredly required. Join the Military, and this is a VERY passive equivalent of what you will endure. Granted, a younger person may resent being told this. They may have issues of their own. But ultimately, only a metaphorical pair of jumper cables may be able to make them realize the world does not revolve around them.

  • Phoebe Engel


    Also a good point (jumper-cables… lol) but some kids are hesitant to change anything because of fear, or a bad past. Maybe they’re so used to being “jumped” that they’ve developed an imunity to the effects. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m saying it depends. The fact is, this letter is TERRIFIC!!!!! But whether it would be a good tool for evangelism really depends on the person to whom the evangelism is being applied. That’s all. In a sense, everyone’s right and, hey, I love the letter. It made me laugh. It made my brother laugh. Our cats don’t laugh, but if they could, they’d have laughed :D

  • Marty Roberson

    Loved this! But the sad truth is that the responsiblity of what our kids have become lies on the shoulders of the parents. When you give a child everything they do not know the rewarding feeling of EARNING something for themselves. We love our kids and want to give them the best of everything. But when they get it and haven’t done anything to deserve it what does it teach them.

  • Amy

    Did the 25,000 people who posted this quote then get off face book and live it? Or did they post it and then spend endless time chatting about nonsense? This article is fabulous, but is it being lived? Or are the people who have been inspired by it just being inspired but not moved?

  • Wiola

    I have a hard time trying to understand how a judge, who has had so much experience of working with children in vulnerable situations, would write such nonsense. I hope it’s not a real letter. Any professional who has worked with troubled teens, can assure you that reality does not work the way which is described in the letter. A lot of teens with problems can’t just go home. Since the main group this judge was in fact working with was teens with problems, I find this letter very inappropriate. Teens who are being sexually abused at home can’t just “grow up and go home”. Teens with drug addict parents should NOT be told to go home. Many of the problems which teens have today start in the home. I really don’t understand how a professional can say such a thing. I’m in shock.

    How can anyone with that kind of work experience have such a simplistic view on teenagers? There is no such thing as “the teenager”. Teens are not a homogeneous group. How can any professional who is “no stranger to the struggles of youth” find it wise to accuse the youth population? The letter is addressed to the “teenager” and not to a “minority of spoiled teenagers”.

    This part is far from true for many, many troubled teens of today: “They have nursed, protected, helped, appealed, begged, excused, tolerated and denied themselves needed comforts so that you could have every benefit.” If those teens actually had had such protection, help, comfort and benefits, then there wouldn’t be so much work for professionals to do! The burden of work is huge. Those teens are broken – many of them are broken beyond repair.

    This part is very unsympathetic: “Your parents do not owe you entertainment. Your city or village does not owe you recreational facilities.” – While it’s true that a city/village doesn’t owe the teen any recreational facilities or activities, it should be in every city’s best interest to provide such activities for teens and children. If you want less problem, then you should provide activities for youths as a way of keeping them on the right track. Besides, far from every teen has a home to start with. They need somewhere to be during their days, where they can get support and help.

    • Madison

      As a teen myself and from studying Foster care and its outcomes as well as troubled teens and seeing the affects of abuse, I still believe in this letter. All of those troubled teen’s parents were young once and I would bet money they ended up being the way they were because 1) they didn’t do as this letter says or 2) they were abused themselves, in which case it just ends up a long line of abuse unless someone “grows up”. When he says “Grow Up” he isnt saying those teens should cry and express their feelings of hurt and disappointment but that once they do they have to Move past it, Rise above it at some point. They need time to heal but they also dont need to use it as an excuse for the rest of their lives.

      I think the underlying point is for us “teens” who are old enough to be held accountable and make decisions but still under someone elses authority (either state or parental or a guardian) to not use our home life as an excuse for the outcome of our lives and everyday actions. To stop depending solely on dreams to take us where we want to go. That only takes us HALF and hard work takes us the REST of the way. So dont just keep saying, “once I get out of they “system” I’ll do this or once I live on my own I’ll do this”, take the steps you can take now, do the ordinary things now and dont just talk about it.

  • Lululu

    this is just brilliant…..
    thats it

    • leinad

      I totally agree

  • Anon

    You guys have to remember who raised the kids who don’t respect or grow up. The parents who haven’t taught these valuable lessons.

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  • Kim

    Hmm…. I really like this “kick in the pants” Gilliam style, but I don’t know if other young people would. I do know that lots of young people like political incorrectness! But I don’t know if Gilliam’s style would be persuasive — or just make some people defensive. Even so, it might be good for certain young people to get a Gilliam-style scolding (including myself, sometimes ;).

  • Walt

    Hello Tim,
    I recently stumbled across your post “Judge Gilliam’s Open Letter to Teen-ager.”

    Your Christian spirit of justice will be activated, I know, with the
    knowledge that the attribution of the letter to Judge Philip B Gilliam
    of Denver, CO. is unfortunately, not correct.

    The letter was actually written by Doris S Burville, of Olympia, Washington in the
    1950’s. Doris was living in Hibbing, Minnesota at the time. Doris and her husband Wally had three teenage children. I was one.

    In February 1984 the Dear Abby Column included this: “CONFIDENTIAL TO MY
    READERS: The piece ‘Teen-Agers, Go Home,’ erroneously credited to Judge Philip B. Gilliam of Denver, was written by Doris Burville of Olympia, Wash.”

    Mom was a good writer and was frequently published. This particular letter was first published in The Hibbing Daily Tribune, Hibbing, MN. It was then picked up by several other newspapers eventually receiving wide distribution around the world following it’s printing in The Reader’s Digest and frequent re-printing in Abigail Van
    Buren’s Dear Abby column.

    I have copies of two letters, one from The Reader’s Digest of September 15, 1958 and the second from Abigail Van Buren dated January 16, 1978 acknowledging her authorship. I would post copies if I knew how.

    Abby says in the letter “Dear Doris: You, dear, modest, generous lady. I am returning all the documentation per your request. As I recall, a judge in Denver,
    Judge Gilliam (or something like that) took credit for the letter you wrote. And several other had the nerve to claim authorship.” The Reader’s Digest letter says, in part: “We were delighted to have your letter and to learn that you are the author of ‘letter to a Teen-Ager,’ which we reprinted in our August [1958] issue. Our payment check for $80.00 is enclosed… You my be interested to know that since your letter appeared in the Digest it has received even wider circulation, for we are now receiving reprints from all over the country.”

    Here are several links to Abby’s columns where she corrects the false attribution to the Judge. Her column is syndicated and you will find that article in many newspapers carrying Dear Abby.

    From the Chicago Tribune:
    The Bryan Times, July 2, 1985.

    It would be of great satisfaction to my sisters and me and a fitting tribute to a good woman and parent to have mother properly accredited as the author of this wonderful and sensible piece of advice for parents and to their children everywhere.

    Walt Burville
    Gig Harbor, Washington

    This is from Dear Abby, published in the Chicago Tribune.

    “Letter Has The Antidote For Bored Teenagers
    October 29, 1995|By Abigail Van Buren.

    Dear Abby: Recently I attended a family picnic. My 13-year-old granddaughter came up to me and whined, “There’s nothing to do.”
    Simultaneously, my adult children replied, “Rake the leaves, visit the sick, help the needy . . .”
    We all burst into laughter; they were quoting from an old column of yours
    which had been posted on our refrigerator in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
    It obviously made a lasting impression on my family. Will you please run it again?
    Kathryn Gibbings, San Diego

    Dear Kathryn: If this isn’t the most-requested letter to be rerun, it’s a close second.

    The letter you’re referring to was written by Doris Burville of Olympia,
    Wash., and was titled, “An Open Letter to a Teenager.” Here it is:

    “Always we hear the plaintive cry of the teenager, `What can we do? Where can we go?’ The answer is, go home!

    “Hang the storm windows, paint the woodwork. Rake the leaves, mow the lawn,
    shovel the walk. Wash the car, learn to cook, scrub some floors. Repair the sink, build a boat, get a job.

    “Help the minister, priest or rabbi, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army. Visit the sick, assist the poor, study your lessons.

    “And then when you are through–and not too tired–read a book.

    “Your parents do not owe you entertainment. Your city or village does not owe you recreational facilities. The world does not owe you a living. You owe the world something. You owe it your time and energy and your talents so that no one will be at war or in poverty or sick or lonely again.

    “In plain, simple words, GROW UP; quit being a crybaby. Get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone, and start acting like an adult.

    “You’re supposed to be mature enough to accept some of the responsibility your
    parents have carried for years. They have nursed, protected, helped, appealed, begged, excused, tolerated and denied themselves needed comforts so that you could have every benefit. This they have done gladly, for you are their dearest treasure. But now, you have no right to expect them to bow to every whim and fancy just because selfish ego, instead of common sense, dominates your personality, thinking and requests.

    “In heaven’s name, grow up and go home!”

  • pablo

    Just stop using excuses and blaming others, be responsible of your acts, have a porpose in life and live for something that even you are willing to die. I give an advise: seek God you can find all these thing in him through his Holy Word

  • cara havenns

    hello my name is cara and i like to ride my bike to the moon and then fly to my grandmas house . does anyone know anything to do when you are bored that can be done in an hour

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