I am constantly amazed and dismayed by the number of conversations I have with adults about children and young people where our youth are talked down or disparaged. I’m sure we have all been trapped in these kind of conversations, where the person seems convinced that the “youth” of today are in some way inferior to the young people of the past or, in the more extreme version, are surely going to bring down the whole of society. In these situations I am often reminded of the following quote, usually attributed to Plato or Socrates:
The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.
Despite the common attribution to the famous philosophers, this quote actually originates from the early 20th century to summarise complaints about youth in ancient times. Regardless of the era of origin, the quote should provide us with pause for thought and a reason to question our attitudes towards our young people. (We teachers, by the way, are by no means immune from this phenomenon. Some of the worst offenders for disparaging, talking down or shaming young people can be teachers.)
It seems that this is a human tradition that we are unable to break, even those of us with professional training in understanding young people. But my argument to you is that this is a habit that we must kick. Rather than being youth-disparagers, we all need to become fanatical and energetic youth advocates.
By no means am I saying that we should overlook the flaws that young people might have today; rather I am asking us all to become just slightly more reflective about our own past selves and use that self-knowledge to be more compassionate. Answer the following question:
Were you your ‘best self’ at 15?
Without even knowing you, your history or your background, I’m pretty certain that I know the answer to this question. If we are all being honest, we know that we have undergone a lot of personal development since our teenage years. And the alternative, of our ‘best selves’ having been when we were still in high school, is probably an abhorrent idea: it would imply that we peaked early and are becoming worse with every passing year. I sincerely hope none of us is that pessimistic about ourselves.
So why do we act and speak as if the young people of today should already be their ‘best selves’?
Young people are learning how to navigate the world, dealing with hormones, changing social dynamics and myriad pressures both at school and at home. Why are we surprised when they make mistakes? Why should it be unbelievable that teenagers can be self-absorbed? If we are genuinely surprised by these things, we have lost touch with our younger, self-obsessed and impulse-driven selves.
None of these flaws of youth are irredeemable. To focus on them is to ignore and deny the unbelievable strengths, skills and achievements of young people. We need to celebrate the work of our young people in their communities. We need to talk about the great things students do for their schools. If we fail to do this, the disengagement, apathy and ‘poor’ behaviour of youth so often decried by those a little older becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Provide support and opportunities for young people to shine and they will. Celebrate their achievements and it becomes even more powerful.
We must avoid becoming people who are nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia per se, until it blocks us from seeing the qualities of our present and the potential of the future. During season 1 of the HBO series True Detective, Detective Marty Hart shuts down a long complaint about young people by saying “You know, throughout history, I bet every old man probably said the same thing. And old men die, and the world keeps spinnin'”. While somewhat brutal, this quote is fundamentally true. Every generation has worried that the next generation would be the ones that finally bring us to ruin. Every generation has been wrong.
So, be an advocate for young people. Yes, call them out on their flaws and their self-obsessed, impulsive moments. But don’t chastise, teach. Reflect that you weren’t always so level-headed and virtuous, that perhaps even now you can be vain, self-obsessed or driven solely by base urges. Use that self-knowledge to see how great a job our young people are doing and find a way to help them be even greater.
To finish, I’d like to share a direct quote from a Year 8 student of mine. It illustrates succinctly and with a simple eloquence the point I have been attempting to make. In trying to articulate her anger at Pauline Hanson’s comments regarding disabled students in mainstream classes, this 14-year-old girl said the following:
How dare she? Why does she get to decide what ‘normal’ is? People are people, no matter what and should be treated like it.