Respecting the Young

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I recall once reading quotes from ancient Greeks in which they expressed derision toward the teenagers of the time. Adults all too often have expectations for youth that are unrealistic and hardly in line with adolescent development. While it is true that seventeen and eighteen year olds often took on great responsibilities in earlier times, it is also undoubtedly as fact that those same adolescents also made mistakes from which they had to learn valuable lessons. The time between sweet sixteen and about age twenty five is wrought with both wonderful opportunities and major struggles. Becoming a happy and healthy adult is no small feat, especially in today’s world. Sadly those of us who are well beyond those young years often forget how fraught with anxiety and challenges they can be.

I worry constantly about our young. Our world does not always treat them kindly and they are still working to perfect the life skills that will enable them to survive in the on their own. The process of growing up is a grand adventure on many levels and one of the most uncomfortable moments in life on others. Teens and young adults will make many mistakes before they finally figure things out, and it is up to those of us who are older to support them in their efforts, even when they appear to go astray. Many a young person’s life has been unduly scuttled because the adults around him/her lacked compassion and understanding.

I watch grown people who should know better deriding young folk who are earnestly expressing their points of view. Instead of congratulating them for caring enough to form opinions and speak out on certain issues there are those who insult them and even suggest that they should be ignored. A more reasonable reaction would be to have an honest and respectful conversation with them about their concerns rather than insulting them or simply writing them off as too immature to know have a meaningful opinion.

While I think that Greta Thunberg from Sweden has taken the wrong approach in scolding entire generations with a broad brush of disdain, I applaud her interest in bringing attention to the problems of climate change. She is quite sincere in her worries and she deserves to be heard even if we find her ideas hyperbolic and even a bit insulting. In fact, when a teen expresses the most anger and frustration that is the very time when they must be heard. In those moments they are thinking out loud and letting us know that they are attempting to make sense of the world as they know it. Simply writing them off only confounds their anger and does little to help them learn how to channel their anxieties into constructive ideas.

In the past I’ve written about the boy with the MAGA cap who was raked over the coals by adults who should have known better. They made assumptions about him based on a single image that could not possibly have told his full story. It was very wrong of the press and the world of social media to publicly scold him without really knowing him. As it turned out he was unfairly taunted and then judged by standards that most adults would have a difficult time achieving.

Then there is the young man from Parkland High School in Florida who has spoken about against guns. He has been ridiculed and insulted in grossly inappropriate ways simply because he espouses a point of view with which many disagree. Instead of complimenting him for taking the time to attempt to solve a problem that personally affected him and his classmates, he has been continually maligned.

As an educator I watched young teens do very stupid things that got them into much trouble. They were the ones who got caught and often the punishments given to them far outweighed the nature of the crimes they committed. In the most extreme cases too much emphasis was placed on retribution toward them rather than using the instance as a teachable moment. The adults in charge did indeed change the course of the youngsters’ lives, but not in the intended way. They took good kids who had done something wrong and turned them into hardened criminals. Without compassion and counseling they broke and felt as though their lives were so ruined that there was little reason to continue along a path of righteousness.

My grandfather was a storyteller. I loved sitting with him and hearing his tales that always held a kernel of wisdom. Hearing him speak was a calming and learning experience. You might say that he had been around.

  Once he told of a time when he was working in a general store as a young boy. Times were hard then and there were families that were unable to afford even the basic necessities. Many of them ran up tabs with the owner of the store with promises of repayment once things got better. One man in particular owed so much that the proprietor of the store had to deny the man anymore credit. The poor soul ended up stealing a bag of flour in desperation and my grandfather witnessed the crime.

Grandpa felt compelled to tell the owner of the store what had happened and soon enough the sheriff arrived. The lawman and my grandfather went together to confront the man who had purloined the flour. When they got to his house they found a chaotic scene in which the woman of the house was attempting to make bread. Her children were so hungry that they were eating balls of raw dough. When the sheriff saw what was happening he looked at my grandfather, winked, and suggested that my grandfather must have been mistaken in thinking that the unfortunate father had stolen anything. My grandfather understood the sheriff’s reasoning instantly and nodded in assent that he had been wrong.

We would all do well to follow the sheriff’s lead and demonstrate more compassion, particularly with teens and young adults. Our first thought should always be to help them to become better versions of themselves. Stern insults and harsh punishments are not the answer. It’s up to us to be better than that.

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