Confirmation bias is one of those flawed modes of thinking in which you let your existing opinions and attitudes have too strong an influence on what information you choose to notice and what you choose to ignore. When we have an opinion there’s a natural tendency to spot examples form our lives that lend credence to it, and it alone. Fair enough. There’s also, unfortunately, a tendency to reject or ignore examples to the contrary. If, for example, you believe that everyone is selfish then you will clearly recall examples of when you witnessed or otherwise experienced it. You will also fail to notice the times when people were selfless and generous. Only the parts that support your view point will be remembered.
As an educator I get to see numerous examples of people interacting with one another, and often under circumstances that can be best described as trying or stressful. School is one of the places where you get to see people at their best and at their worst. You get to choose what you wish to see: only the good, only the bad or all of it.
It is somewhat socially acceptable for adults when talking about youth to say that they are now living in a culture of entitlement. In polite conversation an adult can remark that young people today increasingly expect to have things handed to them. As an educator those ‘things’ may be grades and the conversation may be about how students today expect to receive good ones without putting in the requisite effort. As employers the conversation may be about how the young people expect high pay but are not prepared to develop the specialized skills that merit it. It may be more general than that, just adults talking among themselves and noting that the young people want all the things we older people have—whether it may be a home, a vehicle or financial security—but seem unwilling to make the sacrifices and devote the vast amounts of time and effort needed to get those things or achieve those goals.
It’s also easy to rationalize why it may be that way. In most of the first- and second-world a certain baseline of social justice exists (as an aside it should be noted that there are valid arguments that that this is increasingly not the case but let’s shelf that thought for now) so young people can be assumed to take the level of civility and, for that matter, affluence that exists in society as a given; something that does not come at great cost.
Families are much smaller than has historically been the case and numerous time-savers exist that spare young and old alike from much of the drudgery that has traditionally been part of daily life. So, with more ‘free’ time available and fewer children to spend it with today’s young people receive more attention from parents than ever before.
Parents appear much more supportive too. They are expected to be present for, or at least view the recording of, their child’s every single achievement. “Oh, look his/her first ___!” has been taken way beyond the point of absurdity. Every single positive achievement must be rewarded and celebrated lest the child’s self-esteem suffer irreparable loss. The corollary to this, though, is not true. While everything positive is reinforced, the negatives are not necessarily curbed. Worse, parents are quick to come to the child’s defense when that same child is at the centre of something negative in nature. Don’t believe this? Just you try saying something, however gently and politely to the parent or guardian when a child is misbehaving in a way is clearly annoying not just you but others. Rather than deal with the behavior they will, in all likelihood, defend the child’s actions. Worse, they will likely attack you instead, accusing you of being intolerant, out of touch, or just plain mean-spirited.
But is this really all true? Is it, instead, just one point of view based on selected bits of experience with the numerous counterexamples conveniently ignored or forgotten?
On the home front, this week was a rather busy one. The two older sons have just finished the winter academic terms at University and are preparing for summer work. “Two” was squared away easily enough. His part time job which provides him with pocket money for most of the year is now, for the next four months, ramped up to full time. As has previously been the case he will save at least enough for one terms tuition as well as his own spending money. All I will have to do is provide taxi service. It’s worth mentioning that this job—obtaining it and juggling his time between it and his studies—has been solely his own doing. No parental influence; no favours from friends.
“One” is engaged in a professional engineering co-op program that alternates academic terms with work terms where he is placed, at a junior level, in an engineering position at some company. He has successfully obtained his summer work term with a company engaged in the offshore oil and gas. These positions are competitive in nature and the students are expected to take the initiative to find and apply for them. He’s done it and, like his brother he will use the money to fund his next academic term. All I have to do is provide the aforementioned taxi service along with, of course, the roof over his head.
Now on to Three and Daughter.
Daughter, now fifteen, has been enrolled in dance school since age three. Without doubt, dance is her single greatest love. This year her ‘dance recital’ (I’ve never gotten used to the term ‘recital’ as it is used here. To me, recital is something that is associated with sound—speech, singing or music—and not movement, but, once again, I digress.) was held over three separate nights. The preparation for these events has been intense and extensive. Last Saturday, for example, she was at the Arts and Culture centre from 7:30AM until 11PM, Sunday was an easy day, only 12 noon until 10:30 PM. The recitals were a success both in terms of attendance and performance. I attended the second performance and, not only found it entertaining but, more importantly, was buoyed by the sheer joy and enthusiasm of the performers—all of them.
More to the point, Daughter, who performed in six of the routines per night, clearly put her all into the shows. Not only did she work hard at the performances but, more to the point here, she worked equally hard behind the scenes, serving as one of the stage managers charged with getting performers ready for each subsequent routine. After attending the performance it was impossible not to notice the dedication put into the events on behalf of the young people. They clearly worked hard on their routines, but, more to the point, worked as a very large team. The end result was a large cooperative community.
Cynic says: Think about it for a minute. The performance arts are all about the egotistical self-absorbed stars. My, my, my! Three whole days of that, paid for by parents and grandparents.
Response: At any performance there are a handful of stars but the event is really done by a much larger cast of supporting individuals. More to the point here, dance recitals, are not about the stars at all. The routines are not solos and the teams tend to be very mutually supportive. Simply put, when you look at a dance recital you do not see single, self-absorbed narcissists. No, you see a cooperative community dedicated to a common cause.
And then there was son number three, henceforth referred to as Three. This is his final year in high school and, since Canada borders with the US, we are not immune to its influence. US-style spring proms (sometimes inappropriately referred to as ‘grads’) have been as popular here since the mid-seventies as they have been over there for far longer. Cleaned up, hairstyled, tanned and decked off in the finest that parents can (or perhaps ‘cannot’ would be more appropriate here) afford they step out into the spring evening showing to all that they have ‘arrived.’ Sometimes we even get spring weather for the spring prom.
Since the mid-eighties, in response to increasing concern around widespread alcohol and drug use associated with proms parents and teachers alike have worked together to find ways of eliminating this. I’m happy to say that, in my province at least, those efforts have been successful in that prom nights are now almost completely ‘dry.’ And, yes, taking the rose-coloured glasses off for just a second, it needs to be stated that many students to devote the following night to the things we do try to reduce. For now, we’ll leave that one be and turn instead to Safegrad. This was an idea that took root in my province in the early eighties. Safegrad is a night-long celebration sponsored by parents and teachers for the students.
Three’s Safegrad, as was the case with One and Two, took place at the school from 11:30 PM on the evening after the prom (The prom was, by the way, was a very pleasant affair. It’s worth mentioning that the formal attire and attitude brings out the best in the young people and offers an optimistic glimpse at the beautiful young adults they are rapidly becoming.) and lasts until 6 AM the following morning. Yes, it’s an all-nighter.
It’s completely ‘dry,’ and once in, the participants must remain until either its over or a parent/guardian signs them out for good. The gym was converted to an eatery/entertainment area. “Bouncy Castles”, a Velcro wall (yes, no kidding) and other diversions were set up at one and along the sides of the other end, food area were set up providing all of the foods teenagers crave (nachos, pizza, etc.). The middle of the gym was a night-long dance floor. Other rooms were converted to: a regular maze, a haunted hike, a Vegas-style casino which included a little chapel where ‘Elvis’ would be happy to perform a ‘Wedding ceremony,” a café, a photo booth replete with costumes. The night ended with awards and a hypnotist show.
It was a hoot! And I was a parent volunteer, not a participant.
Cynic says: So what’s your point? You started by noting that parents were going way too far supporting your kids’ indulgences and here you just pointed out one great big fat example of that!
Response: Recall I started by saying that one of the primary objectives here was to show our young people how to have fun on their special night without resorting to recreational drugs and we did just that. This is just one very special night—we do this once in a lifetime! But there’s more. My ‘assignment’ was to the gym. This is my third time there (did it for One and Two also) and my primary responsibility was around the food. Rather than serving it, as there’s enough to do that, I go around the gym all night making sure that the place stays clean from the food-related mess. Around two hundred senior class members and their dates can go through a lot of food and that means a lot of mess—paper napkins, recycling, uneaten food (not much of that) and the scattered spill. It adds up. It keeps me busy and I like it that way. Here’s what I observed: grateful, cooperative young men and women who, all night long, went out of their way NOT to leave a mess. All I got were smiles and pleasant conversation and lots of offers to help each time I picked up a few things or emptied the receptacles.
Cynic says: Fine. They’ll just turn around and have that big party the following night so all your efforts will have been for nothing.
Response: Yes, in all likelihood there will be a party the following night but actions speak loudly. Those young people we shown, powerfully, that recreational drugs are something we do not wish in their lives and that they are not required. Sure, some of the young people will do the things we wish they would not, but there will be far less of it than there would otherwise be and, even when it does, we have helped instill a culture that says, “show moderation if you have to do it at all and don’t involve vehicles under any circumstance.” What I saw was this: young people who were treated to quite a party but who also appreciated it very much.
So, there it is. Make what you want of it: overindulgence or confirmation bias; your choice. Based on a sample size of two older sons, a dance troupe of 300-400 and a Safegrad attendance list of around 300-350 I’m going with choice number two for now. Sure, there are many exceptions, there are, without doubt, lots of young self-centered narcissists but I’m not going to tar the whole population with the brush that was used on those few exceptions.