Youth: Not all Tarred with the One Brush

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.

Even Paddy the patriot made an appearance, thanks to Chef Steve Watson's donation.

Even Paddy the patriot made an appearance, thanks to Chef Steve Watson’s donation.

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.

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About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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17 Responses to Youth: Not all Tarred with the One Brush

  1. jennypellett says:

    I think confirmation bias wins. Most kids know how to behave – in some situations, they choose not to. Do we as parents and teachers let them get away with this? Sometimes, yes, and that could be the over-indulgent bit creeping in. But I know that some of our more challenging ex-pupils go out of their way to cheerfully greet me if I’m out in the local town and are pleased to let me know how they are doing at whatever job or college course they are pursuing whereas in school it would have been an achievement to keep them in their seats!
    Sounds like you’ve had quite a weekend, by the way.

  2. Johnny says:

    Well said, Maurice. In 31 years in high schools, I’ve noticed that a lot of teenagers that are very fine examples of what their parents and grandparents had hoped them to be; polite, sociable, funny, and kind. Have yet to meet one I didn’t like; knew a couple that were more challenging to like, but sometimes when you expect something more negative, something positive blasts out of them. Now.. if we could only fix some crotchety adults… 🙂

    • I like the way you put that: some are more challenging to like. Yes. But, in the end, those challenging ones are often more sincere and hones and bring out the best ideas. Socrates was not known for being affable, eh! And as for those crotchety adults–they, too, can be fun…but not always!

  3. Hasn’t peer group pressure got something to do with this at both ends of the spectrum however? Everyone’s behaving well, no reason for someone to step out of line (not with all those parents around anyway!), one person leaves their mess in a junk fast food outlet, so does the rest of the party.

    I’m beginning to think SafeGrad is as much for the parents and teachers 😀 I admire you though. No way I could manage 11.30-6am. Couldn’t have done it at 18 though either. But isn’t the willingness to provide alternatives to drugs and alcohol also to do with your pretty unique community? Where I grew up we had loads of towns and cities to go out in and people attending my school came from very different areas and were quite widespread. I can’t imagine bouncy castles! and of course the groups I went out with all started drinking in pubs under age. Pubs and clubs were the only places to go at night and anything without alcohol was seen as somewhat ‘soft’.

    One of the main reasons I never tried drugs was after a wonderful opiate-based painkilling injection in hospital I realised, happily floating on the ceiling and looking down at myself, how easy it would be to get hooked. Plus I didn’t do marijuana because it involved smoking cigarettes which I also never did. Ms Squeaky huh?!

    Here in Gib I see extremes. I see young people sitting around on warm balmy evenings smoking dope and not causing any problems. We see (and hear) lots of them drinking spirits mixed in coke bottles. Spirits are cheap in Gib. Not necessarily causing any problems however. And I see older people (but still well younger than me) working all hours under the sun and moon in gambling jobs and still not earning enough to be able to buy a flat.

    In Spain – I just see a lot of people out of work. Of all ages. So it’s good to read about sons One and Two. Hopefully Three and Daughter will be as successful embarking on their adult lives.

    • That’s very insightful and something I had not really considered. I read it about two hours ago and figured I’d better think about that before replying. Now, two hours later, one thing I can say is I wish I’d thought of that! It does explain nicely why we do a lot of things, both good and bad. I guess we, as adults see one pattern and then try to set another…and whether it sticks. By the way, I, too had a similar opiate encounter when I had my wisdom teeth removed and thought the same–it is truly scary how well those meds make you feel. We all know that drugs are no solution for a ‘bad life’ but it is easy to see how people will turn to them when they have no visible alternative, isn’t it?

      • What – peer group pressure was insightful? You can’t have meant that. It’s so obvious it’s in your face! And especially you as a teacher. It takes a lot to take a different stance (I know, I’ve done it, still do), and you lose friends. Simple as that, both as adults and as teenagers, or even young children.

        Opiates .. mmmm .. if I’d thought I could have had another dose of floating on the ceiling I may truly have considered having them extracted.

        Convo:

        Dentist: Those wisdom teeth really need to come out (to me aged 20, 30, 40)

        Me: Great idea. How much opium-based drugs will you pump me full of? Otherwise the deal’s off.

        Anyway, one fell out, one never came through and two to go. I like my wisdom teeth. Probably better for me than those floaty drugs.

        Not everyone turns to them for a visible alternative though. Enough money and a real high. That’s just as much of a problem. A bit like being a functioning alcoholic.

        • What was different, though, was seeing the peer pressure act on the positive end. I am so used to seeing it as a mostly destructive force, I’m afraid my blinders often prevent me from seeing the positive aspects too. I had truly missed that on this one :>)

  4. bluonthemove says:

    Now, where did I put my tar brush!!

    I believe the behaviour of kids can often be related to how close they live to a big city, I’m thinking places like London and New York here. Sounds like you folk are doing a great job bringing up the kids in your community to be responsible young adults, and I would guess teaching them they can have fun without resorting to alcohol and drugs is particularly important given that driving must be a major way for kids to travel home if they are allowed to use the parental vehicle, or even have their own.

    Here in London, returning home from a late night out by public transport, one is all too well aware of the often drunken youth behaving abysmally. However, the majority of the youth are tucked up in bed at that hour or discussing their home work with friends on Skype; invisible to the likes of me on my way home at night.

  5. You come across as a pretty proud Pa-Pa and sounds as if you have good reason to be. Stop to consider that you and your wife (not the school … not the peer group … not the teachers) … that the two of you have done something really right with all of your kids. Bravo! D

  6. johnlmalone says:

    once again, Maurice, there’s a lot in this post so I’ll respond to the part that responds most to me: the recitals. My daughter at a similar age to yours was very involved in ice skating. We wewnt on a few overseas trips for this — specifically, Hong Kong and Boston. But it was ruggedly individualistic, including attempts at harmimg fellow skaters. I am glad your daughter experience3s a more cooperative activity

    • Yes individual sports seem to draw out the worst from some. Your comment reminds me of the tension that will always exist in this world as people try and balance their own needs against those of others. Your example shows something of what some people are capable of.

  7. TamrahJo says:

    It makes me cringe when an adult starts in on how bad teen agers are, etc., etc…
    I love spending time around teenagers – it’s my favorite part of my children’s childhood – it’s the time when they are really consciously choosing and embracing – trying on and flinging off – who they want to be – You get to watch and know this total individual blossoming forth from their roots – finding out what they want to do different from you and what they like and have adopted from you and their surrounding culture –
    I love their enthusiasm – their idealism – their energy –
    In my neck of the woods, while parents may focus on their children, it seems like they so often fail to see them as individuals – as something to be discovered, observed and known – rather, they are something to be molded, shaped, set on a certain path, “because it’s good for them and we don’t want them to get into trouble’ –
    I honestly feel there would not be so much teenage rebellion if adults would practice what they preach –
    “Respect Us” – well, are teenagers treated with respect? Or are they viewed with suspicion, by those just waiting for the slightest mis-deed?
    “Listen to Us” – are teenagers heard? Do they have a safe spot to share their less than stellar moments and receive support in determining how to forgive their own mistake, make amends and move on or do they just get a lecture?
    Sorry so long – this is one of my most passionate topics – –
    So glad to see someone else viewing the topic with reason
    🙂

    • Thank you. The one thing I keep in mind is that people tend to respond in kind. If we want respect then we need to learn to always give it…even to whose for whom this may not be easy…

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