Every good story has four key elements; one person who is the protagonist, a group of people who are key players in the protagonist’s story, a problem, and a prize if the problem is solved or overcome. Luke becomes a Jedi and defeats the Empire with the guidance of Obi-wan and Yoda and his friends Leah, Han, Chewbacca, and a couple of robots. Frodo throws the ring into the fires of Mordor and protects peace in the Shire (while saving Middle Earth) with the guidance of Gandalf and the other diverse members of the fellowship. Daniel-san finds balance in spite of the Cobra Kai with the support of Mr. Miyagi, the babysitter, and his mom. Maria rescues her family (the von Trapps) from patriarchal authoritarianism and the Nazis by singing fa so la te do and falling in love. Harry defeats Voldemort with Ron, Hermoine, Hagrid, and Dumbledore. Simba becomes a wise king after a meerkat, a warthog, and a monkey help him overcome his self-doubt shame.
In a lot of our own stories over the last few years, our work together on the problem(s) has yet to produce the prize. As someone who works with the younger generation, I have observed that this is particularly true with kids. The statistics, educators, parents, and counselors support this observation. Depression, anxiety, anger, violence, and loneliness are way up.
I’ve heard many theories for why this is the case. Mostly centered around the impact of the pandemic. I agree in part. The pandemic provided a pretty potent problem. But I’d like to point out that for the protagonist in the kind of stories we want to read or watch, the problem they are confronted with usually calls forth a positive change that is guided by their community. Whether it’s an evil arch-villain, war, destructive weather, self-doubt, or sickness; the hero gains strength and emerges from the crucible with a boon to share with the larger community they serve. They grow from independent to interdependent. Sometimes from lonely to connected, ignorant to wise, and from beaten down and dejected to strong and victorious.
For so many kids struggling to navigate the halls, classes, and social structures of our schools right now, this is not the case. They entered into the pandemic problem and they are still in their crucible because they are fighting a battle with insufficient resources. In particular, they lack examples of and relationships with positive and caring adults.
It is not just the pandemic and that they missed a year of “normal” school (whatever that is). It was not just that their social lives suffered, their academic progress was stunted and they spent too much time on their phones or playing video games. All those things are true and the self-aware kids I know would tell you they are definitely factors. But that is not enough of an explanation. This is a complex problem with many complicated interdependent parts.
Let me attempt to paint a picture of a progressively more poignant problem that has been plaguing our culture and wreaking havoc on our younger generations for a couple decades (at least). And here is a spoiler alert - it’s not their fault.
Adolescence is a new thing. Less than 100 years ago, there was little or no transition time between childhood and adulthood. With the industrial revolution, we began moving off the farms and into the cities. Then we decided it wasn’t good for kids to work 16-hour days in factories. It wasn’t until the 50s that finishing twelve grades started to become a social norm.
Adolescence emerged as Jr. Highs and High Schools developed their own cultures. In the adaptive improvement of the human race, adolescence provides an important development opportunity for the individual to differentiate and become a more refined element of the community identity. We become a more effective community when the individual elements (identities) that we are made of are clearly understood and differentiated. Individuality by itself, is beneficial, not detrimental.
Into this new adolescent stage of life, we introduce all the ideas, skills, standards, and problem-solving abilities they need to contribute their boon to the human system. And they practice. With appropriate support (keys to the supply cabinet, some guidance, pizza, and a learner’s permit) they can actually contribute significantly to the health of their community far before they graduate. I would argue that this contribution is critical to our survival as a species and we discount it more than not - to our peril.
When the pandemic first emerged, I was concerned but excited. In many stories, a ubiquitous common enemy becomes a uniting force. I kept thinking of the Will Smith movie - “Independence Day” and England during the Blitz. In this case, we clearly did not become united. At least not in America. We offered our children a model of divisive thinking and behavior on nearly every subject connected or related to the pandemic time period. Whether it was real, who was to blame for it, vaccines, masks, closing businesses and schools, racial justice, science, news, and truth itself - all were cause for division. I was and still am deeply disappointed in our response. Our kids were watching and learning whether they knew it or not and whether we intended them to or not.
As I grew more disillusioned with our combative and divisive response to a common enemy; as we turned each other into the enemy, I thought that at least we would finally recognize how critical the education system is in the lives of our communities. Not just as an academic institution but as a social world, a practical provider of sustenance, mental health support, child welfare management, and a community hub. The school systems I was privy to went overboard to reorganize so kids who depended on free breakfast and lunch could still eat. They supplied hotspots and laptops for learning and teachers re-oriented their teaching and lessons to be engaging over zoom. The schools could never keep up without the systems, cultures, and buildings we have built over time.
But we didn’t get it. I do not see much evidence that, on the whole, we grew in our respect and appreciation for the massive and critical contribution of our schools and the people who serve in them.
Kids didn’t just miss a year of in-person school and all that comes with it. They heard and saw the already tenuous reliability and trustworthiness of their adult examples turn into a confusing conflagration of bad behavior. Telling lies, calling names, blaming each other, violence, oppression, and mayhem. Not caring well as a united community for the vulnerable sick, poor, or marginalized.
They struggled to trust us before this. They have felt unheard, unrepresented, and unable to contribute for decades and now they have been given more reason to feel those things. The evidence is quite clear. While we ignore them, not only are we too divided to know what we are doing, we don’t know that we don’t know what we are doing. But they do.
In-person ≠ Normal
For the 21-22 school year, kids came back to school in person. Generally speaking, the education system breathed a collective sigh of relief, “finally, we get to go back to normal.” For a week or two, the kids were (mostly) glad to be back. And then, all hell broke loose. The example they had to follow got followed. Fighting with each other, rebelling, not caring about learning or participating, and not interested in the rules. I heard a counselor describe them as feral cats. I’ve stood in the halls during passing time and lunch and I can see why she did.
The adult population has not been a good example and our kids have been influenced by the thoughts, feelings, and behavior we have modeled - as they always are. So, they are sad, scared, and angry and it shows up in their behavior.
They need us to get our act together. They need us to show up as Caring Adults and demonstrate for them what healthy community looks like. And that it includes them as full citizens with their own voice and capacity to affect positive change in our communities. How you vote or what you think about vaccines or protests is not what determines your value. None of the issues we disagree on are impossible problems to solve unless we continue to be unable to relate personally and respectfully with each other in the solving process.
If, in the midst of this chaos, you have realized that there is a need for differing perspectives in a healthy community, our kids need you to be a good example. They need to partner with you to intentionally make our community cultures places of belonging for everyone. It starts with a change in thinking. A conscious effort to recognize the innate value of every human and their need to belong in our physical, emotional, and social structures. It continues with an effortful adjustment of our emotional responses - led by empathy and compassion. And finally, followed up with our words and actions continually and adamantly demonstrating unity in consideration of our differing perspectives.
Some of this paradigm-shifting mental, emotional, and behavioral work can be done individually. But a good portion of it requires relational interaction. We change each other by sharing and intermingling our spoken and lived stories - our perspectives of our experiences. That is what leads to change - individuals joining together in small intentional groups to help each other grow intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally. It is very much like group therapy - and we need it desperately. For our sake and for the sake of those who are modeling their lives after ours.
I am asking that you spend the time and energy to know how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are shaping the world. I am suggesting that you notice who is already in your social network and then enter into an exchange with them - offer what you have and take what you need. In so doing, we will together create a new story to share and spread.
We cannot solve the problems of ourselves, our communities, or our culture on our own. And neither can our kids. We need the key players in our lives to help us attain the prize.
I write in a geeky, sciency, hopefully poetic way about belonging, storytelling, community building, deconstruction and construction,