In recent weeks, USA Today reported on a study by the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) that found that kids today are not all that different from kids of yesterday (or at least the yesterday of their parents’ childhood). Reading levels and appetites are similar, math skills are somewhat better, high school graduation rates are up very slightly, and suicide rates are unchanged.
I was taken with this report because I had just finished two one-week workshops focused on children’s and adolescents’ moral development, working closely with several dozen K-12 educators ranging in age from 23 to 58. A clear majority of the participants signaled a perception that “thing have gotten worse” since they were in school. We spent a good bit of our workshop time trying to figure out the origin and accuracy of that perception. What was worse and what was better, especially with respect to the moral development of the young?
If the FCD study is to be believed, not much has changed in what kids know and are able to do. But let’s consider these findings as well: Kids today are “at much lower risk of death from accidents, violence and disease, are slightly more likely to live below the poverty line, are substantially more likely to be overweight or obese, and are less likely to attend church but more likely to believe religion is important.” “Family mobility is down, teen birth rates are down, and rates of smoking, drinking and drug use are on the decline.”
This suggests that some conditions of kids’ lives have improved (physical safety and community continuity) while others have not (poverty, overweight). Kids have responded to all this by acting in apparently smarter ways with respect to sex and drugs. Other data suggests greater interesting community service as I mentioned the other day. In other words, the empirical picture is mixed but definitely not all bad news.
So why the general moral malaise among educators?
I suppose some of it is just the tendency of the older generation to blindness when it comes to the maturity of the younger generation. Officer Krupke sings the anthem of the elder captured in the title of this entry in “West Side Story.” Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago Socrates commented on the folly of youth and of the inability of one generation to live up to the memory of the previous one. But I’d say there’s more than this generation gap at work in educators’ current perceptions.
Cultural diversity may be one factor. I don’t want to maintain that today’s educators operate in conditions of greater cultural diversity than was the case a century or even a generation ago. In fact, in this land built by the hands of immigrants, cultural diversity has often been a fact of and factor in teachers’ work. But today we demand more of teachers than a recognition of difference; we expect the ability to negotiate dialogue across difference. Teachers can no longer simply demand that students put on the dominant culture; they and their students are expected to navigate multiple cultures. This is a good thing, but it’s a drain on educators’ energy. And any drain on energy can result in less generosity when it comes to perceptions of potential.
For my money, there’s one more factor contributing to the perception that kids are less well off, more troubled, less well-behaved. It is the failure of parents to be parents. This is a phenomenon I’ve observed in my 40s and 50s aged peers. It’s a function of mostly positive factors – greater self-awareness, more openness between parents and children -- but it’s a failure of parenting nonetheless. Parenting is one role in a game that must be played if kids are to grow and grow up. The game is “kids test the limits; parents hold the line.” Kids must test the limits. And we parents must hold the line even if the kids are only doing things we did as adolescents (drinking, smoking pot, sneaking out, dating the “wrong” person, disrespecting a teacher or coach or neighbor, sluffing off our homework or . . . .). We don’t have to ground them or scream or resort to physical violence. In fact, we don’t have to punish them at all. But we do have to call them on the things they are doing that step over the line. And we must hold them to the natural consequences of their actions. (Underage drinking means they cannot be trusted with a driver’s license, for example). Often this means backing up teachers and coaches even when we’re not sure they are right. It means allowing our sons and daughters to lose their privileges – or their driver’s license – without rescuing them constantly. When parents aren’t parents, teachers perceive that kids are running wild.
So I guess this a call to educators to check their perceptions. Be wary of a premature judgment that kids don’t want and need our firm – if gentle -- guidance and direction. But it’s also a call to parents to be parents and to all of us to recognize the sometimes weighty expectations we have placed on teachers to navigate the roiled waters of cultural diversity.