I’ve spent the last decade working primarily with middle school students, so I know how unreasonable children can be at their worst, and how delightful and thoughtful they can be at their best. How many of those children behave – across demographics and socioeconomic status – has changed a great deal over that time.
The implications of these changes have crystallized for me over the course of the political events of the last several years.
We’ve managed to create a country of an increasing number of people who believe that their feelings are more important than reality. We’ve ended up with a group of tempestuous adult-children who have the right to vote and use social media to espouse their inane, nonsensical, foolish, mean-spirited conspiracy theories and opinions.
And actual children are watching and learning from this.
For too long, very little agency was given to young people. Many of the children I’ve worked with over the years haven’t felt empowered as members of their community –they’re treated more often as “citizens-to-be,” and “real-people-to-be.”
Of course, this is partially true. We educate because of a widely shared value system that we impart to young people so that they grow into adults who contribute to society. However, children respond remarkably well to being given agency, being trusted with decisions, being listened to as valued members of the community.
Unfortunately, to very well-intentioned parents and educators, “giving children agency” means telling them repeatedly that they should “speak their own truth” and that their feelings are inherently valuable just because they feel them.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s just not true. All of us need guidance, strong examples, and direction. Sometimes our feelings need to be directed in a healthier way. Children are watching our leaders be the worst possible examples while being told individualism is all that matters.
Through this, social media companies and major media outlets stand by as democracy flounders under the weight of the feelings of angry fools, all for the sake of adding to their immense fortunes.
We’ve got our priorities all wrong. The tempestuous child in the White House and his peers in the Senate, who, unlike school children, are entirely responsible for their actions, just tried to enable people into overthrowing democracy because of their feelings.
Now the question is: How do we respond to tempestuous children since that choice will create our society?
For too long, racist, sexist, authoritarian people have been emboldened by each other and the tools they use to ensure their retention of power, and we haven’t held them responsible, so what else should we expect as a result? Not all feelings are created equal, and that needs to be taught to children.
The Nazis weren’t right about being the master race (nor are the neo-Nazi Proud Boys right about anything). Flat-earthers aren’t right about provable science (and neither do those who oppose vaccinations have any business discussing serious science). Mitch McConnell isn’t right that the solution to not getting what you want is to throw a nationwide tantrum for 12 years. And Donald Trump and every person who has tried to destroy democracy with their strong feelings about how they’ve been cheated aren’t right – they’re an embarrassment and they are teaching our young people that it doesn’t matter how asinine your beliefs are, just feel them strongly enough and yell them loud enough and, voila, they’re valid.
If we like the idea of Democracy then we had better reevaluate our expectations of the people around us, and start holding them to those expectations.
As for me, never again, ever, will I ignore what needs to be said. I will strive to be unabashedly pro-Democracy, anti-racism and anti-sexism, pro-kindness, pro-truth (objective truth) – and I’ll do this in person, not on the internet, as a human being should.
I’ll hold myself and those around me to a higher standard because children need boundaries and the children who are trying to ruin democracy not only failed, but they’ve been an important reminder that we must never become complacent and allow this to happen again (it shouldn’t have happened in the first place).
It’s our responsibility as citizens, and our duty as humans, to be better than we’ve been.