Do "Kids These Days!" get on your nerves? Is there way too much juvenile crime, lack of personal responsibility, laziness, drug use, obesity, poor manners or all-round thoughtlessness? And what’s up with those baggy pants?
I just read a pertinent observation: "We live in a declining age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They hang out in bars and have no self-control." Oh, right, that quote actually came from an Egyptian tomb, 6,000 years ago, but anyhow….
As one who follows youth development research and has the wonderful opportunity to be around a variety of young people, let me reassure you that kids today are great. Despite all the social and economic stresses many children and families face, today’s young people are just as thoughtful, generous and bright as we will let them be.
With pessimism-based "shock journalism" and the immediacy of the electronic media, you may think young people are worse than ever. Despite those mythical e-mails Grandma forwards and the attention-getting headlines on cable news, the statistics don’t support that "culture of fear." For example, you may hear a great deal about youth violence, but serious violent crimes committed by juveniles are one-fourth what they were in the early 1980s and one-fifth what they were in the early 1990s.
That’s not to say there are not problems – and society is certainly not meeting its potential for what our kids can become. But think about the family and social environment many kids have. Today, nearly 33 percent of young people do not live with two married parents, compared to 23 percent in 1980. Since both my mother and my mother-in-law lost their own mothers at an early age, I am not a starry-eyed idealist about two-parent families. I do, however, realize the importance of "caring, committed adults" in children’s lives.
"Caring, committed adults" – that’s a phrase we use a great deal in 4-H. The research shows absolutely nothing is so crucial to a child’s life. Kids who are supported by an adult are the kids who stay in school and stay out of trouble, they are more emotionally and socially-balanced, and they live lives contributing to their communities and our society.
Every teacher and 4-H agent knows which kids are starved for a "caring, committed adult" in their lives. Maybe it’s the kid whose parents got captured by the meth monster or the one whose dad had a run-in with the law. Maybe it’s the child whose mom works two jobs to feed her family or whose dad has been caught up in a cloud of depression. Those kids are not irreparably broken; they are amazingly resilient. And they are the ones who need our help the most.
Even in happy, two-parent families, it’s great for kids to get the perspective of other caring, committed adults. It’s not just teachers and coaches, but the neighbor – like my neighbor, Steve – who takes your kid deer hunting or the grown-up with the interesting job – like my niece, Emily – who lets your child shadow them at work. It reinforces the notion that not all adults view life in the same way Mom and Dad do, an excellent preparation for the real world with its diversity of ideas and beliefs.
Let me ask a favor of you. Turn off the television and step away from the Internet for a few hours a week. Call a local school, your county Extension office, or the Boys and Girls Club. Simply ask them: "How can I help?" You don’t have to bring any special skills to the task. Just be ready to listen to a child – and be ready to ask their opinion: "Well, what do you think?" There are some kids who have never been asked for their ideas or views.
One of my favorite TED.Com talks is Sugata Mitra talking about the "Grandmother Effect." Kids who have a volunteer "grandmother" looking over their shoulders – sincerely saying "That’s great!" or asking "What do you believe the answer is?" – do significantly better in learning. It is mind-numbingly simple and mind-numbingly effective.
Think, for a moment, of the caring, committed adult who made a difference in your life. You probably realize there is a child within a mile of you right now who would benefit from your returning the care and concern you once received.
If you want to make a serious commitment to the future, start a 4-H club in your community for those kids who need it most, not just the kids whose families are already involved in church and school. Share the burdens and joys of commitment with your friends and neighbors. At the very least, remember a smile and a kind word go a long way in helping a child to grow and prosper. That is where we start.
Chuck Hill is a 4-H State Youth Development Specialist.