We need to focus in on adolescence in America. Those “coming of age” years are the crucible that produces the adults we become. American teens are often troubled, unhappy, mean, or ignored. What can we do to improve the adolescent experience in this country – not just for some teens but all teens? Our schools operate like tribes with all the social strata of any tribal village. There are young people who are well-balanced academically, socially and mentally. Their balanced condition may be purely hereditary or may be a nature-nurture combination. There are those who are attractive, confident; who have style and social ease (a group that may also include those who are annoyed by those who are not as social and who may even bully them). These students often enjoy school for social reasons more than academic ones. They are the ruling class. The tribe suits them. We also have the introverts, who do not enjoy as much social contact as schools require; who do better when they have more space and quiet around them. They may be intelligent but they are made to see their lack of social motivation as a defect which makes them outsiders, misfits. Their social comfort level may also be hereditary. They bother the tribe because they do not seem to be of the tribe. However, if left to their own devices they may make valuable contributions to the tribe. We also have the disabled who have varying degrees of disability and are often ostracized by the more social members of the tribe who may have compassion but who may not be able to show it; or who may find disabled people a “buzz kill” within the tribe to be ignored as much as possible. Some schools are forced to take disabled students who are disruptive or even violent because of laws about “mainstreaming”. There are schools where teachers dread going to some of their classrooms; teachers get injured quite often in our schools by students who are angry or acting out. In some places it is almost impossible to find substitutes for certain schools or classes if a teacher gets sick or needs a break.
This is the age (between 12 and 20) when parents often lose control over their children. The children may isolate themselves and close the parent out. How much privacy to allow an adolescent is not always an easy call to make. It depends on how they are using that freedom. Some parents are terrorized by their children and worry about actual physical attacks. We are failing our adolescent children and we are failing them in ways that are impacting our whole culture.
On Sundays our nation goes back over the issues of the week and talks about them with experts, or politicians, or newscaster, or pundits. This Sunday, of course, all focus was on the horrific attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Some experts talked about how difficult it is to discern what is going on with these shooters because they are so secretive. There was a lot of discussion about mental illness, which is a discussion we need to have, and we need to have it now. Parents are reluctant to tell authorities that their children are scary and often, even when they do, there is no helpful intervention and the child remains with the frightened parent who cannot control the angry child. We need to look at why this is true and make those problems with reporting and intervention go away. We also need to have the gun discussion. We do not need to own automatic or semi-automatic guns as individuals. These shooters like these guns because they are so dramatic. There is a certain image that they may hold in their imaginations from movies and video games of entering a “theater” of operation, crouching and spraying bullets everywhere. I don’t think the fantasy image goes further than this, but it plays out over and over whenever the shooter is frustrated or angry until one day they decide to make it real.
We may think that this is just a phenomenon of young men who are white but you know that is not true. On our own city streets “thugs” (aka children) are shooting it out every day and these children are African American and Hispanic. We have been mourning these young people day after day for decades, and there have been innocent victims also. The image these kids carry in their minds may be different from the mass murder movie running in the brains of white teens; it may be more a gangster scenario, but over time it has been just as deadly and seemingly un-resolvable, although not as dramatic.
We are failing our teens. Something is going on in our culture that is laying waste to our children. We need to design a better experience for adolescents soon so that these children find a way to allow for and accept a wider range of normal behavior. Our children are turning into little “Nazis” who compel everyone to act like a subconsciously agreed upon model, or be bullied and ignored. It has always been like this in our schools to some extent but this behavior seems to have increased by a factor of 10 or more in recent years perhaps because of the use social media.
We need to design adolescent educational experiences that suit the particular qualities of the various personality types. Some children may not be able to learn in classrooms where there are orderly rows of desks and lots of book-pencil-and-paper types of activities. Some students may require more movement and more interaction with concrete materials rather than abstract concepts. Other students enjoy the discipline and order and learn well with books, paper, and pencils.
Now I know that what Adam Lanza (and each one of these mass murderers) did is unforgiveable. But he is one of a growing number of young people who weaponize their frustration and humiliation. How did we fail Adam Lanza? I bet his Dad and brother are mourning too. I’m guessing that as he got older his mother got along with him by staying out of his business for the most part and by tip-toeing around her own life. She also seemed to have championed her son and tried to meet his needs, especially in his younger years. If we can find out how we failed Adam Lanza and the new growing group of young shooters we may be able to prevent having to mourn 6 and 7 year olds. Can we find some really creative approaches to the teen years that are so absorbing that teens forget to be mean, exclusionary or depressed? Maybe young people can’t truly be allowed to experience the full freedom of a free society until they are adults, because our teens don’t all seem to be prospering under the levels of freedom that pertain right now.