Enough is enough! If I read one more showcased newspaper article, or hear another NPR report sputtering on about how our kids are at “great risk” by the latest social plague, (Pick one: social media, bullying, predation) I’m going to…never mind! …I’m going to write this piece and offer some sorely needed balance. Which is why I say, calm down America-the children are okay. But let’s unpack something first:
The Sky is Falling!
If you’re a newspaper and want to sell more papers, you need to scare the hell out of sleepy parents in suburbia on Sunday morning by running special features about the perils of teens using social media. Make the photos over-sized, which, when combined with eye-popping headlines, amounts to three times the actual column-inch count of the article itself. Along side this, toss a list of the usual national hotline numbers in a sidebar, with a bulleted list of steps to take and so forth
If you’re a broadcast media outlet looking to bolster your public service cred, run segments on NPR and stream it to Twitter and Facebook when mom and dad are driving home from work. Broadcast that the hallways of our public schools are overrun by marauding bands of bullies, or paint word pictures that envision would-be predators circling every child’s school just beyond the parking lot. That’ll keep their attention. Before you know it horrified parents will be itching to call their child’s school just to make sure everything is okay.
Of course this scenario is an exaggeration to drive home a point. But there are days, I swear, when it feels like it’s not far off from the truth. America needs to calm down. The children are okay, and, sometimes the children are not okay— and some of that is okay too. Here’s what I mean:
View from the trenches
I have worked with children, teens and their families for nearly four decades. Raising kids is damn hard work. Being a kid is hard work too. And while there are, obviously, many places in life where our children get into real and serious trouble, the vast majority of them weave around the snares and scumbags in life and do just fine. Most parents have no idea how frequently their sons and daughters choose the good and the safe way around these part-of-life obstacles. If they did, once the shock wore off, they’d be proud and maybe even tell their children (I wish) just how proud they actually were.
Some teens choose not to fill in mom or dad about the ‘yuck’ they sometimes deal with in their day because they know how their parents will react—and react in unhelpful ways—sometimes precisely because their parents have been scared to death by non-stop media coverage. And even though I’m always reminding young people to seek help when needed, and to remember that they’re the kid and not the parent, there are times when their youthful wisdom serves them just fine also. It’s important for us, as parents, counselors and other adults with responsibility to and authority over the lives of children and teens that it is also healthy for young people to work through some of the daily hassles that they encounter every day on their own.
To be clear, I am not advocating that parents and other adults ignore children and teens when they’re in distress or stuck or potentially in harm’s way. I’ve written frequently in the past on various topics where immediate action is called for by attending adults. But when I can (see next section) I look for ways to equip young people with new skills and approaches that will help them understand and deal with the bullies they may encounter or the jerks they occasionally run into on-line.
Enter Savvy and Safe
Savvy and Safe is a simple concept that I have shared with many groups over the years. It’s so simple it can barely be called a concept at all. It has five points, all questions, which are:
- What’s going on here? (Do they accurately understand the problem?)
- Who owns the problem? (Is action needed, and if so by whom?)
- Am I unknowingly part of the problem? (Ouch! Applies to us all, doesn’t it?)
- What tools do I need to work through this? (Remember the teach vs the give concept)
- Do I need more help? (The child or teen…then again, do we?)
More than the media in play here
Fanning the flames on worrisome issues also gets help from some (of us) who should also know better. When editors and producers assign stories they do so with an angle in mind, their reporters start calling their sources, such as school administrators, social workers, court officials and police, and they begin by laying out questions, like breadcrumbs, which are eagerly answered almost in lock-step by the apparent experts on the topic.
It’s human nature, I suppose, when asked to respond or expand on a given topic, to participate in the affirmative of the topic at hand. After all, they’re calling seeking your/our so-called professional input and we are committed and passionate about the work that we do. But sometimes, if we’re honest, we just want to check the task off as “done” and move on with our work. However, in my own experience during interviews, for example, I can recall several times when I pointed out to a reporter or interviewer an obvious disconnect between the perceived public perception of a youth related issue and what the actual facts and even statistical proof revealed. Yet, despite the time I took to present the broader view that included other known facts, these sections of text or video footage were usually “edited” out of the final piece that aired or went to print.
Facts and truth make boring copy!
And here’s the rub. When the reporter leaves or you hang up the phone, you already know how the story will run. Never mind that the huge majority of sexual predators are not out in the bushes, but in the homes and the lives of the kids that they victimize; No ones interested, least not for this story, that a surprising number of youth who report being bullied are bullies themselves and are part of the problem; And as for raising the awareness among parents of the dark sides of social media, forget it. Mom and dad are so deep into their iPhones themselves that they won’t even notice! Of course it’s a problem
The casual observer may conclude and ask at this point, so what? Yet it’s at this critical point when the piece is read or viewed that the mold is cast for the consumer—that the crisis is huge, widespread, and that our kids are sitting ducks for every bad thing out there even when the facts show otherwise. Which is why I say as the opportunity arises, Calm down America, the children are, by and large, okay.
How can I say this? Because I know Robert, Tiffany, Leigh Ann, Sydney and Jacob who are out there, still, who did not see or especially care about whatever was published or run on TV. And even though their life picture sometimes isn’t pretty and unfinished yet, each of these young people are chipping their way through their day, dodging the snares and jerks, and I have high hopes for their continued success. I refuse to give up on them and their journey forward. I’m hoping you won’t either.