Monday, August 6, 2012

Bad Kids Versus Bad Decisions

Over the past week, there have been a couple near tragedies in my community – two separate car wrecks involving teenagers and alcohol that could have very easily been much worse than they were. We will not have to bury any young people this week, and though some of them suffered serious injuries, they are all alive. I am thankful for that. I have lost too many young people from my life through poor decisions.

In the aftermath of these events, I became disturbed by the amount of disparaging comments being made about parents and the blame being thrown around about the behavior of “kids today.” Phrases such as “not in my day,” “media influence,” and “poor parenting” were bandied about with no one giving a voice to a realistic explanation of these kids’ behavior.

These exchanges, largely posted in the social media, reminded me of something one of my former students once asked me. I was working in a classroom of high-risk students with a variety of academic and behavioral issues. On one particularly difficult day early in the semester, one of my boys asked, “Ms. R, how do you put up with us bad kids?” I answered him with complete honesty, “I have never met a bad kid.” He and most of the other students in the room regarded me with suspicion. “Never?” he asked. I laughed and looked out at the faces of these kids looking back at me. Kids who have been told they are bad so often in their lives that they truly believe that label embodies who they are. My answer to them was this: “I have met kids who make bad choices. I have met kids who make poor decisions and believe they are doing the right thing. I have met kids who don’t understand how the choices they make now will affect them in the future. But no, I have never met a bad kid.” I truly believe that this was a turning point in the relationship between me and a number of the kids in this class. I’m not going to pretend they became model students (they didn’t, but a majority of them did improve) or that I did not still have to occasionally head-off a fist fight between students (I did). However, as a whole, the demeanor of the class changed after that day. I spoke to these kids honestly and from my heart, and they knew it. They believed that I did not see them as bad kids, and in turn, they could begin to see themselves in a different way.

With the memory of this exchange in my mind, fueled by the judgmental comments I was seeing on the web, I decided that someone needed to interject as the voice of reason and honest experience. Typing my response to all the negativity and “head in the sand” mentality, yes, I’ll admit it – I went on a bit of a rant. . . and here it is. . .

“Kids will make bad decisions and stupid mistakes. That is part of being a kid. As adults, all we can do is protect them for as long as we can, try to teach them the best we can how to be good people and keep themselves and those around them safe, and hope that is enough. Eventually we have to turn them loose, let them make their own decisions, and deal with their mistakes.

As a parent and a concerned adult in the lives of many kids, I have learned a couple of things. First, I find that being honest is the best policy. I remember being a teenager; I made poor decisions and did things I knew better than doing; I have never pretended to have been a perfect teenager because kids see through that crap in about half a second, and it teaches them nothing except to lie and hide things from you. Second, when kids do things they are not supposed to do and make decisions we know are bad, it usually has nothing at all to do with the parents or their parenting skills - the majority of parents do their best to do right by their children - and the majority of teenagers are only thinking about themselves and what they want when they are driving the adults around them crazy and worrying them to death - that's just basic adolescent psychology.

I guess my point is this, be honest with the kids in your life and with yourself as well. Don't pretend you were a saint and don't fool yourself into believing the kids are saints. Adolescence is difficult enough without subjecting children to a perfect ideal that the adults in their lives believe they should hold themselves to, or worse yet putting them in a situation where in their still-developing brains, lying to the adults who care about them seems better than letting them down.”

Being honest and open with the kids in your life will not guarantee they won’t still make bad decisions. In fact, I can almost assure you they will, but they will be more likely to talk to you about what’s happening in their lives and to confide in you when they are struggling with decisions. Listen to what they have to say, give them straightforward answers, and try your best to guide them in the right direction. Don’t be offended or disappointed if they still decide to follow a different path – it is just the egocentric nature of adolescence, not a reflection on you. And above all else, remember this – there are no bad kids, they are all just kids.

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