By now, you’ve likely seen the viral video, released by a student at Oklahoma University. It was awful. Two members at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were dismissed and sent home. That video, filled with racist remarks, was a wake-up call for these young men. Today, the fraternity on that campus has been shut down, the staff was fired and members are scrambling to find a new home.
If nothing else, this is one more example of students exemplifying risky conduct (that they obviously thought was clever and funny) without thinking of how damaging the consequences could be for them. After working with college students for 36 years, I can safely say—this kind of thing is on the rise. Thanks to social media we can now be “famous,” even if we have no talent, as risky words, actions, songs and posts go viral and lead to either fame or shame.
For some, either option is fine as long as they get “views.”
Yesterday, I mused about why and how our culture fosters this, and what kind of extreme behavior can arise from it. Today—I’d like to suggest some steps we can help students take to navigate risk better and use it to develop leadership skills.
Prevailing Realities that Foster Risky Behavior:
1. Herd Mentality. Very few, in my experience, want to stand up to someone else, even when something wrong has been done. They are fearful of confrontation or judgment. The racist song on the video from SAE wasn’t knew. It’s been around for a few years now—and former students say they now wish they had stopped it. But it’s hard to stop a herd. Most of us just need permission to behave in a certain way, either courageously or cowardly. Fear is contagious. Courage is contagious. Stupidity is contagious. It’s the herd mentality. We need to help students develop backbone to take a stand for right.
2. Amoral thinking. Many have bought into the notion that nothing is really wrong. One college student even had the audacity to say: “I can’t say that what the terrorists are doing is wrong. Who am I to judge them?” Less and less today appears black and white, and more seems gray. We need to help students embrace ethics and values.
3. Dependent lifestyles. Far too often, they remain dependent upon someone else, often parents, to make choices for them. This disables them from maturing into responsible adults themselves. The more resources we give them, the less resourceful they tend to become. The more we do for them, the less they can do for themselves. We must help students develop a sense of ownership of their choices.
So What Must We Do to Lead Them into Healthy Risks?
Let me suggest some steps to take with your students to navigate risk-taking:
1. Start with a set of values.
I believe we only are ready for adult decisions when we have first constructed a sense of identity and values. I came up with my list of personal core values as a sophomore in college. While I am far from perfect, they have guided me well since that time. These principles or values act as a compass for choices.
2. Show them engaging places to take healthy risks.
Because I believe adolescence is a stage where people want to spread their wings and take risks, adults need to expose them to places where risk taking can actually be redemptive and positive. Often kids take stupid risks because no one has challenged them to leverage that predisposition in positive ways.
3. Furnish them with the reality they desperately need.
Yesterday, I wrote about how young adults react to their world so far. Many have been sheltered from reality (by parents) and need to be pushed into more autonomy, taking risks instead of playing it safe. Others react by going to the other extreme, taking stupid risks, because adults have rescued them in their poor decisions. They need to be exposed to responsibility.
Autonomy and responsibility are the two ingredients that mature adolescents. Some need more autonomy and some need more responsibility.
- Autonomy: the ability to act independently, taking risks and making choices until I no longer fear being on my own.
- Responsibility: the ability to own my choices, along with their benefits and consequences, until my risks are wise and redemptive.