One of our readers wrote in asking this question:
“Given that most of our teens have grown-up where terrorism and mass murders are part of the landscape, do you have any comments on how to help our kids and their friends deal with all the strife now that the occurrences are more frequent?”
I think it’s a great question.
Pause for a moment and think about the world a high school or college student is growing up in today. Our world is vastly different than it was twenty years ago. Consider what they’ve seen and how it might affect their perception of reality:
- Since the year 2000, approximately 140,000 people around the world have been killed by terrorist attacks. Today’s kids have grown up with this reality. Here at home, hate crimes remain common. Over the last few years, we watched them in Florida, Ferguson, Baltimore, Louisiana, Oregon, New York, Charleston and San Bernardino, with between 4,000-6,000 committed each year. There are 784 active hate-groups in America right now. This is simply terrorism at home. We see evidence of our preoccupation with terrorism in movies like Iron Man and Zero Dark Thirty.
- Since 2001, corporate scandals are on the rise. Kids have seen 14 major scandals since 2001. Only about one in five Americans has much trust in banks, according to Gallup polls, about half the level in 2007. Trust in big business overall is declining too. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe corruption is widespread across corporate America. We see evidence of this in pop culture in the recent movies, Too Big to Fail, and The Big Short.
- And politics? Don’t even go there. Kids have watched partisan politicians produce either a stalemate or, worse, corruption. In 1964, 77% of the U.S. population said that they trusted the government to do what was right. By 2014, this number had fallen to 24%. We don’t assume a congressman or senator will do what’s best for our nation, but what will get him or her re-elected. It’s about power not principle. We see evidence of this in the Netflix series, “House of Cards.”
So—in our current reality, filled with violence and corruption in many places, how do we address this and prevent our students from being marred by it? Certainly the reality of terror, corruption, and hate are real.I’m not suggesting we live in denial. All of us are being affected in our worldview by current trends. There is more fear in the air; there is more apprehension and caution. So, let’s talk about some positive, doable steps we can take as we lead our students.
Four Steps We Can Take
- Talk about what’s happening. Explain what’s behind a violent mindset.
Far too often, teachers, staff and parents assume it’s best to not even bring up the subject when a terrorist act occurs. Sadly, it’s an “elephant in the room.” Students notice when we avoid difficult issues. Because it’s on their minds, I believe the best defense is a good offense: talk about it. Help them interpret what’s happening and help them understand that, while terror goes back centuries, it’s always been an indecent way to express rage. Find time to interpret any hate crime or terrorist act in the media and process how it happened; why it happened; and what the best response should be.
- Help them see the good other students are achieving.
Make a regular habit of finding true stories of students who are making the world a better place. While this sounds cliché, it is easy to assume everything in the world is horrible when you watch the news each day. Make it a weekly habit of highlighting students who invent, who serve, and who achieve something for their community. This doesn’t need to be directly tied to “counter terror.” It can simply be your commitment to feeding their minds with an equal amount of redemptive stories to balance what we’re all hearing in the news.
- Involve groups of students in acts of service.
In addition, what if you matched every act of terror in the news with an act of service? I’m serious. Each time a major news story breaks (like ones in Paris or San Bernardino) you and your students plan a RAK (Random Act of Kindness) to counter it. It doesn’t have to be news worthy, but it can condition your students to return good for evil. Teach them “reciprocal behavior.” Just like reciprocals in math are inverted fractions, reciprocal conduct is performing an opposite or “upside down” act as a reactive measure to offset the first. It’s a positive response to a negative.
- Hold up a role model in front of them.
We live in a day where society and social media debunk heroes, sharing their dark sides and removing them as examples for our kids. While I realize these men and women from history were imperfect, humans live best when we have ideals and models to follow. Roman biographer Plutarch’s entire work is based on the premise that tales of the excellent can lift the ambitions of the living. Thomas Aquinas argued that to lead a good life, we must focus on the exemplars, not ourselves, and imitate their actions. Philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead said, Let’s offer this to our students.
I remember my junior high school and high school teachers addressed the hijacking incidents that were going on back in the 1970s right in class. It helped me process the terror on the news. We live in a day when we must do this again.