It’s a unique time in the world. The millennial generation is no longer on the precipice of maturity; they have arrived. And with their arrival we are faced with a conflict of values, and to some extent a conflict of cooperation. The millennials have no practical memory of a world governed by hierarchies of the past. Corporate careers, in particular, hold much less allure. This generation is not inclined to be deferential, or to assume that any work opportunity offered to them is actually in their best interest. Instead, they are skeptical idealists, moving forward with purpose and disdain for what they perceive as inauthentic.
Increasingly, I meet with young people whose sense of the world is more horizontal than vertical. They assume an equivalence among people – a belief that even someone in his or her 20’s has a right to a meaningful and empowered life. This may rankle those who have spent decades working to ascend to the top of their fields, thus the conflict of values. We see that young people are more courageous in speaking out about life scripts that don’t affirm their chosen identity; more than a few find it absurd to think that life’s rewards don’t come until retirement. A presidential candidate seeking the millennial vote might consider a platform of “meaningful happiness, now.”
Have we older generations missed the boat? How come so many of us don’t understand or appreciate this generation? I think, in part, it’s due to the “dumbing down” of the psychology of youth. Specifically, the relentless focus on behavior, rather than the psychology and soul of the person responsible for that behavior.
Even textbooks on the psychology of childhood and adolescence are rarely more than manuals of various types of “abnormal” behavior. Such books surely list causes of bad behavior, but never go so far as to engage the narratives that shape young lives. The actual stories of youth are never told. So the psychology of youth as conveyed by the official manuals of psychology is mostly a hodgepodge of unfortunate traumas and dramas, leading to undesirable behaviors, which can then be resolved by carrying out a specific therapeutic remedy in twelve sessions or less. Holy Dubious Reasoning Batman!
[If this newsletter has been forwarded to you by a colleague or friend, please consider subscribing to Family Matters at dradamcox.com]
A hard focus on behavior wouldn’t be so alarming if the analysis put us into a deeper connection with the psychology of youth. But instead of that sort of wondrous, fantastic pursuit, much current thinking is led by some vaguely authoritarian stance about non-acceptable behaviors. This is radically offensive to those who actually like young people, and it carries little sway for emergent generations. We have been fooled into thinking that the prevalence of so-called psychopathologies mandates that we become even more intent on defining and labeling those pathologies – wherever they may exist.
So, how’s that approach working out for us so far?
I am not so idealistic as to believe that if we stop talking about behavior problems they will simply cease to exist. Certainly, that is not true. However, working in the borderland between those who are functioning well and those who are struggling, I find myself frustrated by limited opportunities for dialogue about the real psychology of kids: what matters to them, how they reason, and what forms of help they would like. There are answers to these questions, but the questions are rarely get asked in our collective emphasis on good behavior. It’s no different than an employer who is intent on figuring out how to get you to work more efficiently, rather than investigating the cause of declining motivation.
I can’t speak honestly about this topic without saying that I am most troubled by the sort of “sink or swim” discourse that takes place in public education. Here, in the land of IEP’s and 504 plans, it’s all about management of the “problem,” rather than understanding of the person. The system is built to reinforce positive (compliant) actions, but ultimately fails people. The system cares mostly about progression through various benchmarks, and finds little reason or ability to be curious about who students are.
Notably, the simple emergence of curiosity itself would solve many of the problems inherent in public education. This is because curiosity is a form of interest and attention, and by extension an expression of love. In dire contrast to a curious mindset, I find that some schools are quasi-police states, patrolling high school hallways, looking for contraband, ready to pounce and process the identified offenders. I do not wish to paint all public schools with a broad brush because I have visited many that do not fit this description. But even in elementary and middle schools, where there is less preoccupation with the enforcement of rules, and where the idealism of youth shines most brightly, there is typically still greater emphasis on behavior than personhood.
For many years I have been advocating that psychology be taught in all schools beginning in fifth or sixth grade (ages 11-12). I’m beginning to realize that one of the reasons we don’t teach psychology to students is that it would immediately expose how the path of public education is at odds with the development of people. To an extent, these paths are reconciled when we are talking about the brain. Perhaps that’s why there is so much interest in brain research as it pertains to learning. When we focus on the brain, we can see that there are clear parallels between neurodevelopment and academic achievement. But I wonder if it’s not much harder to see the same parallels when we consider self- development and the curricular, social experience provided by public education?
We are all eager to combat the most heinous enemies of self-development – bullies. But what of the more subtle foes: lack of choice in study, lack of voice in discussing pressing topics, limited affirmation of idiosyncratic forms of creativity, no voice in the atmosphere of the learning environment?
It seems to me that individual schools often make an enormous difference in creating an optimal atmosphere for personal development. My travels have reinforced that there are many, many schools deeply committed to supporting the positive development of youth. But despite that observation I can’t say that there is any nexus of leadership when it comes to this issue. I certainly don’t feel that the United States is even trying to assert any leadership in this area. (In Australia and Canada there seems to be at least some effort to identify best practices from a child-centered perspective.) So we have pockets of accomplishment, and for those few lucky enough to attend great institutions, learning takes on a rich and affirmative perspective.
These are schools where students are encouraged to look hard at themselves. Places where students are given an opportunity to engage big ideas. Visit any independent school that offers” big ideas” philosophy courses and I bet you’ll discover that they are always filled. There is no lack of interest from young people about the psychology and philosophy of life. They are profoundly interested in how these ideas should affect the way that they live. They are also intensely interested in how such ideas provide a lens to think about current events. An institution that fosters this sort of reflection and analysis is helping to bring young people into the world. This is the real work of creating maturity and a Wisdom Culture. This is where citizens come from.
How is it possible that someone progresses through secondary school without any overt discussion of wisdom, or how it might be acquired? Isn’t it imperative that wisdom be at the center of adolescence? What sort of education sets aside wisdom as tangential to the task at hand; as peripheral to STEM? So many schools operate with precisely this worldview. The process is then necessarily more reductive, a canned education, primarily focused on good behavior and good grades. I mean who doesn’t feel proud of someone who demonstrates good behavior and earns good grades? I guess we all do. It’s not that positive behavior and good grades are unimportant, it’s that they so often get framed as being more important than anything else.
I fear the grinding damnation of low expectations; behavioral management of the majority – “training” in its most literal sense – but at such a great cost to students and our nation.
Overall, I have not felt much confidence in President Obama’s, Department of Education, Race to the Top initiative. It seemed to me like a manic emphasis on employability, rather than a vision for a better educated America. And yet I am absolutely stunned to read the interviews carried out by President Obama of Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, Gilead, and other significant works. The interviews appeared in the New York Review of Books over the past two months. When I read Gilead some years ago, I wondered if it was indeed the greatest American novel. Apparently, the President thought something of the same. In a political trip he made to Iowa, he found time to personally interview Robinson about the writing of Gilead, which addresses the intersection of geography, culture, family and faith. It’s not a hollow interview. It is filled with the sorts of questions one has when he has done a careful reading, and has spent subsequent hours reflecting on a book.
It is this leadership and spirit I want to see translated into an educational initiative. In my own regional community, my interactions with at least one high school suggest a very different set of priorities. It seems to be a place where maintaining law and order is first and foremost. If a student complains that he cannot enroll in a class (in this case a vocational shop class teaching interesting technology) which promises to deliver a high level of engagement and motivation, because that class is already over enrolled with students seeking the same, he is told to take his complaint to the Governor of Massachusetts! What a noble school administrator, eh?
Such a glib response from authority is troubling and demoralizing. It is the sort of remark that reflects how the frustration of administrators gets transformed into dismissiveness of any student who forces them to confront their own powerlessness. It sent my client into a state of despair, which over time changed into a cold acceptance of his personal unimportance to his school. I know this sort of thing happens everywhere to some extent, but it happens a lot more if your parents don’t have the background to effectively advocate for you; if they don’t have a bank account which affords them some influence.
I am not happy writing this critique. It upsets me to reflect on these issues. I worry that I am betraying the positive perspective I am expected to present as a psychologist and therapist. But if I don’t periodically address these concerns, I feel as though I am conspiring to cover up basic misdirection. I enjoy providing practical solutions to help kids get through school, but at some point core principles warrant more critical analysis.
Fortunately, my week is not filled with these thoughts so much as the practical work of helping young people make incremental improvements in their lives. And I know that even in the most reductive “schools of good behavior,” there are individual teachers and staff doing much the same as me.
The changes I hope for, changes in curricular focus, and especially the inclusion of more psychology, can only come from the highest levels. Maybe it does have to come from a Governor’s office. In public education, it has to at least come from the superintendent’s office. This means we need superintendents capable of seeing past the merits of good behavior, to the long-term merits of more fully-developed people.
I realize that millennials have come to their preference for a more horizontally organized world as a result of a faltering economy. Having graduated into a world of economic turmoil, where the traditional ladders of ascendance were nowhere to be found, it is no wonder that they turned toward self-reliance. The first phase of their evolution was seen as self-absorption, and there have been many accusations of “narcissism.”
But in my view, the millennials are standing up to a world indifferent to their demand for more realized lives. Like every generation, they will, over time, shape the world in their own image. The small businesses which they are starting, the idiosyncratic endeavors that occupy them, their belief in “meaningful work, now,” hail the arrival of the next great generation. I’m trying to listen closely to what they have to say. This is the collective responsibility of older generations, like baby-boomers. It’s the listening that conveys our respect for them, and which teaches them how to respect us in return. Long live millennials!
Parent Coaching The nature of my clinical approach is somewhat unique, and I find that parents in different parts of North America want to partner in helping their children and teens. To that end, I am able to do parent coaching via telephone, email, or Skype. In some cases, it works well when families can visit for an initial meeting, and then follow-up as noted above. (401) 816-5900.