Our Children and the Future

I made my first foray into working with children exactly 10 years ago today. It was as the “Athletic Director” for the Boys & Girls Club of Rusk County, which had not yet opened its doors and was still undergoing renovation to its facility on Robertson Boulevard.

My position soon expanded until I was second only to the executive director of the Club, and I was overseeing and participating in activities with youth on a daily basis. Even for someone who grew up as the oldest of five children, with a multitude of cousins and young relatives, it was an eye-opening experience. It shaped my career for much of the next decade and left a strong imprint on the person I am today.

But what first struck me was the wanton cruelty with which they would treat each other, especially when they thought the adult authority figure wasn’t present or, if present, not paying attention.

I confess, with no small shame, that I hastily squared their behavior with their disadvantaged upbringing. I assured myself that, had they been brought up with the advantages of more affluent children, they would be more inclined toward a civil and humane character.

Working at exclusive private schools, as well as having my own children attend public schools, punched some serious holes in that little theory. The recent deaths being reported in the mainstream media has all but blown this decade-old assumption of mine out of the water.

As a minister, I want to be able to understand the spiritual and theological implication of these occurrences, while, as a philosopher, I want to understand the “how” and “why” of where our culture is taking our children.

Not long ago I talked with a former colleague currently working in juvenile services out on the East Coast. This man has worked in this field longer than I’ve been alive, so his insights are valuable.

“You hate to sound alarmist, or even like a cranky old man, but kids are growing more disconnected from having a strong sense of right and wrong,” he said. “I’ve dealt with children involved in serious crimes and even the ones who express remorse aren’t remorseful for the victims but for themselves […] they’re sorry because they’re in trouble, not because they’ve victimized someone else.”

This conversation came to mind when I first began reading of the Rutgers college freshman who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge. I thought of his peers, two seemingly well-adjusted and well-educated young people, one of whom scored a perfect score on his SAT test.

In the darkest hours of his despair, this poor lad did not cry out to a friend or loved one.

No, he updated his Facebook status.

See how social media played a part, strengthening the case for an increased disconnect… only this is more of a psychological one than philosophical. For all the promises our technological advances have made to draw us closer together, I cannot help but see how many remain more isolated than ever.

Walking down my street last night, I noticed the faint blue light emanating from the windows of each house.

Televisions broadcasting sporting events from hundreds of miles away, though our own hometown volleyball team played a heated match against an intense rival. Computers connected to social networking websites, where people chatted with “friends” they’ve never met in person. Video game systems in which people live an entire fabricated existence.

What future do we face, when we cannot manage to truly exist in the present? Are we becoming illusions of reality instead of participants in it?

Admittedly, as one who partakes of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and the like, I see quite well how people craft a two-dimension alter-ego within the safe confines of the Internet, which stands in stark contrast to the one who walks within three dimensions of reality.

Some of you parents, not familiar with the world your children inhabit, would be amazed how a mild-mannered teen who says “sir” and “ma’am” in the real world can quickly mutate into a profanity-spewing bully once protected by the distance of a computer screen.

Parents, of course, play the largest role in this. Your children are, for good or for ill, a living and breathing embodiment of what you have taught them.

I think there is no clearer indicator of a person’s morals and values than in the adults their children become.

As much as we might want to point to the influences of culture upon our children, our children’s participation in culture is ultimately guided by what we teach them.

If our children are becoming more amoral and detached from the consequences of their actions, it is because they are taught that the ultimate consequence of an action is utterly self-centered. That they are ends in themselves and there is no morality higher than their own personal impulse.
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There’s an excellent scene in the classic 1980s flick “The Breakfast Club,” that I think illustrates where I’m going with this.

A high school principal and the custodian are having a man-to-man chat about the state of the youth at their school. The principal laments that what keeps him up at night is that someday the children in his school will be “running the country” when they reach adulthood. That, in his words, they would be taking care of him.

To which the custodian quips, “I wouldn’t count on it.”

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