January 8, 2015

Let's Not Shame the Kids

Brady Norvall, M.A.

Founder and C.E.O. at FindaBetterU®



A discussion I find myself often in with parents revolves around what is too revealing when it comes to how much colleges should "really know". The issue at stake is always the same and it's expressed like this: parents tell me (and their teenager who is inevitably sitting with us) that vulnerability equals weakness and weakness is something of which we should be ashamed. I was reminded of this today when I had to go to a hospital pharmacy to pick up a prescription for an infection which has nothing to do with the story.

I was sitting in the waiting room of the hospital's pharmacy, with at least seventy-five other people, when an old man in a wheelchair, in a far corner, fell forward- and out of- his wheelchair. When I looked up from my book, everyone was staring but none were moving. He was completely helpless and his caretaker was the only one acting. I put my book down and went over to help, working with the caretaker to try to get the man in a seated position. His legs were tangled, he could not speak or move his head or hands. He was completely incapacitated. Everyone else seemed paralyzed, also. I left him sitting down; pharmacy techs and a security guard were now moving and talking in vigorously hushed whispers, circulating the air around the man as he sat, alone, on the floor. I sat back down with my book, waiting again for my name to be called. I could not focus on the pages, though. I could only think about my students. Because this room was full of adults, many of whom looked quite healthy and alert, I began to wonder about all the teenagers and young adults I know. Who of my students would have jumped up to help in this situation? And you know what, I could only think of a handful … who MAY NOT have been at this man's side. Hundreds from my decade working with adolescents would have been right there with this man. I know this because I've seen them act. I know their most intimate hopes, all of which are good. I know their inhibitions, their vulnerable egos. These kids are people of action, yes. But they're just good people who have not (yet?) been numbed or, perhaps, "enlightened" to the shamefulness of whatever was so bad here: old age? loss of capacities? a person in a hospital who needed help?

Say what you may about the "Me Generation" and their growing "disconnect" with the world outside of their technology, but most young people want good and hope to be good. Perhaps they get confused sometimes at what "doing good" means, but I would bet most 16 year olds have a stronger "good navigator" than the rest of us. Perhaps it's just over time that we become exposed to so many strange ideas of what a "good life" means, so many different definitions of success that we suddenly lose track of the people who fall outside our periphery. Yet, the students I come into contact with on a daily basis are value-driven and aspirational.  As I write this, I think about how my students remind me of a story Louis C.K. tells about different perspectives and their contrasting views toward a homeless man: (best clip I could find) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NH6N_qqFywY

The metaphor: most adults are Louis and his friend, and young people are the cousin from out-of-town. Young people are inherently good and at some point it's us, parents, coaches, pop culture who confuse their sense of "good", who convince them that vulnerability is shameful. This is something I really believe universities in the U.S. can help reconcile- and have for decades. But it seems we're getting precariously close to a tipping point; it's too little, too late. Universities build community and create an environment which fosters empathy and mentorship, yes. But they can't create miracles, and re-create an understanding of what is and isn't "shameful" or "good", if we have distorted these concepts for young people since birth.

I have a lot of faith in young people. We all have a great deal invested in them, to be sure. I am certain had that pharmacy today been full of teenagers instead of adults I would have witnessed a very different response. No shame, just truth. No stigma, just acceptance.