How Should We Engage Kids of Privilege?

The Internet, television, the mall… there are so many forces that apparently distract young people in America today. How do we go about engaging young people with access, authority and what seems to be power in creating positive, powerful social change?

As I wrote about yesterday all youth need to be actively engaged in this work of positively changing society, no matter what socio-economic stratus they come from. Engulfed by the rigamarole of popular society, many young people appear to be without a care for the world. They seem disconnected and unenthusiastic about the prospect of changing the world; rather, they’re concentrated on the immediate and the selfish. This is not intended to be an indictment of a generation or social class; rather, I base these observations on what many of the 1000s of adults I’ve worked with over the years focused on the topic of re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society.

Before we address a problem we must name it. I believe that children and youth who are surrounded by stuff are faced with a more dire situation than we credit them for: given their inability to see the world beyond their immediate wants, they are effectively suffering a deficiency of interdependence, and are deprived the joy and authentic connectivity of community. It’s as if their neural receptors for empathy were severed young, or smothered as they grew. Maybe the televisions and computers and gameboys and new clothes and pantry constantly full of food and toys and stuff simply stifles the sense of urgency, connectivity and responsibility all people are inherently born feeling. At the same time, a growing number of these young people go forward with the successes of our culture: They become student council presidents and football captains; they lead service learning projects and vote when they’re 18. Others never connect in these ways, instead becoming young socialites or technology gurus, each of whom may be substituting deep connections with the temporary rush of the newest and latest friend or gadget. 

That said, there is a way to spark the connectivity of social change within the hearts and minds of these young people. In my experience it’s easier with children: closer to their hearts, many harbor a desire to see beyond themselves by connecting with the lives of others around them and the well-being of the planet they live in. Starting at this age, parents can foster awareness and connectivity by actively role modeling what engagement looks like for their kids. 

As young people get older they’re increasingly encouraged to disengage: the hypocrisy of spending 10 years of their schooling learning about the society around them without being allowed to actively engage with the society around them because they’re segregated into age-isolated schools is not lost on youth. More than role-modeling, these youth also need active, deliberate and meaningful opportunities to connect with the world they live in in proactive and positive ways. This means not simply presenting things to do – there are plenty of things for youth to do – but actually using the incentives of whatever institution you’re working in to do it. In schools teach social responsibility to students; in community centers develop youth involvement initiatives. Give classroom credit, provide stipends and public recognition, and do whatever is needed to get youth through the door. But once they’re there, don’t rob yourself and our world the opportunity to allow these young people to make meaning of the world they’re part of.

Young people are conditioned to respond to the world around them, just as we are as adults. Dr. King once said, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” That wasn’t true simply for his positivity and power; it was also true for his flaws and foibles. Young people are who they are because of who we all are. Let’s do something about that.

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