When I was in high school, I remember social banter consisting of a lot of subtle put-downs and one-upsmanship. The popular kids were generally not very nice, certainly not to us unpopular kids but not even to each other. I remember a few popular kids being nice to me on the sly, but in group settings even those nice ones would join in the dominating behavior, or, at best, surreptitiously divert attention away from the victims. If they were overtly kind, they risked being grouped in with the losers. Social status came from winning, from dominating. Kindness was a recessive gene in the social DNA.
Until recently, I thought this is just how teenagehood is in our culture. Not that kids are inherently cruel, but that deeply entrenched social conditions cast the majority into a state of insecurity from which bullying behavior inevitably arises. But over the last few years I am seeing more and more evidence of a profound sea-change in youth culture.
My first glimpse of it came from witnessing my teenage sons’ interactions with their friends. Almost never did I hear the kind of aggressive, belittling talk that was so common when I was that age. Granted, they may have been censoring themselves because “dad” was present, but if so the censorship was irrationally selective – I also overheard a lot of conversations that no teen in his right mind would let his friend’s father overhear. Moreover, it wasn’t just an absence of overt put-downs that I noticed. They rarely said anything unkind about people who were not present in the room. I almost never heard them label so-and-so as a dweeb, geek, bitch, loser, wimp, or anything like that. The exceptions were very few; in general, a normative ethic of gentleness prevailed.
These young people were not the math geeks and band nerds either. My eldest son Jimi in particular is socially confident and popular, as were many of his friends.
At the same time, I am aware of horror stories of social media bullying that drives some teens to suicide. It looks like things are getting simultaneously better and worse. In order to find out what’s going on, I’ve been asking Jimi and some other young people.
Jimi confirmed what I’d semi-consciously become aware of. There is a kind of split, he said, among his peers. Some are still clinging to the “old story” and all that goes along with it, but more and more are leaving that behind. “It is the opposite of how you describe your high school, dad,” he said. “For us, social status comes from being kind, and even authentic. If someone is mean, or boastful about a sexual conquest, we call him on it.”
I found his reference to sexual discourse particularly significant, since misogyny is perhaps the most primal expression of what Riane Eisler calls dominator culture. In my youth, women were a kind of social currency. If you “had” a pretty girlfriend, you were a winner, you were worthy, you were desirable. We men sought sex to prove our worth and demonstrate it to other men. Sexual intercourse was a “score,” a “touchdown,” a “home run.” I never saw any sign of that among my sons’ peers. I spent most of my adult life under the lingering shadow of an objectifying culture, seeing sex as proof of my worth. Maybe I’m still not completely free of it. Fortunately, from what I am seeing, what my generation struggled so hard to achieve imperfectly is becoming the new normal.
Misogyny, racism, intolerance, bullying, homophobia, disrespect, unkindness… these are becoming the recessive gene now, at least among a significant subculture of young people. Nothing gives me more optimism for the future than this.
Jimi also described (what was to me) an astonishing absence of bullying from the high school he attended before transferring to an art school. It wasn’t an elite school: sixty percent minority, it ranked well below average in terms of academic performance. Occasionally there were fights, he said, but not a lot of the strong picking on the weak. Racial comity and acceptance of LGBT students was the norm. Nor was there widespread labeling of various cliques as there had been at my school. The hicks, the jocks, the brains, the weirdos… none of that.
When we watched Breakfast Club together, a film that my peers and I revered as a consummate encapsulation of the high school experience, Jimi and his brother Matthew didn’t identify with its social milieu at all. I want my generation, the 30-somethings and 40-somethings, to know this. The world is changing. The nightmare that we took to be reality itself is coming to an end.
Perhaps the trend I’m describing here is not yet dominant; part of me feels naïve for even thinking it is real. But more and more, I hear teenagers and 20-somethings express thoughts that basically didn’t exist in my universe when I was that age. “I’ve noticed that my inner conflicts are reflected back to me through my relationships.” Holy crap, did I just hear a 21-year-old say that? These people are born into a place that took us decades of struggle to inhabit even part-time.
Maybe you are one of those young people, or maybe you are poised between two worlds. Either way, I’m sure you can feel the call to join the new cool of kindness, generosity, nonviolence, authenticity, emotional courage; to stop tolerating anything else; to join together in forging a new normal. If it isn’t quite here yet, it is very close at hand.
What will the world be like, when Jimi and his cohort move fully into adulthood? What social institutions, what politics, will come from people for whom kindness is the norm and not the exception? When unkindness is intolerable in social life, how will it be tolerable in ecological life, economic life, or political life?
As we celebrate the young, let us also offer thanks to those of the older generations who carried the flame of kindness through the dark times. Some names come to me of those popular, kind kids: Eric Heiser, Doug Edmunds, Jenny Gibson… and that angelic boy who died in a car crash. I’m sure you can think of some as well. Light them a candle in your heart. They sustained the field into which the new generation is born.
I am of your generation and I know exactly what you are referring to. Now I have a child about to start school and have been wondering how to cope with the eventual bullying that I always thought would be inevitable. When I saw how her kindergarten was already immersing the kids in an environment of tolerance and inclusion, it made me wonder how the leap – or creep – to dominator culture would occur at school. Never did I believe this could have changed in any way in the meantime. Thanks for letting us know it can.
This is very encouraging if true. Not having kids or nieces and nephews I feel so detached from youth culture and hear all those bad stories. If what you say is true it is a massive leap
As someone just starting college, I can say this seems to be very true… the cultural image of a bully-filled high school was never true for me, and the most popular kids were very kind and accepting… In particular, I can think of two “jocks” who were both wonderful, and spent a lot of time in P.E. playing with different special ed kids who exemplified that. Interestingly, the town I was from had two high schools, and from my friends who went to the other one I heard a very different story… one school was definitely more accepting than the other. Still, it didn’t seem like it was as bad as it seems like high school used to be, even there. There was a lot of acceptance.
Tho Flo says
“If this is true” … i am guessing that the dichotomy is intensifying. As one force (conscious kindness) grows, the opponent force tries to compensate… if one looks & listens to the ‘popular culture’ media (sponsored by ?), for example much of ‘rap”?music?’ appears to be intensely hateful and vulgar, not beautiful nor kind at all. And a perusal of public comment sites (eg, YouTube) generally displays that dichotomy, where a video has a mix of kindly, polite positive comments and nasty, vulgar, hateful ones. I dont believe in Hegelian synthesis… i prefer to believe in the sure victory of loving kindness!
Mike Johnson says
So interesting! Would everyone please do this quick survey on high school culture:
so we can find out if this trend is real!
Matthew Schaefer says
Mike, passing this along. I teach high school, so my colleagues are very interested in this topic. The polarization with some kids staying in the old story and others moving on, is something I have noticed. Not sure how you can do this, but can you keep me in the loop on data you get? Perhaps even share the google sheet with me?
Mike Johnson says
Here’s the spreadsheet:
Maybe if you make a report you could post it here.
Interesting. I hope this trend is real. I noticed years ago that being kind seemed to be one of the few ways to really make the world a better place since it reduces the sense of threat and fear in others that are irrationally present in probably most of us.
Wow. I’m of your generation, too, and I remember very well the times you’re talking about … 🙂 Now I have two kids, 5 and 9 years old, and yes, I can say I made the same observation here in Germany, living in a quite average location in a middle-sized city (roughly 100k occupants). I think there is a great generation underway.
BTW loooove your writing, Charles. It gave me so much, at least the feeling that I’m not some single romantic moron who “does not want to face reality”. Getting tears in my eyes typing this, oh my …
Here is an excerpt from a letter my daughter wrote about her visit to a Toronto high school recently. She is a social worker, currently on maternity leave. Her baby was 6 months old at the time.
“Last week and this week I’ve been invited to go to an alternative high school and I presented to a group of teenagers, all boys for this group which I didn’t expect, on how to cultivate compassion kindness love and general harmony with one another. It was so inspiring to see young men be courageous and challenge the archetype of being macho in order to give compliments and express kindness to each other. Many of them had never held a baby and so they were all nervous but I just passed the baby around the room and by the third round they were all making him laugh and tickling him and they knew exactly what to do; it’s quite extraordinary how that is possible. Reminds me how much I do love the work that I do. Perhaps I’ll move from working with the homeless to working in a high school setting one day. It’s nice to see my efforts manifest so quickly. Often the people I work with have some horrific challenges; a lot of what I do is lost on them because they’re worried about more immediate challenges.”
There is also the LifeVestInside project: Life Vest Inside is a 501(c)3 non profit organization on a mission to empower and unite the world with kindness. We equip people worldwide with the necessary tools to recognize their own potential to become a catalyst for positive change in the world. We transform inspiration into action through inspirational media, technology, education, and on the ground social engagement.
It’s inspiring to hear about efforts, either small and local, or large and widespread. May this kindness continue to grow!
Hannah in Canada
kennedy connor says
charles, my h. s. role model was Jimi- hendrix- as gentle a soul as has ever lived.the zeit geist of the era was ‘all you need is love’ our sacred economics was karl marx…it’s nice to be on the ‘winning team again.’
love your work!
It feels kind of weird to write this, as if one part of my being limits itself to the physical age and fears of being judged as proud..
but everything you write makes me so happy and nod all throughout your essay.
I would identify myself as part of the young & kind generation and it is definetely partly due to the previous inner work my parents (of your age) have done that the people like me have much less “roadblocks” on our path.
And since I consciously began the spiritual journey (early teenage years), I always found other young people I could connect with and now, the community is even broader and definetely filled with ‘popular’ people, too.
In high school, even though the majority of my peers didn’t see me as part of their social groups or specifically “friends”, I did felt as if there was a kind of deeper understanding despite the mental “i don’t get her’.. which later was confirmed to my surprise (rankings in the year book revealed that I was actually being seen in my alternative aspirations and even more as “beautiful”, jup these beauty rankings do still exist hahaha )
I do believe that the awareness among young people is spreading and interestingly, life has brought me to a university far away from my home country to serve by sowing seeds & spreading kindness on campus 😉 so there is hope and life is working in miraculous ways 🙂
thank you for all the inspiration and awareness!