I had written this article a few years ago for The Catholic Review and rewritten several times following, after a young, teenage man had murdered his family in Cockeysville, MD. When I heard the story out of Ohio this morning at Chardon High School, it reminded me of these words. A similar response from the people: “These things don’t happen in Chardon.” …and unfortunately, they do. It saddens me to see such stories. Here is what I had written…
I am more and more convinced after working with teenagers, that adults really don’t always understand where they are coming from. It is easy for any of us to say that we were their age once; but has the mindset changed? If anything, we can all agree that our society and culture have changed and developed over these past years, sometimes much quicker than we can advance. It appears less innocent; and at times, more violent than ever before.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a young man a few years ago who told me that he sometimes treats his parents as if they were dead, because he would rather have it that way. Can you imagine?!? He had told me that he felt so much pressure to succeed on their terms, that he never had the chance to just be a kid. He, like so many others, was a pressure cooker waiting to explode and didn’t know how to creatively channel that energy. He, and many others that I have talked to, feel that they are given responsibilities that are well beyond their scope of reasoning, that they have no where to turn. In two-parent working families or in single-parent families, these “kids” are often given the responsibility of making choices for their younger siblings that should clearly be left to a mature adult. Yet, they aren’t and we are left with no one to blame for the violence that sometimes ensues in their own lives and the people around them.
Now I know that the immediate reaction of people will be anger; that it sounds like I am blaming the parents for this situation. However, that is not necessarily the case. Even that “kid” has to take some responsibility for his actions. We are in a position, though, that we must start asking “why” and not just in these seemingly isolated cases, but why are “kids” feeling such pressure? Why does it seem that “kids” can no longer be “kids”? Why are people so quick to steal their innocence in the face of mounting expectations and pressures in life?
A lot has changed, it seems, since I was a teenager, albeit twenty years now, but not always necessarily for the better. There was a time when schools were safe, when homes were safe, when it seemed like we lived in a protected world, where war and violence only happened “over there”. Yet, as time passes, it seems to be coming closer and closer to home. There was a time when the parent was always right. There was a time when you had to believe in God whether you wanted to or not. There was a time when the teacher was right and I was wrong. What ever happened to those days? What ever happened to the days where parents made the choices and decisions for their kids, whether they liked it or not, and that decision stood, no questions asked. It was the right choice. What ever happened to the day when kids didn’t have to prove anything, they can just play; they can just be kids?
My fear is that a revolt is brewing deep down in many young people; many young people that have walked through my life, bruised and “beat up” looking for answers and some kind of hope in the midst of the senseless violence they witness. It is a revolt that none of us, as adults, will be able to stop, because it is a drive and a passion to be a kid, a reclaiming of innocence lost, and nothing more. It is a desire to believe in something that is bigger than us, a belief in God. We need, as a society, as adults, to give them the bigger picture in life because so many are trapped within the confines of that pressure cooker, and, sadly, one day tragedy happens, more frequently, it seems, and we are left wondering “Why?”. We need to move beyond a disposable society; to see ourselves as broken, but redeemed at the same time.
No, it is not an easy concept for a kid to understand, nor adults at times, but as adults we should be able to at least begin to grasp the mystery of life and death and then model that for them in return. Kids need to be taught and modeled that life isn’t perfect, that we can’t always get our own way, that it’s ok to be held without being abused, that I can be punished when I am wrong, that I should take responsibility for my actions, that there are consequences for how I act, but at the same time, there is something bigger that exists. What needs to be taught, and maybe how I see myself as a voice for these teenagers, is to say, I understand that there is all this mess in your life, but deep down, it’s not the end of the world, you shouldn’t ignore it, don’t let it fester within, that there is a God and that God loves me and you regardless of anything that any of us can say or do because we believe in a God that is not only merciful but also forgiving. Therein lies a lesson for all of us to learn, adults and kids alike.