Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What I Learned about Teenagers this Week

The past couple of weeks have been rough at school. In particular, we had two racially-fueled incidents in the span of a just a few days. First, a white supremacist page on Facebook "friended" most of our Latino freshmen and spewed frightening hate speech. Second, a white student very directly used a racial slur against a black students, clearly with the intention to hurt him. I'm really proud that our 9th grade faculty decided it was worth our time to address both of these incidents head on, including taking time out of class to help kids process their feelings. Part of this included small discussion groups where kids got to just talk (with guidance from a teacher).

My first group was magical. There were 8 girls and 1 boy of pretty diverse backgrounds racially and socioeconomically. I was really impressed with their self-awareness and empathy. Many of them talked about the anger they felt but also the ways they deal with that anger so it doesn't have repercussions. They also talked about how things like racial slurs hurt an entire community, impacting not just the person who was targeted. I was especially surprised that they recognized that a hateful response to racist speech is likely to make the other party even angrier and will in turn perpetuate a cycle of anger that will just end up hurting everyone more. Woah. Pretty insightful for 15-year olds.

My second group was very different. Again, they were diverse racially and socioeconomically, but this time it was all boys. Instead of talking about compassion, talking through your feelings, etc., the boys basically said they didn't care about what had happened. A number of them pointed out that the Facebook page and the racial slurs hadn't been directed at them specifically, so they weren't bothered by it. I wasn't exactly excited by this reaction, but I do understand that a lot of them haven't developed the same kind of empathy I heard from my first group. Much more disturbing was the prevailing agreement between the boys that nobody should be bothered by these incidents, including the people were targets. One Latino boy talked about the many instances of racism he faces everyday, which led him to conclude that you just have to accept it and not worry about it. A white boy talked about the serious bullying in teasing he'd faced in middle school and almost seemed to see it as a positive thing because it helped him develop a thick skin and not care what anyone else says to him. Many of the boys (both white and Latino) seemed to think that the school shouldn't have intervened and nobody should have gotten in trouble for the racial slur. There was even the idea brought up that the student who used the racial slur was justified in doing so because the other kid was teasing him first. They talked about being taught to stand up for themselves no matter what and saw the racial slur as just a way for that kid to stand up for himself. Wow.

The more I thought about the difference between my two discussion groups, the more it struck me that I know very little about the way boys are raised and how they interact with each other. I also know very little about adolescent development with respect to the ways and rates at which boys and girls mature. It was interesting to me in these discussions the difference in the boys' and girls' abilities to abstract their ideas. The girls seemed quite able to put themselves in someone else's shoes, to think of a community as an entity different from individual people, and to imagine hypothetical situations. The boys focused on concrete examples, and when I asked them things like, "Why might some people feel scared or uncomfortable when they hear that someone has been using racial slurs?" they seemed to have a really hard time thinking outside themselves. Is this a boy thing? Is it a teen development thing? What is going on? Why was there such a push from the boys toward an "every-man-for-himself" mode of existence? Is this just reflective of the gender norms boys were raised with or something more developmental? Is this how boys of my generation were being raised? Most importantly, how can I support these boys in becoming more empathetic, self-aware, and socially-aware? How do I help them think about the importance of community and the value of feeling accepted? Will this all just come in time, or do I need to be thinking more pro-active?

1 comment:

Linda said...

How much do you suppose is cultural? Would those boys be a little less macho in a one one setting? I don't know the answer, just wondering out loud. It all shows why things change so slowly and so easily slip back.