Wants versus needs. We humans seem to want everything, but actually need very little. Children need love, safety, security, shelter, clothing, and food. They need to be engaged in character-building activities. They need to be taught how to be decent human beings who accept as an axiom that all life is sacred. They need to be taught that life doesn’t revolve around them, that they are part of a larger world – family, neighborhood, community, city, country, planet – and that they are not entitled to have everything they want. Healthy fear is also a need. It helps protect us from making dangerous choices. However, scaring kids is never a good idea. Irrational “the sky is falling,” “we are doomed,” kind of fear is unhealthy and leads to destructive, rather than constructive, behaviors in kids.
Years ago, many states instituted “Scared Straight” programs as a result of a famous documentary wherein wayward teens were taken to a maximum security prison and threatened by the inmates. They were told horrible things would happen to them should they end up in prison. Several of those teens later ended up incarcerated, one for twenty-five to life in the very same prison where the documentary was filmed. The “scared straight” program didn’t work anywhere it was tried in the country and often proved harmful, likely because it created a self-fulfilling prophecy in the minds of kids who’d already been labeled “bad.” Those kids needed hope, but they were given fear. And it didn’t work.
In some cities, teens are taken to the morgue to view the corpses of drunk driving victims in the hope that they will be scared enough to avoid driving drunk or riding with someone who had been drinking. These programs also proved ineffective, as did all the “Red Asphalt” videos shown to kids in driver’s education classes. Across the board, adults think that scaring kids, and sometimes each other, is the best way to generate positive results. But how can a negative lead to a positive? They are opposites, after all. Kids at all stages of their development need hope much more than they need fear. And so do adults.
Which brings me to the environmental movement, the backdrop of my novel, Warrior Kids. Our careless destruction of the environment and its ancillary effects – climate change – are immense areas encompassing all walks of human life. There’s shifting climate patterns, GMOs, poisoned water, fracking, landfills, oil spills, air pollution, CO2 levels – the list goes on and on. Too often, the environmental movement is about doom and gloom – the sky is falling and we need to act now by donating money to this group or that one. Almost every non-profit involved in the environmental arena says to give money to them because they have the inside track and all the answers. Sadly, people are profiting off of environmental destruction, and I don’t mean the obvious beneficiaries – fossil fuel companies, paper mills, coal producers, natural gas extractors and other industries. I mean people supposedly on the “right” side of the issue. They’re making bank, too, and scaring people in the process.
Climate changes fueled by our abuse of the environment could be the defining issue of the millennium, but just this year a new poll indicated that one-third of Americans don’t think there is any climate change at all, and even if it is happening, they don’t believe anything serious will affect them during their lifetime so they don’t care. It’s the usual selfish, shortsighted aspect of human nature that is the root of all human problems – putting “me” over “we.” And in the case of environmental abuse, adults are putting themselves and their personal comfort zones over the needs of their children and grandchildren. It’s disheartening, to say the least, but real solutions seldom come from the generation that created the problem. Real solutions come from the generation inheriting the problem. In our time, it’s the millennial generation stepping up to defend and restore the planet. Worldwide, kids are standing up for the environment and their generation. But we need to engage and encourage more young people to take an interest in the big picture. We can only do this by giving them hope, not fear.
Kids need to know the sky isn’t falling. They need to know they can help ensure a better future for themselves and their own children yet to be born. This is the message of my novel. The book presents facts about environmental abuse and pollution, presents tangible solutions to some of the issues, and empowers kids to take real action in their homes, schools, communities, and on a national level by mobilizing via social media.
My goal as a lifelong youth leader, mentor, teacher, coach, volunteer has always been to empower kids, to give them hope for a better future, one they can help bring about by their own choices and actions. Scaring kids with environmental tales of doom and gloom over climate change will just paralyze them and lead many to seek out destructive, self-absorbed hedonism because they figure, why not? The world is crumbling and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well have self-serving fun, right? Wrong. There’s plenty kids and adults can do. The most significant action adults can take is to lead by example, to show kids what real power they have, and give them hope, ideas, and motivation to step up and be leaders in their own right.
Kids rule social media. If they wanted, they could crash the congressional servers with demands for action. They can work within their schools to make them more environmentally friendly. They can do the same in their communities. They can petition their mayors and city council people to take real action on issues that affect them now and will impact them in the future.
Youth have an innate capacity for hope. I’ve worked with so many kids over the years whose childhoods have been hell on earth. You wouldn’t wish their lives on the evilest of humans. And yet they still have hope that the future can be better, that they can still have happy, productive lives. They continually remind me that life is sacred and all life is a gift. Hope needs to be nurtured in children and teens, not scared out of them because adults have an agenda they want to push or profit from. Even when the motives of adults are pure, if the methodology is wrong, the adult is wrong. Period.
It comes back to wants versus needs. Too many people want to be celebrities and be famous. Some are using the environmental crisis as a springboard to fame and self-aggrandizement. Conversely, many in the environmental arena are genuinely concerned and seek not to profit from the problem, nor become famous as a result of it. But people need to closely examine each organization they consider supporting, especially where their kids are concerned. Parents should make sure that their kids are not following “It’s all about me” environmentalists or they will lose even more hope because they’ll see selfishness and greed that isn’t any different from that exhibited by big industry and big government. Hypocrisy in arenas that impact the lives of children is beyond disturbing, but sadly it exists across the board. Between the self-absorbed environmentalists and the fear-mongering ones, kids can feel overwhelmed and paralyzed and hopeless.
Parents and honorable adults must lead by example and direct kids toward real solutions to all of life’s problems. In my fictional story, the adults do this – they lead by example, they model “we” over “me” thinking, and they refuse to allow the “cause” to be all about them. As a result, the millions of children and teens who follow them do the same. It’s not difficult to choose “we” over “me,” but it might take daily practice to shift one’s consciousness in that direction.
Try this experiment for yourself and your family: commit to one day per week – the same day every week – during which you will consciously choose “we” over “me” from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep that night. In other words, throughout that day look for every opportunity to serve the needs of others in some fashion. This could translate into being more focused on recycling, not using Styrofoam cups, not throwing away food or useful items – all of these and every other environmentally friendly action clearly helps other people by helping the planet. Or you could commit to helping individual people in some way – people in the community, school, or the workplace. There is always someone who has less than we do and always someone who needs assistance of some kind. For you kids, it could be reaching out to that student who is super shy, or even super annoying, and extending a hand of friendship. The possibilities are endless. If everyone on the planet adopted this idea – to not self-obsess one day per week – can you envision how much better the world would become overnight? It would be transformative. Please try this out for yourself. Commit to this experiment for one month. My guess is that you will find such innate joy and hope in choosing “we” over “me” that you will continue well beyond that month. And I predict you will add more days of “we” over “me” to your weekly schedule.
Hope. It comes in many forms and from many sources. It is the cornerstone of a positive, productive life. It is an essential ingredient for all of us, especially kids. Adults must model it. Adults must share it. Adults must embrace it. I have always done my best to share hope with even the most damaged kids I know. And they continue to share their hope with me. It’s that “we” over “me” mentality. When we look out for the needs of each other, everybody wins.