Lately I've had to have many difficult talks with my teenaged sons.
From rape that's gone punished and unpunished; celebrity ignorance; suicide; bullying; shootings, bombings and just generalized nasty and unkindness in the world, our snatched conversations in the kitchen or the car have taken a turn for the negative. Sometimes it feels like I'm constantly facing emotional damage control with them.
While I'm saddened by the need to have all of these conversations with them, I'm even more disturbed by their responses. I'm starting to feel like these kids are immune or maybe even hardened to what seems to be evolving into a horrible, cold, cruel world. Do they not care? Or are they simply blasé, as one of my best friends describes her children?
Here are some examples of what I mean.
On the boys who raped Rehtaeh Parsons "There are a lot of really bad teenagers in this world, including kids. A lot, mom. They're never going to catch or punish all of them."
On the Glee episode about school shootings "We've been practicing Code Reds since Grade 1. You go to a corner, drop, and don't move or say a word. What's the big deal?"
On the bombing of the Boston Marathon "It's really bad. But really, really bad things happen every day. Have you read what's happening in Liberia, Mom? Go look it up."
It concerns (or maybe frightens) me that they talk so matter-of-factly about these horrors. That to them, this is ordinary. This is normal.
The question is, then, what does a parent or educator do in these situations? Do I rile them up and egg them on to get a response, or do I let things lie and walk away?
I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place. I want to raise sensitive, caring, emotionally available young people. I want them to be empathetic, to feel for others, to fight for what's right and to do something when they see someone in need or wrong being done.
But, at the same time, I don't want to alarm them or turn them into neurotic over-reactors who freak out or get depressed when they witness violence around them, especially when it's a situation over which they have no control or cannot impact.
When they tell me that there are bad people in the world, am I to say, 'Oh yes there are. Why aren't you more angry about it? '
Because teenagers are by nature egocentric (think Justin Bieber at the Anne Frank House), I think that as parents we have to walk a fine balance between telling (or pushing) our kids how to feel and helping them find that 'spark' that will become their call-to-action.
I really believe that turning your kid's empathy on has to be a covert operation. We're so used to telling them what to do, that when have the urge to tell them which emotion is appropriate, we need to remember back off and tread lightly.
• Talk to them and ask questions. Help them to explore their feelings and develop their emotional intelligence.
• Listen. Sometimes your child will tell you that something in the world bothers them, but in the quietest way. And, it may not be the most obvious element.
• Be open. Remember that not everybody cares about the same things. Don't be afraid to answer questions or to take to the Internet if you don't have all the answers.
• Encourage. Help them to find what they care about, and then to find ways to become involved (even if it's just writing a Facebook post, they're acting).
• Create awareness. Talk about current events, inequities, and even devastating or sad events.
• Model the behavior. If you don't care, your kids won't care. If you don't act, your kids won't act.
We are definitely not going to change the world our kids are growing up in. But, we definitely can change how our kids interact with it.
How do you help your teenagers connect with the world around them?