Let’s Stop Dismissing Our Young People (Our Decency May Depend Upon It)

My son recently pointed out how much I break the law. At first, I resisted what he had to say. Eventually, I surrendered to it. And, in doing so, I realized how much young people have to teach us about how far we adults have strayed from the decent, dignified lives we once aspired to, and once tried to inspire them to…

wisdom of children

Photo Credit: Borakovskyy (Bigstock)

I’m driving a lot slower these days.

A month ago, my oldest son Aidan got his driver’s permit. He’s taking Driver’s Ed and he has read The Rules of the Road and he’s learning how to do this whole driving thing by the book. He’s learning about why speed limits exist, and where you should stop at a stop sign, and how to stay precisely in your lane when making a turn. Which means he’s a total pain in the butt when I’m driving.

Because I break the rules all the time.

He points out regularly that I don’t keep my hands at 10 and 2—in fact, I rarely have two hands on the wheel. I pay way too much attention to my phone. If I stop completely at a stop sign at all, it’s at least two yards ahead of it. I treat the speed limit like a speed suggestion. I treat yellow lights like commands to speed up rather than slow down. I treat my blinker like its optional.

I don’t drive according to The Rules of the Road; I drive as if I rule the road.

So, he’s been teaching me how to drive properly again and, I’ll be honest, at first, I dismissed him. At first, I appealed to my driving record—one ticket in twenty-five years and low insurance premiums. Then, I appealed to comparison—other people break the rules worse than I do and at least I don’t look at social media while I’m driving. Finally, I appealed to my age and experience and authority—“You know, Son, The Rules of the Road are one thing but the reality of the road is something else altogether.”

Fortunately, he won’t let me get away with that kind of defensive, dismissive, condescending, authoritarian, patriarchal nonsense.

So, in the end, I agreed it would be best for me to drive according to the actual rules of the road. And yesterday, while I was driving to the grocery story, I was thinking (now that I’m going the speed limit, I have a lot more time to think while driving) about how much better my driving is now that I have surrendered to what he is re-teaching me about the proper ways to drive. And it made me wonder:

How much better would my life be if I let him re-teach me about the proper ways to live?

Maybe we all need our kids—now more than ever—to re-teach us what we once taught them about the proper ways to live. Minister and author Robert Fulghum’s international bestselling book is entitled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Yeah. That.

We taught our kids to be kind—to put people before points; meanwhile, we got hellbent on victory. We taught them to share; meanwhile, we codified greed. We taught them to play fair; meanwhile, we elevated people who gamed the system. We taught them not to tread even more upon the downtrodden; meanwhile, we went about getting a leg up on the back of every weaker creature we could find. We taught them about the seven deadly sins; meanwhile, we luxuriated in every single one of them. When our kids were young, we taught them the rules of decency and dignity; meanwhile, we went about forgetting them ourselves.

So now we need to let them re-teach us about the proper ways to live and love and lead.

A couple of weeks ago, Aidan got angry at me, and I pulled the I’m-your-father trump card and that enraged him further. But if I had listened to what he was really trying to tell me, what would I have heard? The truth is, I would have heard that I was having a really crappy week—the kind of week in which everything that mattered to me felt like it was spiraling out of control—and that for two straight hours that night I’d used him to feel like I was in control. I took the wheel of his life and sped right through the evening with a bunch of defensive, dismissive, condescending, authoritarian, patriarchal nonsense.

And when he held a mirror up to it, at first, I refused to let him re-teach me about the proper, decent ways to be in relationship.

Maybe so many of our young people seem a little unhinged right now because they are on the hinge of life, where they are being asked to forget all of the things we once taught them about how to live a decent life, so they can get on with living a “real” life. And maybe they are fighting back. Maybe what they hear is this: “Yeah, I know we taught you to be decent once upon a time—we taught you to use your blinker and drive the speed limit and stay in your own lane and to be kind and to share and to have compassion—but this is the real world, so now you can start breaking all the rules of the road, all the rules of decency.”

Maybe it’s time to stop dismissing our young people.

Maybe they are simply trying to remind us of what we once believed in, what we once taught them, what we once aspired to ourselves. They are simply holding up The Rules of the Road, like a mirror, and calling out the hypocrisy that we call “being grown up.” They are asking us to grow young again, to grow into a second kind of childhood, in which our better angels are given the wheel once again, in which decency and respect and sanity are the lane we try to stay in, no matter how inconvenient or inefficient it may feel.

Maybe it’s time for all of us adults to start driving—and living—like kids once again.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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