From Dear Dr Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens
Dear Dr. Wes and John,
This isn’t anything new, but lately there have been a lot of stories in the news about authority figures acting very badly. A cop got convicted of looking up a teenage girl’s skirt. Some other officers didn’t do anything to help a pregnant woman while they were arresting her and she miscarried. Teachers, coaches, and administrators have been in serious legal trouble. Now, my kids are in middle and high school and are basically saying there’s no point in respecting the police or school personnel, and they think politics is a total joke. My kids are smart and aware, but it seems like they are getting cynical and I really don’t know what to do. I want them to trust the basic goodness of people, but when I try and tell them that, I feel kind of gullible and stupid.
Dr. Wes: Unfortunately, cynicism is about as old as humanity itself. Yet, I’ve also found myself struggling more with this lately, as I see authority figures falling all over themselves to make bad decisions. I’m old enough to remember The Pentagon Papers, J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate, and the Kent State shootings. Now, post-9/11 we see violent extremists on one hand, and government officials all-too-ready to take away civil liberties on the other. Just what the terrorists ordered.
In confronting this, I like to remind teens of the sense of duty New York police and fire fighters displayed as they entered the twin towers on 9/11, and the stories of heroism among our soldiers in the field. We each know fine teachers who spend their lives as highly educated persons in poorly paying jobs, because they believe in what they do. Each of these folks go against the grain of self-interest each day, to serve a higher social purpose. I encourage teens to seek in themselves this same sense of mission, so when they’re standing face-to-face with difficulty, they will show similar courage and conviction.
But even as I read it back, I know that nice speech doesn’t give the whole story, and to ignore that fact is a disservice to our teens. Instead, I suggest a radically balanced view of human good and evil. Don’t lump people or situations into the “evil” bin and others into the “good” bin. Instead, learn how and when to trust others, how to consume human interaction, and how to judge the character of people based on their behavior—not their job, or color, or age, or perceived level of authority.
It’s a lot easier to say that all policemen are “Officer Friendly” and all sex offenders are “sick strangers,” but the truth is that each person has a capacity to help and harm; to love and hate; to humanize and dehumanize. Each of us chooses which way we’re going to go every day of our lives, and much of that choosing begins in adolescence. That’s the nature of free will.
A wise person sees people as individuals, not as stereotypes. She does not generalize the bad behavior of a few officers to the police force; or the stellar conduct of one teacher to the entire faculty. I’ll admit that this is a much less comforting idea than simple naïveté or cynicism, but I promise that it’s a lot more helpful.
John Murray: Whether it’s teachers, police, soldiers, or priests, the media is always looking for dirt on the people we trust. We repay the media by watching their programs and upping their ad revenue. But we mustn’t judge a whole class of people based on the mistakes of a few and even avoid judging those we know are guilty. Many of the “Hester Prynns” in our society face mitigating circumstances, such as family history, that we never hear about. Instead of seeking out the faults in others, we should focus on becoming the role models we wish to see.
Sometimes, I imagine what would happen if Hollywood made a film about my worst moments. If the public were to discover all three of my sins, I’m not sure I could stand the humiliation. But why do we expect angelic coverage of our role models, people whose lives are on camera 24/7? You never hear about the businesses that could have stolen money but chose not to. In the media, one slipup is enough to condemn a person, even a group of people, and a thousand good works will not redeem them.
As for the dismal state of politics, Americans have no one to blame but themselves. Surely our Senate Majority Leader makes more important decisions than Paris Hilton. Yet, only fifteen percent of us know his name. When you ignore your elected officials, you release them from accountability. When you don’t read up on the current events, you open yourself to manipulation. Each of us is now $30,000 in debt due to a bipartisan failure to control the national budget. Congress gets away with it because they know we don’t pay any attention. If Americans don’t like this, they need to turn their cynicism into action.
It’s hard enough to obey an order you know is correct. It’s even tougher to obey one you hate. But we must respect our authorities, even when they make bad choices. Bashing police will not make better officers. Instead, we must recognize the imperfections inherent in all human beings, and save judgment for the jury.