What teenagers need now is less inspiration and more honesty.
I have become increasingly convinced that the mental health challenges the young face are, with the best of intentions, made worse by our constant desire to inspire and motivate them. The result can be endless assemblies about overcoming obstacles and challenging yourself to be the best you can be. If I was a teenager I would, I know, be thoroughly sick of such endless attempts to inspire me.
Of course, as educators, part of our job is to try to light a spark in the young, excite them about the possibilities that the world holds, and open their minds to their own considerable potential. But, there is a fine line between doing this and lapsing into lazy and unhelpful untruths. Above all, there is that most insidious and damaging of modern untruths: “you can be anything you want to be.” Whenever I hear adults say this to children, I want to scream “Don’t listen. It’s a lie. You can’t be anything you want to be. You are, for better or worse, stuck with being you.”
This may sound negative, but just place yourself for a moment in the position of a typical teenager. You are massively insecure and self-conscious, you are unsure of your own identity and you are not yet very good at honest self-analysis. You’re impressionable, and – to top it all – you’re probably grappling for the first time with the uncomfortable truth that you aren’t that great at some things. Then imagine that the adults around you keep insisting on how special you are, and how you can (and therefore should) be breaking through barriers, being “special” and becoming whatever you want to be. Is that really going to help you? Or is it going to increase the possibility that you end up thinking that there is something really wrong with you.
Every culture and every age creates its own lies about the human condition, and then uses them to unintentionally enslave people. As a young Catholic, I was drip fed endless assemblies about saints, the main result of which was to convince me that I was a morally hopeless case. The modern ideal tends not to be the Catholic saint but the Nietzshean individualist; the liberated man or woman who constantly breaks through barriers, makes their own rules, reinvents themselves, confounds expectation and is endlessly creative. We see this image played out before us in countless advertisements and TV programmes. Of course, this character bears about as much resemblance to any actual human being as the saints, calmly marching toward martyrdom, who populated my Catholic youth. We have a habit of exchanging one set of mental chains for another. As someone once sang “meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”
The problem here is the age-old one of sentimentality, which is the enemy of both honesty and true feeling. Sentiment likes to deal in easy messages. But truth is rarely easy to express, and herein lies the problem. If we take the “you can be anything you want to be” line; it is not true, but an important grain of positive truth is in there somewhere. The complex truth is that we are all born with certain potentialities and certain limitations. There are such things as talent, brains, beauty and luck, and it is obvious to anyone that none of these things are distributed among us with anything approaching equity. At the same time, despite our individual limitations, we are all prone to underestimating what we can, given time, opportunity and patient hard work, achieve with the talents and characteristics we do possess. This is the truth and, like most truth, it is a mixture of the beautiful and the unpalatable. The problem is that it is also really difficult to clearly communicate within the space of a five or ten minute assembly. So, a lot of the time, people give up and lapse into sentimentality. It’s an understandable failing, but a failing nonetheless.
I’m not suggesting that we should assault our young people with the unvarnished truth of the human condition. Of course, truth has to be drip fed to the young in measured and age-appropriate doses. But we should be very careful of stumbling into delivering apparently ‘inspirational’ messages that are, in reality, anything but. I don’t care if the young people in my care turn out to be particularly dynamic, creative (whatever that actually means) or mould breaking. More to the point, it isn’t in my power to help any of them scale such heights. But, it is in my power to instil them with a respect for truth and rationality, and this is a gift that I do not intend to withhold.