The Twitter hashtag #BlackAtBLS was supposed to offer a safe and positive way for students at Boston Latin to talk to each other about racism.
And yet it wasn’t long before a student decided to use it to do just the opposite: post racist comments so offensive that the words couldn’t even be published in the paper. It’s not an isolated case. In other recent incidents involving Catholic Memorial High School and Newton North High School, students have spewed anti-Semitic and homophobic language. What is driving this behavior and does it inevitably mean that teens are racist?
Not necessarily. There is no excuse for these hurtful words and actions. It’s the job of families, schools, and communities to teach and model compassion, and to help children understand the effects of their words. But just because teens say it, they don’t necessarily believe it. And before we harshly judge teens who may have acted without thinking, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from.
Teens love being the center of attention. Outrageous and impulsive, jealous and competitive, these are the hallmarks of adolescence. Teens say and do things that can be hurtful and even dangerous, in service to their sometimes out-of-control feelings. Just ask their parents. An emotionally over-reactive brain and deep self-consciousness contribute to this behavior. Teens feel first and think later. The brain’s natural edit button, which advises us when to keep our thoughts to ourselves, is not yet fully operational. And when teens are angry, or frustrated, or feel that others are getting more attention, who knows what will come out of their mouths? And if that isn’t enough, throw in peer pressure.
Teens are also naturally self-centered, and sometimes narcissistic due to this excess of emotion, and self-consciousness. (Don’t worry, they outgrow this — usually.) Often their ability to see and/or care about another person’s perspective, no matter how much they have hurt, disrespected, and maybe even threatened the person, can be clouded.
And finally, as teens seek to develop their identity, they are bombarded with new perceptions of the world. Certainly family and community are big influences, as are the media. The current presidential election is a perfect example of highly emotional name-calling, racial stereotyping, bullying, and physical altercations — sanctioned by adults, no less. Simply telling teens to be better, kinder, and respect differences — and then punishing them when boundaries are crossed — will not change behavior.
Here’s what you can do:
• Challenge your teen’s stereotypes. Provide structured opportunities to get to know people who differ from them. At the 22nd Annual Youth Congress, which brought together 1,200 students from across New England last month, students addressing diversity issues suggested “mix-it up dinners” where they would sit with classmates they didn’t know. As a family, seek out experiences where your children can interact with people from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, perhaps through family community service, cultural events that celebrate diversity, or initiate social events with families of diverse backgrounds.
• Model inclusion. The adults in children’s lives are the most influential in transmitting values of acceptance. When I was a fresh-out-of grad-school therapist, I was seeing a couple experiencing difficulty with their daughter. In a predominately Catholic town, she had befriended a Jewish boy. The parents used phrases like “those Jews” in describing their worry about this relationship. With fear and anxiety about ruining my tenuous therapeutic connection, I timidly said, “I am one of ‘those Jews.’ ”
• Anticipate and strategize. Help your teen be prepared for situations that might challenge them. Because of their inexperience, many teens end up doing the wrong thing because they don’t know what else to, like those students at the recent basketball game between Newton North and Catholic Memorial who shouted anti-Semitic and homophobic rants. I’m guessing many teens who participated didn’t really want to, but were worried their friends would judge them if they didn’t.
Adolescence is messy. Teen behavior is layered. Good kids do bad things and vice versa. This is true regardless of class, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Help your teen to focus on what brings people together rather than what sets them apart.
Boston-based Joani Geltman is the author of “A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids About Sexting, Drinking, Drugs, and Other Things That Freak You Out.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.