Enabling Students to Navigate Risks
I heard three news stories, each a narrative about students “acting out” both on and off the campus. What do these stories have in common?
- A skateboarder was hit and killed by a train at a railroad crossing when he tried to beat the train while riding across the tracks.
- Parents of a 19-year old student negotiated with a local community college to pay a fine to keep him enrolled after he painted graffiti all over a building.
- A Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member’s video went viral. The song lyrics were full of racist remarks about African-Americans at Oklahoma University.
All three were pitiful examples of stories from a population of kids born since 1990. (These kids make up the second half of the Millennials, and I call them Generation iY.) They’re all tragic examples of young people who failed to factor in the consequences of poor decisions. They were unable or unwilling to comprehend the weight of their actions—and later required someone to be responsible… for their irresponsibility.
Rewards and consequences are a huge part of life. In fact, I could argue life is all about benefits and consequences. Neurologists remind us that one of the toughest parts of adolescence is the distorted development of interpreting risky behavior. The part of their brain that signals a reward for risky behavior develops before the part of their brain that signals the consequences for failing at risky behavior. This is why a teen will attempt a ludicrous stunt, like the ones I listed above: they can see the benefits of their peers’ response, and cannot yet see the price tag of failing. This allows someone who is 18 or older to still act like a “pre-adult.”
What Have We Done to Them?
Too often, these students have filled their minds with data from Google, YouTube, Netflix and social media outlets, yet have not actually lived with outcomes from this information. Their experiences have often been virtual ones. In short:
Their minds are filled with content without context, and contexts without consequences.
This can disable a teen or twenty-something from maturing and being responsible. We never truly become responsible until we are given responsibility…and, we take it. This means we navigate the consequences of our decisions and actions. Failure to do this leads to immature behavior. Depending on a student’s temperament, it results in one of two extreme behaviors:
1. Low Risk – They become fearful young adults who run from risks. Having never been conditioned for responsibility, they fear encountering it. This is often because mom has unwittingly made them afraid. By doing so much for her child, she’s developed a fearful, fragile adult. Too often, she’s rescued him or her, filled out forms and negotiated conflict with a teacher or employer.
2. High Risk – They become young adults who live risky, even reckless lives, because they’ve never faced hard consequences. Life’s been good, but not real…so they go out on a limb, party-hardy, slip into addictive behaviors and assume someone else will pay for it all. Once again, some adult has swooped in to save the day. As long as this happens, growth will be stunted.
I just spoke to several fraternity advisors at a major university. They compared and contrasted life on campus years ago when they were students, with life on campus today. They admitted that they had partied and got drunk as collegians. In contrast, however, they described how their younger, fraternity brothers have gone to a whole new level. They don’t merely get drunk—but absolutely plastered, to the point they have no sense of self, and in fact, become violent, reckless, unable to stand up and out of control. They told me fraternities pay $30,000 in fees for taxis in preparation for this state. Or, should I say, mom and dad pay this fee. After all, we can’t expect a college student to be responsible, right?
What Can We Do?
Neither the low-risk student or the high-risk student is in a good place, and neither are balanced enough for leadership responsibilities. To get them ready, we must introduce the very element from which they’ve been protected.
Low Risk Students
These teens or young adults need to get past virtual experiences and given real responsibility. If parents or teachers have prevented “real life” from happening, they need to be mentored in how to navigate risky ventures, and it must be “on-the-job” training. Calculate the risk yourself, but then, push them into the pool so they can swim. Stay in communication, help them to make wise decisions, but be sure to actually lend them responsibility for outcomes. Faculty advisors—let go and turn the event or the strategy over to them. Residence Life staff—let go and empower them to choose how the hall will embody accountability. Youth workers—let go and genuinely let the kids oversee the fundraiser. We must let them do it.
High Risk Students
These teens or young adults have a different temperament that’s responded to their good life with risky living. So—we must introduce equations into their lives. This means, we talk over big decisions ahead of them (or behind them) and define how one choice leads to a specific benefit, but another choice leads to a negative consequence. Then, we must make sure we don’t remove those consequences. This does not mean we throw them to the “wolves” without any support. It simply means we talk through outcomes, then let life demonstrate it is full of equations. We must follow through and discuss both the perks and price of our choices. (Think: O.U. Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity aftermath, but with more mentoring discussions).
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