Youth need support, not criticism

This article first appeared in an August edition of the Marathon Mercury.

Recently there have been some instances of vandalism in our town likely committed by local youth. If you’re on social media I am sure you’ve seen the photos and complaints shared in Marathon groups rightly expressing dismay at broken playground equipment, litter, and tipped-over port-a-potties. I understand how residents are feeling. We love our town, and especially our parks, this behaviour is disheartening to see! However, there has been a non-too-subtle tone to this conversation that has me deeply worried.

I can be all-too easy to slide into the habit of villainizing young people whose behaviour is destructive. We seem them as hoodlums, bad seeds who need to be whipped into shape. The violent language some of our community members have used to express their dismay has honestly shocked me. A 14-year-old is not an adult, they are a child growing into their adulthood in awkward spurts and leaps. Their bodies are filled with the frustrating imbalance of burgeoning hormones, and their brains are very literally still in development. Suggesting that violence is the only method to respond to this stressful experience of youth is unacceptable to me. In my mind, neither will hyper-policing. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It says to our youth, “You can’t be trusted”, and then, as a response, they rise to the occasion.

Jesus held a special place for children and youth in his heart, I’m sure each of us could name a number of stories where we see that displayed. Further more, Jesus understood the experience of someone who felt isolated and unanchored. Right now our youth are just that. The pandemic has removed many of the few opportunities our town can offer young people to put their energy into, activities that build up themselves and their community. They are looking for connection, for a response from their peers, and to be a part of something bigger. When they are not able to channel all that wild and wonderful energy into something good, when their lives are shaky and unbalanced, we end up with the results we have today.

I don’t believe there are “bad kids”. I believe all of God’s children are beautifully and wonderfully made. But I also know that we don’t all get the same opportunities and support we need. I would like to see our community leaders taking on this issue by asking “Why are these young people acting out in this way? How can we help them?” Certainly, the solution can’t be older generations arguing about it on a social media platform none of these young people even use! (And, yes, as a millennial that makes me feel very old.)

So, next time you see a group of young people, or hear a story that fills your heart with dismay, I hope you’ll ask yourself: How can we do better for our youth. Since, indeed, just as the parks we love are our very own, these young people are too. How can we help them curb the destructive behaviours we see on the outside, knowing they are not left unmarked on the inside? How, dear neighbours, can we respond to them in love?

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