Talking with Kids About Our Nation’s Social & Political Tension This Fall

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Wondering how you’re going to address the rising social and political tensions in our larger American culture with your students? Or perhaps looking for a good theme for your classroom this year? This June, I read The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation of Failure. In this excellent book, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt team up to examine what’s really going on at college campuses around the country and how these waves of thought are impacting all of us, regardless of the level we teach. The best takeaway? Haidt and Lukianoff (4) zone in on the “three great untruths” that are being disseminated, both implicitly and explicitly, by university communities:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. 

The first one relates to the idea that our children are inherently fragile, so we should do whatever we can to pad their way through life. You know exactly what I’m talking about, because you’ve seen ‘em all: the snowplow parents, the lawnmower parents, the helicopter parents…I could go on and on. Really, I can’t be too high and mighty, because I’ve certainly caught myself thinking, “That might hurt her feelings, so I won’t say it,” or “They’re too young to handle this.” Of course, we must be respectful of students’ emotions, experiences, and developmental level–I’m all about that. But Lukianoff and Haidt point out that we sometimes treat our young people so gingerly that they will literally never grow out of seeing themselves as pansies. 

Instead of the untruth of fragility, let’s proclaim the truth of resilience. Let’s tell our students, “You are strong.” I’ve coached high school cross-country the past three years, and I’ve seen a lot of kids run in a considerable amount of pain. When they cross that finish line, though, the pain turns into a badge of honor. This is true not just of our students’ sports achievements, but also of their capacity to rise above the meanness and unfairness that often characterizes their social landscape. We’ve all watched kids rise above their situation, whether it be unsupportive parents, a difficult mental health diagnosis, or switching schools and friend groups at the same time. Let’s coach them through these times of trial, because that’s what they need most. TRUTH: God’s grace gives us the strength to conquer anything; let’s treat our students as “more than conquerors” through His blood (Romans 8:37).

The second untruth is about emotional reasoning and says that we should always trust our feelings. Let me tell you, I am a huge fan of Conrad Baars, so if you haven’t read any of his books on psychology, St. Thomas Aquinas, and a holistic view of the human person, you are in for a real treat. In his Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, he speaks eloquently to the importance of naming, owning, and feeling your emotions, backed by a very solid Christian foundation. God gave us our emotions. They are morally neutral, and acknowledging them is key to living a healthy relationship with ourselves, others, and Him. However, Baars does not advocate for always doing whatever your emotions prompt you to do, which is good because otherwise I would literally spend my entire day eating dark chocolate, drinking coffee, and reading murder mysteries. (Dang it, Dr. Baars!) Haidt and Lukianoff agree that our children will be happier and healthier if they learn to engage their intellect, emotions, and will when making decisions. 

What seems like an obvious way to live life is becoming increasingly radical; people today accuse each other of all sorts of feelings that the other person is, apparently, responsible for. They even equate their own violent actions with a legitimate emotional expression that they cannot be expected to control. Scary, isn’t it? Teaching our students to talk with the Lord in prayer about how they feel and what His Word guides them to do is critical. We can’t say enough these days about the Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Works of Mercy. To counter this untruth of emotional reasoning, we can pray regularly with our students and ask Jesus to be with them when they’re having a bad day (or a good day!), invite Him to help them experience His love amidst all of their emotions, and call on Him to inspire them to make wise, virtuous decisions based on the objective reality that surrounds them. TRUTH: Inviting Jesus into our emotions changes everything.

Lastly, Haidt and Lukianoff face the most vitriolic untruth of them all: the untruth of us vs. them, which holds that life is a battle between good people and evil people. Doesn’t this cut to the heart of everything that’s happened in the United States since Memorial Day Weekend? How often do we find ourselves demonizing our opponents? It’s a much easier way to deal with our disagreements than to have vulnerable conversations about how we’ve been hurt and how we’ve hurt others, so it’s not surprising that much of our national dialogue has descended into this. As educators, we have a huge opportunity to impact the way our students respond to these polarizing times, above all by the way we form them to view everyone as an image of God. I used to work with a youth minister who was incredibly gifted in this area; he had a way of pausing to say “hello” to everyone that seriously made you feel like a million bucks. His eyes would light up and he would pause everything he was doing to honor you. Now, I can’t always give that prolonged “look of love” to everyone I pass in the hallway…after all, we teachers are regularly cramming a bathroom break, coffee refill, and copy job into a slim five-minute window! Yet there are times we can slow down; let’s take advantage of those opportunities to model for our students that they are seen. They are known. They are loved. We can preach a great deal about the fallacy of the “us” vs. “them” mentality; in the end, we have to walk the walk. Kids who know they’re loved, love others…it’s that simple. TRUTH: We are all beloved children of the Father.

Perhaps you want to write three great truths on the board in September and then reference them often throughout the year. Maybe you can recite them with your students as part of a class prayer or cheer. However you feel led to share them, I hope you’ll find greater peace in knowing that you are helping your students find the joy that comes from living in the truth, which always sets us free.

Interested in reading the whole book? Here’s a link to it on Amazon.

Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation of Failure. Penguin Books, 2019.

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