Last week I got a phone call from a parent who was concerned about how rude and self focused his teenager was. The parent wanted advice on how to deal with this behavior. This was not a case of a parent just being overly sensitive; there really is an epidemic of rudeness and self focus sweeping the next generation.
Dr. Jean Twenge holds a Ph.D. in personality psychology from the University of Michigan. She has done extensive research on Americans between the ages of 7 and 36. From that research she has written a scholarly book entitled, GENERATION ME: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Dr. Twenge, who is herself a young adult, is quite candid when describing her generation. When referring to the young adult population in America, she says that "this generation has never known a world that put duty before self." She goes on to conclude that "this is a generation unapologetically focused on the individual, a true Generation Me." She explains that young adults do not care what others think, which explains why they are often rude. She says "because we no longer believe that there is one right way of doing things, most of us were never taught the rules of etiquette."
As we seek to help the next generation deal with their rudeness and self focus, the first question we must ask ourselves is; who made our kids so rude and self focused? Regretfully, many of us need look no further than the mirror to find the answer! Dr. Twenge says that "parents apparently decided that children should always feel good about themselves." While feeling good about themselves is not a bad goal, somewhere along the way, we forgot to tell our kids that is was important to also help others feel good about themselves. The result is that our kids say and do whatever makes them feel good at the moment and do not care how it makes others around them feel.
Even parents who have tried to instill concern for others in their kids' lives have found it increasingly difficult. Dr. Twenge correctly observes that "magazines, television talk shows, and books all emphasize the importance of high self-esteem for children, usually promoting feelings that are actually a lot closer to narcissism." Narcissism is a negative personality trait that is observed in people who have an excessive view of their own importance. While feeling good about oneself is important, when it becomes excessive, it produces bad results. Few would argue that the next generation has turned feeling good about themselves into something that is having numerous unintended negative consequences.
Parents, teachers and faith based youth ministry directors must begin to help the next generation begin to think of others. Why is it so important to teach the next generation to think of others? From a secular perspective, Twenge makes the point that there is "a mountain of research shows that people who have good relationships with other people are happier and less depressed. We develop our sense of ourselves primarily from interacting with others." It is impossible to build healthy relationships when we are rude and only think of ourselves. Rudeness and self focus lead to a series of broken relationships and a lifetime of hurt. Many young adults complain that they do not have a good friend they can really trust. How can they have such a friend when they are always rude to those around them and hurt the people they consider their friends? If we want the next generation to have a happy life, we must help them learn to think of others so they can build meaningful relationships with others.
From the Christian perspective, we might consider Philippians 2:3-4, "Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others (HCSV)." Those of us who work with the next generation in a church context have a Biblical mandate to help those future leaders understand how important it is to care about others' feelings. The very nature of "church" is about caring for those around us and taking actions that make our world a better place. If we allow an entire generation to miss that important spiritual lesson, our world is going to become a very bad place in which to live. While we do not want to take aware a healthy sense of self, we also do not want to contribute to an already inflated view of self that has become negative. Teaching Christian concern for others to the next generation is one way to help that generation have a good sense of self as well as a healthy concern for others.
Obviously this is something we need to talk to the next generation about, but more important than talk, is action. We must model politeness and caring for others in our own lives. If we are rude, how can we expect our kids to be polite? If we are self focused, how can we expect our kids to care about others? We must model the behavior we want our children to follow. When our actions match our words, our kids will learn how to behave in ways that will help them build healthy relationships with others and have a happy productive life.
The next time that sharp remark makes its way to our lips, we might want to think before we speak and put our faith into practice as a way to set an example for the young people watching us. When we plan our personal schedules, set our family budgets and make all the normal daily decisions of life, we might want to consider how our actions affect those around us. As the next generation sees us modeling concern for others and politeness in our relationships, they will learn how to be healthier themselves.