I have been fortunate enough in my life to have spent a good amount of time with teenagers. The age of transition is so ripe for learning, so wonderfully awkward and vivid and dank, like fertile soil just waiting for seeds. It can be treacherous ground, as well, for teachers and parents to trod. How do we guide without coercing? How do we demonstrate good habits of mind without seeming hopelessly dorky and out of touch? Well...first, give up on any hope that you won’t seem dorky and out of touch. Know that they need you to show them the way, even if you don’t know how. Good, now take a deep breath, and think about this quote from the Upanishads.Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; for it becomes your destiny.When I begin a discussion with a group of young people as we embark on a shared venture, I ask them, “What kind of community do you want to be a part of? What are your hopes and dreams for this group or for your family? What would be the coolest outcome you could imagine for us to reach?”
This is the start of a discussion about community or shared time and space. We talk about personal goals: “I want to make friends... I want to have fun... I want to feel respected... I want to be myself... I want to learn...to be listened to...to feel safe.” These, and many other desires, come out.
The next question I ask them is, “What do we need to do to create a shared space where these hopes and dreams can exist?” We then reexamine our list in the context of what we as individuals need to do, or not do, to make sure our shared goals can be met.
I insist that everyone make a list of what we need to do without using the words “no” or “don’t.” Instead of looking at the list of what we want and saying, “I want to be listened to, so don’t talk when others are talking,” I ask them to frame it in the positive: “Respect others’ right to speak and be listened to.” Instead of, “No hitting, spitting, fighting, biting, yada, yada, yada...” it becomes, “I have a right to be free from harassment. I have a right to be in a clean environment. I have a right to express myself. I have a right to privacy and personal space.” And so on.
These are things we all want, so it’s easy to find agreement. But it’s important for teens to discover these common desires for themselves. Although the process can take some time, I’ve found that any time spent deliberating shared goals at the outset equals time saved farther down the line. When conflict arises, we can just return to this conversation and say, “Remember what we all agreed we wanted for ourselves and this community?”
Establishing rights is an important second step. It allows for everyone to express themselves and agree that we all want and deserve them. Then I ask the group, “Where do rights come from?”
This is a tougher bone to chew. I often follow this question with a hypothetical scenario: “If you are alone on an island, do you have rights?” Some answer yes, some answer no, and I ask them to hash it out.
Ultimately, I would argue, that when you’re alone you don’t have rights because you don’t need them. Rights only exist in community with other human beings. Rights are created when two people agree not to harm each other. Or, in the formulation of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “We gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others.”This is precisely the point on which the discussion turns. Rights are only created by observing my own responsibility to respect, protect, and defend the rights of someone else. The responsibility comes first. If you keep waiting around for people to respect you before you’re willing to be respectful, then respect is never forthcoming. It takes the altruistic action of giving respect that creates space for respect to be given. The next question for the group then becomes, “What are our responsibilities to one another to ensure that we live in a community that will help us manifest our hopes and dreams?” The resulting discussion produces a list of responsibilities – usually only five or six specific ones that the group agrees are necessary to its functioning: “We have a responsibility to respect each other’s space (body and possessions)...to listen to each other...to clean up our shared spaces...to respect differences...to speak truthfully...and ultimately (this takes some direction from the leader), these all come from self-respect. In other words, it all boils down to taking personal responsibility for all our words and actions.This list becomes a contract that each member of the group signs. We post it in a common space for all to see and use it as living, working document. When someone forgets, as we all do, any member of the group can point to the contract and say, “Your actions are not in keeping with our social contract.”
Forging shared contracts is a process. Inevitably, regressions and failures occur along the way. If adults pay attention to these moments, they become opportunities to learn and reflect on how individual actions not only affect, but also create our communities. If the process is upheld and reinforced by community leaders, it’s easy to manage the difficulties that do arise as we all re-member (become members again in) our commitment to our hopes and dreams. As a leader, teacher, and parent, I need to model this behavior if I have any hope of teaching it. I have to subject myself to the same scrutiny I place on those around me. I embrace this difficult task because it makes me a better person – more humble, more aware. Isn’t this what we ask of our children?