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AT RISK By John Kinmonth

Despair over the next generation isn’t new. Forget about the ’60s. Try the 660s—B.C.
Ancient Greek poet Hesiod was certainly worried:

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words ... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

Socrates echoed a familiar sentiment:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs and are tyrants over their teachers.”

And neither of them even had the pleasure of watching kids deal with social pressures such as SAT exams, pharmaceutical drug use and online bullying. While Socrates was worried about his generation “gobbling up dainties,” today’s parents worry about oxycontin addiction and sexual predators.

It’s enough to make you punch a hole in your papyrus.

As a teacher at Mercer Island’s alternative school, Crest Learning Center, Patrick Rigby works regularly with troubled teens.

While the term “at risk” conjures visions of gang membership and teen violence, Rigby said it’s left deliberately vague to encompass a range of issues—from the mild to severe.

“At-risk kids can range from ‘I struggle with learning in a typical class’ or ‘I have a general dislike of school’ to mental health issues or full-blown drug use,” he said. “Basically, kids are at risk for not accomplishing their own goals.”

Rigby fiercely resisted the notion of bad apples.

“It’s not an ingrained badness. Whether it’s a death in the family, a divorce, an emotionally or physically vacant parent, most of these kids have some sort of event in their life that they haven’t been able to get past,” he said.

And wealth is not an insulator against these events.

“Occasionally, we’ll see students who come from incredibly wealthy families, but both mom and dad are career driven and that kid doesn’t get quality time with either,” he said. “It’s a toxic environment with lots of money.”

Besides family issues, academic expectations can play a large role in youth stress levels. The competitive track to get into a prestigious university can start all the way into grade school—and the pressure doesn’t ease off through high school.

“The kids are stressed. I hear it so often,” Rigby said. “They say ‘I’m so stressed because of the pressure that’s put on me about grades and success that I just can’t get the stuff done.’

“I don’t think this is just an at-risk issue,” he said. “The pressures of success from an upper-middle class often drive perpetually stable kids into inability, or potentially risky behavior as a result of self-doubt and not meeting expectations.”

How can parents help their children avoid behaviors and attitudes considered at risk? Rigby recommended building relationships based on relevance and respect.

“If you can build a relationship, make your conversations relevant and show them respect—it’s going to go a long way toward them accomplishing their goals,” he said.

While the family dinner is an old-fashioned concept in an age of after-school activities and takeout, creating family time is an important resiliency factor for kids.

“Kids often feel that they’re never listened to. Have conversations at dinner, even if it’s takeout—who cares if you made it or not? It’s about engagement,” Rigby said. “Talk to your kids about the positive things you do at work. Show your kids that you love something.”

Although popular perception fed by alarming media reports assert that kids are getting worse, Rigby said that kids may actually be better off today than they were just 15 years ago.

“In general, compared to kids of the mid-90s, risky decisions are lower and relationships with parents and guardians are better,” he said.

Rigby suggested tuning the radio to the popular stations as an indicator of kids’ attitudes. If the ’90s grunge music reflected the angst-filled teenage attitude of the day, then today’s kids are mostly excited to just dance.

“The mainstream pop music is happier, and kids are too,” he said.

Rigby said today’s kids are also more accepting of differences than previous generations.
“They enjoy so many types of music, food and culture, and they seem to be especially tolerant of differences.”

Regarding avoiding at-risk behavior, Rigby’s last recommendation may go against the grain for most parents worried about their child’s future.

“Allow room for failure,” he said. “The time to make mistakes is in middle school and high school when the overall life consequences tend to be beneficial in the long run. If there was ever a better time to fail than in middle school, I don’t know when it is.”

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