We are constantly reminded that today’s youth face an epidemic of bullying and violence. This sad state is true and universal--from the Midwest to the coasts, from urban to suburban neighborhoods. But, unbalanced negative portrayals breed despair and pessimism. Negative images, movies, and music seem predominate in entertainment consumed by adults and youth, and social networks spread these messages even further. This overwhelming negativism needs to stop and the spotlight should shift to the hope, strength and leadership that actually exist in communities across this city and country.
This was the wise message from youth at the recent “Youth Violence Prevention Town Hall” hosted by WURD-AM, an all-black talk radio station, and sponsored by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Violence Prevention Initiative. These youths have emerged from backgrounds filled with exposure to violence to become positive leaders and role models. They teach us universal messages about how adults can better support our kids, by their own actions and what they teach their children and students.
"Parents need to tighten up!”
One of the youth participants wished his parents had provided him with more structure and support. He mentioned that sometimes he just tells his mom to “tighten up.” He also reflected that his parents had difficult childhoods and may not have the skills to provide this support. Programs that teach or reinforce positive parenting skills (how to reward and encourage non-violent behavior and provide appropriate consequences for bad behavior) might work. One youth panelist said that “children are having children,” so they do not have the time or role models to help develop these skills.
And parents, whether or not your children are at high risk of violence, they all want your attention. As one panelist said, “I just wanted time with my father when he came around, not the material stuff.”
“Give us something positive to do or to model.”
Panelists suggested we elevate the positive stories of youth who do not succumb to the powerful pull of violence and drugs. They said youth create “superheroes” of the bad kids because their negative actions receive the most attention from the media and others. Instead, we need to make superstars of the students that do well in school and do the right thing. “All we see is bad stuff in the hood, and we feel trapped.”
With two young musicians on the panel, the role of hip hop music came up. They felt that musical artists needed to be responsible for their words. If musicians want to influence pop culture, make it a positive influence. Perhaps they should focus their words and video cameras on the good things happening and help make non-violent behavior the standard of what is cool. Parents can take a role in monitoring what youth are listening to and engage in discussions about the stereotypes and negative portrayals that fuel a culture of hate and violence.
One panelist said that too many adults speak down to black male youth, in particular -- “like we’re going steal something, and it can take you over the edge sometimes.” They said that the media’s portrayal of black male youth is partly to blame. Parents can set an example for their children by giving all youth respect and watching for and not tolerating prejudices.
The media and other voices in the community could make the time to discover the positive stories-- the ones you don’t hear over the police radio. Parents and teachers can make an effort to find these stories and to share them with their children and students.
Give youth a chance, even after they have made some poor choices.
One panelist was 21 years old. Between ages 12 and 19, he was in and out of prison and has two felonies on his record. In prison, he worked hard to complete his GED. Once out of prison, his relationship with a Philadelphia Cease Fire mentor helped him to break his cycle of violence. He now has a job at Temple University, has a creative outlet as an R&B artist, and is devoted to raising his child.
All adults need to recall their own youth and the mistakes that they made. Maturity and brain development, mixed with a caring, involved adult, helped many of us overcome our pasts and become successful, productive citizens. All youth need a second chance (or a third or fourth chance…) to achieve their full potential.
Early on in the town hall, we decided to rename this event “We Love Our Youth Town Hall.” Demonstrate that love by taking time to listen to and support the children and youth around you. Guide them toward positive actions and celebrate those actions, including good grades, sportsmanship, volunteering, creativity, and more.