By Kristina Hulvershorn
Ask anyone who works with children and they will tell you how deeply children seek and argue for what is “fair” and “right.” That’s why my heart skipped a beat when I learned that recent research supports this common observation. Dr. Heather Ramey and Dr. Heather Lawford study “generativity.” Generativity is a term used to describe people’s concern for future generations, and what these two researchers have found supports what youth workers have known all along:
Our research shows that young people between the ages of 14 and 29 show levels of generative motivation that are as high or even higher than adults’. Early generativity is also associated with caring friendships, community involvement, and healthy identity development in adolescence and young adulthood. So not only are young people interested and capable of caring for future generations but doing so is likely good for them.
Yes! Kids really are so in touch with their concern for others! As I thought about this, I was brought back to a fourth-grade classroom in Chicago where I was introducing the concept of a Circle of Compassion. I was trying to illustrate that typically as we get older, we learn about different animals, places, and people, and our compassion deepens, meaning that our Circle of Compassion often grows wider. But a savvy student said, “I don’t know. I think when people get older, they stop caring about things and really seem to only care about work and paying the bills.” Her insight was like a splash of cold water in my face.
Aside from the obvious pressures on adults as they become caretakers and financially responsible for families, something tugged at me. It was my own experience of that passion as an adolescent. I continue to light a candle by the memory of the fire that burned so brightly back then. That fire was my deep concern for our planet and everyone we share it with. It’s not that I don’t care deeply now, but at that time, I could feel the injustices with every fiber of my being, and the well of motivation to act seemed endless.
Looking back on various successes and failures involving initiatives through which I have tried to leverage youth leaders and youth voices, the problems usually weren’t a matter of perspective or passion. They were more often related to the need to acquaint youth with adult systems and conversational rules of engagement so that their voices could be heard. It’s so easy to dismiss young people for not caring or not following through when we fail to see all of the ways adults gatekeep youth out of spaces where their perspectives are needed the most.
Youth are so much less limited in their imaginations than their adult counterparts…they have so much less to “unlearn” that they can often see things that we cannot. I am familiar with the trope of the ignorance of youth and the notion that young people can’t understand the complexities of society or of adulthood. Perhaps we could all stand to unwind the complexities of our worldview to tap back into our youthful generative concern. Among the many causes passionately taken up by today’s young people, we have witnessed Climate Strike youth urging world leaders to transition to renewable energy sources rather than continue to invest in fossil fuels; millions of people flooding the streets and taking a stand against institutional oppression; and an explosion in the demand for plant-based products from the growing number of individuals who are beginning to understand the way animals are exploited for food.
If Drs. Ramey and Lawford’s research is indicative and youth are in fact simply more in tune with what is “right” and “just,” perhaps we should do more than pay lip service to the wisdom youth provide. Perhaps we should extend to the youth in our spheres a seat at the table, an open ear, and an open mind every chance we get.