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Richard Kyte: Let's stop teaching our kids that the future is bleak

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

Talking with teachers about the beginning of the school year has me feeling optimistic. Everyone I talk to reports their students are energized, eager and motivated. This is a welcome change from the way students have been feeling for the past couple of years.

This is partly due to simple relief as pandemic restrictions ease, but it is also a testament to the resiliency of youth. Most young people are inclined toward exuberance; it is good to see their natural enthusiasm returning.

I worry, however, that the next few months may dim that enthusiasm. After all, they will be spending time in the company of adults tasked with directing their attention, and too many adults right now are preoccupied with all that is wrong with the world.

The other day a father told me that his 9-year-old son learned in school that life expectancy was declining for the first time in history.

There are two problems with this: first, it is false; second, it places an unnecessary burden on the child.

The statistics show a decline in life expectancy in the United States from 79 years in 2019 to 77 years in 2021. That is the steepest decline in the past 100 years; it is also the sort of thing that happens during pandemics. The expected lifespan dropped from 54 to 47 years in 1918 due to the Spanish flu, but by 1925 it had risen to 58 years. The simple truth is, life expectancy sometimes goes down for a short period of time, but overall it continues to rise. Why aren’t we teaching our children that?

To tell kids only the bad news and not to put that news in the context of the good things happening in the world is to place a tremendous burden on them. It creates the impression that things are getting worse and worse. That’s a terrible thing to do to a child who is coming of age right now.

There is a widely known Bob Newhart skit in which he plays a therapist who specializes in five-minute sessions. When a patient begins to describe how her behavior is causing distress, he shouts, “Stop it!”

That’s what I want to say to adults who think they must continually give our youth a dose of so-called “realism.” Stop it.

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Stop telling kids that elections are rigged. Stop telling kids the Supreme Court is taking away their rights. Stop telling kids their schools are failing. Stop telling kids the world will end if we don’t stop a pipeline or get our candidate elected. For too many young people, the message they take away is that the troubles they face are insurmountable.

Instead, we need to be intentional about teaching young people how to participate meaningfully in their communities: how to think independently, how to work collaboratively, how to communicate clearly, how to build, support, and reform when needed. We need to teach them how to be citizens instead of victims.

Our kids don’t need “realism.” They need a path forward. They need practical instruction in how to make things work. Most of all, they need hope.

The problem with realism is that it isn’t real. It is a projection of our fears onto others. It not only paints an inaccurate picture of what the world is like, it induces apathy and despair. It makes many young people less motivated to effectively address the problems they will encounter in their lives.

Evidence of our tendency to exaggerate what’s wrong with the world can be seen in Gallup’s annual State of the Nation report. What stands out is that 69% of Americans are very or somewhat satisfied with their overall quality of life, yet their satisfaction with every specific aspect of life and every government policy is considerably lower.

How can most people be satisfied with their lives and yet think that everyone and everything around them is terrible? We have become a nation of whiners, blamers and complainers. (And yes, I know. I’m complaining about it.)

Young people are hearing two messages over and over again from the most vocal among us: Things are getting worse, and it is because our institutions are broken.

Both messages are pernicious falsehoods. The facts are that the world is getting better in most significant respects because our institutions are doing what they are designed to do.

Our schools and universities, health care organizations, research centers, industries and governments are effectively increasing prosperity, health, education and equality. Not only is life expectancy way up, but extreme poverty has declined dramatically, literacy has vastly increased, major diseases have been eliminated or greatly reduced, infant mortality is down, and violent death has been declining steadily.

Sure, there are problems. Young people coming of age today will face significant challenges posed by climate change, water shortages, the uncertainties of artificial intelligence and an ongoing nuclear threat.

The question is: How do we best prepare them to face those challenges? It is not by repeatedly complaining about how bad things are.

We prepare our young people by telling them the truth — that human beings are extraordinarily good at fixing problems when we work together.

The truth is that the best time to be alive is now. The best time is always now.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

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