In my creative writing class, with the lovely Melanie Schnell (review of her novel here!), we’ve discussed “character as desire.” The big idea: a well written character has a deep, driving desire. This influences every action, every thought. However, the desire may be abstract. For instance, they may desire “self-respect,” but you won’t see them walking around saying that. Instead you’ll see them trying to reach short term goals, like winning a football game, or learning a new skill, or repairing a damaged relationship. How they express their desire will change with the situation, but they’re always driven by that deep goal.
This concept of “character as desire” has helped me to resolve a conflict I’ve been struggling with for almost a decade.
My opinion since I started teaching youth (circa 2006):
- “Wherever I go, kids are all unique individuals, but for the most part, they’re more similar than they are different. I really doubt they’re that different than kids have always been.”
Every demagogue/ letter-to-the-editor writer ever:
- “Kids these days! What punks! What rapscallions!”
- “Back in my day, kids respected their elders!”
- “Generation X (or Y, or Z, or Millennials, or Hipsters, or whatever) are the worst generation yet! They’re completely morally corrupt! They can’t even sign their name in cursive writing!”
To the authors of these ideas:
- Who raised the generation you despise? Was it you? Should you take some blame here?
- If you shouted less (the exclamation marks above are not exaggerations) I’d be more likely to respect, rather than dismiss, your opinion.
Some examples of the corruption of youth throughout the ages:
So who’s right? Have we as a species been devolving, generation after generation, for millennia? Are the most recent generations truly the worst yet? Or are kids still kids as they’ve always been?
My latest theory is that these view points are all true, but at different levels:
- The deep desires, the underlying aspects of being a child, haven’t changed. Youth still want:
- To test boundaries
- To be with their friends
- To have social acceptance
- To make a difference
- Youth meet these goals in new ways as our society changes and as their situations change.
It comes back to “character as desire.” The character of youth hasn’t changed – the expression of their desires does change with time. To preceding generations, these new expressions may appear morally decrepit.
Sext Up Kids
I chose to watch this documentary for class (one of two options). While watching it, I came to the above realization. You wanted proof of cross-curricular thinking being beneficial? This is it.
Youth still have the same underlying, deep desires. The way they try to meet those desires has changed. As the documentary points out, access to pornography is up, sexualization of youth is a reality, and there are disturbing trends towards sexual violence in youth. So what’s our solution?
Adults, including in Sext Up Kids, focus in on the elements of youth culture that they find most disturbing, most shocking. For these elements, they attack youth (with the best intentions!) decrying the generation. They ask things like:
- “How could you even think to send a photo like that!?”
- “Why would say that to a girl?”
- “Do you have no respect? Did I teach you nothing?!”
I call this shock therapy. It has nothing to do with electricity. Adults think that by focusing in on the elements that they find most shocking, they will be able to change the behaviour of youth. As one teacher in the documentary lamented, kids are desensitized to sexual imagery – they aren’t shocked by it at all (unlike, presumably, he is).
Why Shock Therapy Fails
When adults focus on the “shocking” elements of culture, they are thinking about the way their own generations expressed desire, at a surface level. Recall those deep desires of youth, the ones that haven’t changed in generations. Those still need to be addressed in today’s youth. The current generation doesn’t respond in the way their parents did because they live in a different time, and so their desires manifest in unique ways. We can’t tell stories from our own youth and expect children to relate to them perfectly – their world is different. Our stories are disconnected from their reality.
An Epidemic of the Soul
The discussion around the sexualization of youth culture is deeply tied to generational moral perspectives. Many adults can’t accept the level of youth porn use, or sexting, or sexual desire because they view it as morally corrupt. This is an ineffective way to communicate and influence youth behaviour. We can’t present moral arguments, because morals change.
This is not to say that the sexualization of youth isn’t a problem – it is. Issues are developing, including sexual violence, child exploitation, and poor social development. However, to effectively address these challenges, we need to change our approach. Instead of attacking sexualization as morally unacceptable, we need to remove stigma, and open ourselves to meaningful conversations about sex and sexuality with youth. We need to address their deep desires, the ones with which youth have always struggled. We need to change our language, away from shock and revulsion, and towards acceptance and support. Overall, we need to remember: our goal is not to make youth into clones of ourselves. Our goal is to help them grow and thrive in the world we’ve left them.