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Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Kids these days

Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Kids these days
Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Kids these days

By Jess Hill, Head of School

Jess Hill, Head of School

How often do we hear these words? “Kids these days!” I remember hearing that phrase from my parents about my generation, and I am quite sure my children would say they have heard something similar said about them. The song from the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” comes to mind. In 1963, Broadway actors were singing, “Kids! What’s the matter with kids today? Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”

Across the decades, the older — and seemingly wiser — of us can often look at the younger generation with a tinge of reproach. It is easy for adults to forget what we were like when we were pre-teens or teens. According to New York Times-bestselling author and University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology Adam Grant, “We make the mistake of comparing kids to our current traits — forgetting what we were like at their age — and comparing their limitations to our strengths.”

One of the most sobering realizations from a rose-colored memory of my youth was when I discovered a box of old report cards in my mother’s house. That chemistry grade wasn’t quite as I remembered it, and neither was my overall GPA, for that matter. It seems I subconsciously chose to block the challenges of balancing equations and Bunsen burners from my mind. I can only guess what other struggles from that age I have decided to forget or paint more pleasantly than they actually were. We always think our memories are accurate until confronted with the documentation of our own self-deception. 

An abstract from a scientific study published in “Science Advances” suggests that adults tend to judge the younger generation more harshly on a trait in which those adults excel. For example, the study says, “Authoritarian people especially think youth are less respectful of their elders, intelligent people especially think youth are less intelligent, and well-read people especially think youth enjoy reading less.” In addition to these categories, kids today are portrayed as lacking empathy. Adults often hold social media and the dwindling personal interaction that results from teen screen time accountable for the absence of understanding and sensitivity. We can forget that kids today didn’t invite smartphones and social media. Someone handed it to them. 

Though repeating the “Bye Bye Birdie” refrain can be easy, my experiences with our girls show evidence to the contrary. While certainly still learning and growing, our students are incredibly thoughtful of each other and careful to imagine a situation from another person’s view.

A couple of weeks ago, I popped into a meeting of our students’ Sign Language Club during community time. The club’s student leaders were incredibly thoughtful in their approach to educating classmates about sign language and lip reading as primary forms of communication for a person who is deaf. This was the club's second meeting, and the students were paired and began practicing signing their names in American Sign Language. They also watched the beautiful performance by Justina Miles, which went viral after her spirited sign language interpretation of Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show. Perhaps most impressive was the club’s last activity. The girls dedicated the rest of their time to writing a statement of respect for how they would embark on their journey to learn American Sign Language. They wanted to be careful to honor those individuals who are hard of hearing or deaf and pledge to remain sensitive to their experience. 

Kids today experience school and learning in new ways. It looks and feels different than it did in our day — which is a good thing. Our girls learn to dig, research, and investigate instead of waiting to have the information handed to them. A great example would be the independence and responsibility amplified through our seniors’ global scholar capstone projects. The final products are as varied as each girl’s mind. From making a presentation about fossil fuel divestment to the investment committee of the Harpeth Hall Board of Trustees to examining global literacy to discovering the true price of fast fashion during Winterim and school clubs — our students reveal their inquisitiveness and desire to learn through self-directed inquiry and discovery. 

In my day, the kind of empathy, respect, and kindness shown in the signing club would not have occurred to my peers or to me. Our students put themselves in other people’s proverbial shoes quite naturally. In my day, multiple choice ruled the day of academic assessments instead of the open-ended question beginning with “why.” Gaining understanding of another person’s experience and the intrinsic pursuit of knowledge represent the highest form of respect and the greatest expression of intelligence. So, I don’t worry about kids these days not being as good as we were – they have far surpassed that mark on many levels.