Youth on violence: Re-learn what it means to fix things

Ads, punishment no match for a friend

August 12, 2012 

Jenny Lee

We live in an age when broken things are no longer fixed. Instead of understanding our problems, we punish them for existing. Instead of searching for solutions, we merely throw money at our issues and hope that they'll go away. But if there's anything we've learned from our past attempts at stopping crime and violence among teenagers, it's that we have to re-learn what it means to fix things.

It's easy to start with the methods that don't work. Take anti-bullying campaigns. While movements like Do Something are undoubtedly launched with good intentions, encouraging posters or heartstring-tugging videos will not solve bullying and gang activity, because no poster or video truly hits the matter at hand. Instead of focusing on the causes of these teenage problems, they merely deal with the side effects by pushing kids to "ban hate speech" at school, or by offering incentives to those who stand up for a fellow student.

Take another example: harsher punishments. Though it's logical to assume that penalizing teens for their bad deeds would result in better behavior, trends in criminal activity beg to differ. Oftentimes, punishment doesn't result in teens wanting to change their ways for the better — merely to change them so as to not get caught again. Like anti-bullying campaigns, punishments concentrate on a symptom, not the real issue.

So, what exactly is this real issue? It's not hate speech, or gang fights, or any matter of crime at all — it's the teenager. Kids who resort to crime and violence do so because criminal communities give them a network of support that they wouldn't otherwise find from their classmates or family members, whether that means bullying to create fear and gain power over peers, or stealing and fighting to gain acceptance from a delinquent group. The root of the problem is simply that these troubled teenagers feel as though they have no other options.

Such kids need to be shown that society cares for them, and not just as a crime statistic. The teenagers who are engaging in crime and violence are troubled; they need people in their lives who truly think about their well-being without acting condescending or criticizing. To put it in straightforward terms, these kids need a real friend — one who can serve as a relatable role model.

Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters have seen immense success steering potentially at-risk children in the right direction through one-on-one mentoring. Adult volunteers become "big siblings" to underprivileged kids, guiding them through tough choices, showing up at baseball games — even just having a conversation with them.

Not only do these kinds of mentoring programs work to lead kids down a better road, they also build lasting relationships based on an inspiration that can't be replicated in an anti-violence video.

This kind of program doesn't have to have an official Web site to work. A few years ago, Henry Clay High School launched the Equity in Advanced Placement program.

The program recruits upper-class volunteers to serve as mentors to underprivileged younger students. These mentors meet with their kids every week, not only to help with schoolwork, but also to set an example. As a mentor, I was able to form friendships with two disadvantaged teenagers. The hundreds of hours we spent together not only encouraged them to seek bigger challenges in education, but to also seek bigger pathways in life.

One-on-one mentoring is the only way troubled teenagers can truly receive the attention they need to get their lives going in the right direction. Through a national organization or a school initiative, these kids need the encouragement and understanding that come in the form of a human being who actually cares.

This age of not fixing things came about because we evolved; we found easier ways to replace our broken toys. Among the excitement and buzz of the newest and the latest everything, however, remains the fairly uncomplicated solution of genuine communication.

Perhaps one day, when we're done trying to buy off or scare away teen crime and violence, we'll remember that communication might be the way to actually fix things.

Jenny Lee, 18, graduated from Henry Clay High School this spring and will be a freshman at the University of Chicago this fall.

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