North Country kids are all right (really)

Monique Cornett in Lac Megantic Quebec.  Photo:  Brian Mann

Monique Cornett in Lac Megantic Quebec. Photo: Brian Mann

Generally speaking, I think Americans these days are trapped in a pretty ridiculous cycle of unwarranted nihilism and sheer grumpiness.

Whether we believe that climate change is going to incinerate the planet tomorrow (it’s not) or that Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ (he’s not) or that Common Core is a pact with the devil (it’s really not) we pretty much always keep our outrage dialed up to 11.

Nowhere is this dudgeon less warranted than our constant, bitter hand-wringing over young people.

I read essay after essay lamenting the imminent implosion of America’s youth, either because they’re lazy and feckless or because we adults somehow haven’t gift-wrapped a world suitably packed with boundless opportunity.

Just yesterday, I heard an hour-long discussion on NCPR of a new book that portrays America’s best, brightest and most ambitious college students as “excellent sheep.”

The last few months, I’ve had an opportunity — kind of rare for me — to spend a ton of time with young people.  I traveled over the summer to Lac Megantic, Quebec, with one of NCPR’s interns, Monique Cornett, who grew up in Potsdam.  I co-hosted a training workshop for young journalists at the Blue Mountain Center in Blue Mountain Lake.

And just this week, I had the opportunity interview Caroline Dodd, a Saranac Lake High School senior who took part in the United Nations climate summit in New York City.

Here are my takeaways.  First, this next generation of young people haven’t been brain-wiped by too much technology.  They’re not so addicted to texting that they can’t think.  They’re not lazy or depressed or hopeless.  They don’t appear to me to have been coddled or packed ear-to-ear with irony or ennui.  They have attention spans and they read books.

Surveys suggest that, yes, there is real concern among young people about the job market, about student loans, and about bigger issues like the environment and climate.  But every generation faces hurdles and speed bumps.

My second big take-away is that by and large these human beings are perfectly equipped to deal with the sharp corners and slippery patches of life.  Monique dove in with me on a brutally tough assignment, working through technical problems, rolling with confusion and uncertainty, and finding ways to make things work.

Caroline Dodd at the United Nations in New York City.  Photo provided

Caroline Dodd at the United Nations in New York City. Photo provided

Here’s what she wrote after our trip:  “There is nothing stopping you at any given time from making something: whether it is using your body to dance, your hands to sculpt, or your voice to sing. You can create things. Whatever your passion is, there is a huge chance you don’t need a title or paycheck to continue creating something. For me, this means there will always be stories to tell and people to learn about.”

I got a similar sense from Caroline Dodd, listening to her take on one of the world’s biggest challenges, climate change.  She had a far more level-headed, grounded sense of the opportunities and the limitations on our collective response to global warming than I hear from most activists twice her age.  “It’s kind of a small world and we’re all in this fight together,” she said.

And the young journalists we hosted in Blue Mountain Center were deeply ethical, intellectually curious, and full of the kind of Pabst and vinegar you want to hear in people under the age of 30.  These folks didn’t need or want anything gift-wrapped.

So here’s the deal.  Yes, our kids spend more time on their smart phones and less time in the woods.  Yes, they can be irritating as hell.  Yes, they have habits that make us cringe, like Monique’s fondness for dill pickle-flavored sunflower seeds.  (Why is that even a thing?).

But really it’s another symptom of our own collective “Get Off My Lawn-ism” that we see these young people as anything other than another turn in what I like to think of as the endless cycle of us.

For some reason, I’m reminded of Fitzgerald’s famous line.  “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  Only in this case, they’re rowing ceaselessly forward into the future, facing some tough currents, and looking pretty strong and confident as they go.

So here’s my challenge to In Box readers.  Instead of debating this in the abstract, share one specific story (no need for names) about a young person in your life.  How are they doing?  Are they making you proud?  Frustrating you?  Exceeding expectations?  Still lost in the tall grass?Comments and stories welcome below.


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25 Comments on “North Country kids are all right (really)”

  1. Just to clarify: hand-wringing about the horribleness of youth is hardly unique to America or to modern times. Pretty much every adult generation whines about youth, as their parents whined about them.

    “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” -Socrates

  2. Brian Mann says:

    Yeah, it’s true. We’ve been tsking about the young’uns forever…

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. Susan Sweeney Smith says:

    I have raised 4 boys ranging in age from 12 to 28 — all have caused some degree of teeth gnashing and boundless worry at some point in their development. They have all, each and every one, made me proud in ways I never anticipated – and mostly because of the kind of people they are…. thoughtful. concerned about others, willing to volunteer, good to animals, always putting a $ or more in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas. They are not perfect and all have struggled to find meaningful work and some have struggled with health issues. We have always been “the house” where kids gather so I know their friends fairly well also.

    My conclusion – they are doing just fine. We are letting them down by not offering adequate job opportunities and forcing everyone into the college funnel but by and large they are good people, trying to be better and all adding to the betterment of the world.

    I read all the handwringing and complaining articles as well and wonder if our North Country kids are unique because of their environment or it others are just seeing the negative.

    I know it first hand from too many pizzas at my kitchen table — these ‘kids’ are fine.

  4. Elaine says:

    I took a 13-year old to dinner last night. She wanted to chat about the essay she’s writing for U.S. History class:

    “My topic is the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798. Most people are writing about the “Salem Witch Trials” but I thought the Alien and Sedition Act was a lot more scary. That Act was really really scary, Grandmom, and it keeps coming back.”

    I think the future will be safe under the watchful eyes of this child.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    I have two adult kids in that generation. Im not going to get too specific for privacy reasons. In general they and their “crowd” are doing amazing things. Many are idealistic, responsible and with their heads on straight. My impression is that this generation is pretty special. That said, many of the younger and/or less educated members are having a rough time with the economy. Some are living at home in their parent’s basements (or their old bedrooms). Its a cliche but true. Others moved to the South for low-wage low cost of living opportunities – bartending or parking cars. Hopefully things will work out.

    It seems to me that the economy (and luck) has pushed them into two camps. In one group the young people have found “careers”. They live in cities, get married, work long hours but get paid well. They are starting to have children. Balancing family and career is challenging. They need childcare support.

    The other group is just getting by financially. Some are doing things they love – outdoor adventures – farming – art – starting small businesses. Others are just getting by. These kids aren’t getting married because they cant afford it yet. If they do have children, they don’t get married because they need health care. These “kids” need national health care and better government support for education at all levels so they can afford to get married and raise families. Obamacare should help.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    I’m far more likely to whine about adults than kids. I mean, kids haven’t created any of the messes we created, messes we want them to fix for us.

  7. Two Cents says:

    off topic:
    is anyone else finding it difficult to read dark blue text on a forest green background?

  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Is there something about Fall that makes Brian M want to prop up straw men?
    Of course In Box readers are going to have stories about intelligent, talented, caring and thoughtful children they know (their own. Hell, my own kids are polite, well educated, hard working,talented, attractive blah,blah,blah. Of course they are, they inherited my genetics. It reminds me though of Carl Friedrich Gauss who forbid his children from entering fields of science or mathematics for fear of diminishing his own name if they didn’t measure up).

    It has been my contention for some time that kids are much better today than they were when I was a kid, but I do believe there is something to the idea that helicopter parenting, while fostering many very lovely people, has created many children who are at once very mature and quite immature.

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Now for Nihilism. Why do you treat such a beautiful principle negatively?

  10. Brian Mann says:

    Knucklehead, I can do straw men any time of year. I resent the suggestion that I’m limited to autumn. Enough with your vicious ad hominem attacks!

    –Brian, NCPR

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Hah! “Autumn.” Latinate! There is nothing wrong with good Anglo-Saxon “Fall.”

    But, seriously, the discussion on NPR centered around the admissions policies at Ivy League schools and how parents, mostly of a certain social/economic class, have been raising children from a young age to “game” the college admissions system; building resumes rather than having real experiences, or even packing their children’s lives with so many activities that they have no time to be kids. I think we have less exposure to that sort of thing in the NC. Still, there is a competition and it does affect people here. Small numbers of parents send their kids to private schools and many others select the town they live in in order to be in a better school district – one that has lots of AP classes, sports teams, arts education…

    Does it make a difference in outcomes? You bet. But I think what the author was speaking of is subtler. While I do think that kids are worldly today, more empathetic and tolerant, there does seem to be a sense of loss or emptiness among some kids, un-sureness. And others seem like the captains of the debate team who can rip you to shreds with facts and logic on either side of an argument and they can talk about measuring metrics and analyzing data and they’ve skied in Switzerland, kayaked the Amazon but are just as lost in the world as any of the rest of us dumb hicks a generation before and they never got to lay on their back and watch clouds. And watching clouds is good for your soul – at least that is what the best nihilists will tell you; meaningless, of course, but good for you.

  12. Twocents: I hate the gray background and blue links format of the main blogs page.

  13. Will Doolittle says:

    Aren’t proliferating proud stories of excellent young people exactly the problem some of these essayists (Deresiewicz) are trying to get at? Circumstances change, so kids change, but what doesn’t change are our essential characteristics, such as the urge of older folks to wring their hands over the urges of younger folks. The kids of the ’60s and ’70s were crazy, the kids now aren’t crazy enough. We will probably fret over their conformity right up until they start rebelling in large numbers, then we’ll really start fretting.

  14. Brian Mann says:

    KHL –

    I think the premise of this guy’s book is kind of bunkum. Kids at the top schools in the US are snooty and pampered and high-strung and Type-A and expected to be thoroughbred over-achievers. Yes. Some of them are conformist. Yes. It’s classic hand-wringing nonsense about a pattern that has existed since the creation of Harvard and Princeton.

    Meanwhile, have you ever met and worked with a young person from one of these top schools. I have. They’re mostly pretty great, well-rounded, ambitious, intellectually curious people.

    –Brian, NCPR

  15. Will Doolittle says:

    Actually, that (thoroughbred overachievers) is not the pattern that has existed at places like Harvard and Princeton since their creation. For decades, the elite schools were the haunts of the financial and social elites, not the brainiacs and athletes and top violinists of today. For decades, it took the right name, not the right resume, to get into those places. That still is the case, although to a lesser extent. The rich and privileged and not terribly clever or skilled still get into elite schools. But at least they’re not the only ones there now.

  16. seszoo says:

    Good article on today’s kids / young adults . Raised 3, now young 20s to mid 30s and am proud of them all . I find them to to be more like we were in the 60s and 70s ,as questioning and creative ,but not quite as naive as we were about the world . I have a lot of hope for our future with the young ones of today , as long as the older generation doesn’t blow everything to pieces before they straighten out the mess. These young folks haven’t had the luxury of traditional jobs ,which is why they have to be creative with a lot of different tools at their disposal than we had , which is where the next to be traditional jobs will come from. There’s a lot of problems out there ,but when wasn’t there ? Especially up here in the North Country, but they’re up to the challenge and actually go after them . I think all in all though we’re in good hands ,sure mistakes will be made .It’s their time now, not mine anymore …Good article Brian , with all the negatives going on in the world ,we need to think about the positives going on too , the majority of which is our young folks ,most that will never make the news ,but will continue on doing what it takes .

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I haven’t read the guy’s book, but I did hear the call in. I’m not sure he’s saying the things you credit to him.
    My take was that he is decrying the loss that children suffer when their whole childhood is spent more in resume building and achievement orientation than in “character building” activities where children fail. Of course, with the highest achievers maybe they just don’t fail. I don’t know what that is like, I’ve spent a lot of time failing at stuff.

    Recently I/we asked a high school girl, daughter of some friends, to do some work for me a few hours a week – odd jobs but stuff that has some value as learning experience. She came over after school one day for a trail run to see if the situation worked for each of us. Her parents are both high achievers, professionals with good paying jobs and she goes to a good school. She was smart, helpful, willing to learn and take instruction and she seemed to enjoy the work. I offered her a regular gig for a few hours a week on her schedule and she accepted. But when I asked about her schedule I found she had so little time between, school, piano instruction, volunteering, and other activities I had to ask her when she had time to just sit around and relax. Every minute of most of her days was scheduled and she was willing – no, happy, to schedule away the remaining few hours.
    So, yes, she is a great kid and she will do well in the world. But I can’t help feeling there is something lost in not having time to just be a kid.

    And then there is the other side of the coin, all the kids who don’t have the sort of high achiever advantages.

    Also, we are seeing a revival of the simple things in life, a new back to the earth movement, DIY hipsters — I see that movement as a reaction to the achievement society that has been forced on so many kids whose parents want them to get in the best schools, who dont want them to skin their knees, who dont want them to feel the pain of failure at any step. I saw a young kid in a hardware store looking at a bin of screws and his father said ‘don’t touch those they’re sharp.” Jeezum crow, let the kid prick his finger once, he’s not Sleeping Beauty.

  18. PirateEdwardLow says:

    First of all.

    NO WAY can you assess the future of the world with an interview of one person or a handful of students that were not random, but in a certain demographic that does not represent all students. Forget about sample size or demographics, which at the very least with that one student high school student, with a handful of others is problematic, but the future of the world, with a few young people… with any student really… you would suggest you can predict the future?

    You could predict the future with a ground hog, I guess, but with accuracy ?

    I don’t want to tell you that is insane, but I have to tell you that is insane… and quite frankly puts you on a plank that has no return possibilities. Then to base a theory upon this?

    Here is one student: “I think pot should be legal, for all ages.”

    Spoken by a 17 – year – old.. the future is in a good roach clip

  19. The Original Larry says:

    Sounds a lot like Lake Wobegon “where…all the children are above average.” It’s a natural instinct to love one’s children and I dont argue with the well-deserved pride people have in their children and themselves. But I wonder to whom the 300 lb. teenage girls pushing strollers through Wal-Mart belong? How about their “fiancees” who look as if they haven’t had a clean T-shirt since they got out of jail? Who claims the 45 year old great-grandmothers who preside over three generations that don’t have a single job among them? Before we take that deep sigh of relief and get back to the intracacies of the Alien & Sedition Acts, let’s not forget that all the kids are not all right.

  20. seszoo says:

    To KHL The last line of your post summed up alot of what I see has been wrong with the kids ,the over protection, The kids need to run,get dirty ,fall , skin their knees and elbows , touch something sharp or hot (though not too sharp ) and prick their fingers ,That’s how they learn consequences ,I think a lot have been so over protected and have had their lives run ,as you said with the schedules that most have not an idea of exactly what childhood actually is ,

  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    And if they don’t know what childhood is how are they supposed to know about what adulthood is?

  22. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Brian Mann, if you want to understand what being an Excellent Sheep is, listen to the story on This American Life this week about former Fed examiner Carmen Segarra.

  23. Mervel says:

    I think children are fine and indeed are progressing well compared to older generations. They are certainly making better choices when it comes to things like drugs, alcohol and sex, than previous generations. I think they have a greater sense of morality than my generation did.

    However; we have some deep issues even in the north country between the top 25% and the bottom 25% academically and economically of our kids; which seems to be getting larger. The issue is we have a deep poverty problem among families and this gets reflected across the board.

    Overall in NY we still have close to 1 out of 5 or 1 out of 4 kids not graduate from high school, let alone worry about snooty colleges. Think of it, 20% of kids in our midst will not even get a high school diploma, how are they ever going to compete in world that is getting more competitive???

  24. Mervel says:

    Helicopter parents??? Many of the parents I work with don’t even have cars, we are working with one family to get a working sewage system (they use an outhouse now).

  25. Dale Hobson says:

    New design notes:

    Two Cents asks: Is anyone else finding it difficult to read dark blue text on a forest green background?

    If you are seeing the page the way Two Cents is, your computer is storing old design code incompatible with the new design. Go to a page in the blog and do a “hard refresh” of the page. On the Firefox browser, that would mean holding down the control key and pushing the F5 key. This should permanently correct the problem. In other browsers, you may need to clear the cache, it varies. A quick Google search such as “Hard refresh Safari browser” will give you the method for your particular browser.

    Brian (MOFYC) says: Twocents: I hate the gray background and blue links format of the main blogs page.

    The new design completely broke this all blogs home page. We patched it up enough to be readable, but it will have to be redone from scratch. Bear with us.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR web manager

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