I recently attended a lecture by two police officers discussing vaping. They brought all sorts of confiscated vaping devices. There are now over 15,000 different types, including clothing. They talked about the intensity of the nicotine in each pod, the carcinogens released when the battery-operated devices are heated, and the increasing use of THC oil (the marijuana component that produces the high). They called it an epidemic with 45% of 11th graders in our area now using it and exponential growth in middle schools. Of course, the audience was alarmed and wanted to know how kids get them and how to stop it. I agree, but I also think there is more to it. I want to know why so many of our kids are drawn to using them.
The officers cited boredom and a way to reduce anxiety as some of the reasons given for their use. Why are our kids so bored and anxious? I believe the main culprit is the cultural environment that we have created in our education system and supported in our homes. It is repressive to the human spirit. We fill their days and weekends with activities and school-related work that we have determined are critical to their eventual success in life. They are expected to blindly follow what parents and schools say they need to do. We have taken away our children’s basic human freedoms to have agency over their lives and to be deeply connected to other people.
“The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness.” – Albert Bandura
Their humanness is disavowed in our current education system and it has been soul-crushing. Our children are not machines, they are young people with developing brains and emotions. We require that they fit into a specific mold defined by grades, test scores, and individual achievement, rather than belong as they are with all their messy humanness. We assume that they will be happy someday if they have a good job and lots of money. We mistakenly believe that college is the only pathway for them to achieve this and we have blinders on about anything unrelated to college resume building. We’ve lost sight of the quality of their life today.
Maya Angelou, the American poet, author, and civil rights activist, proposed that we are unconsciously asking each other these four questions all the time.
- Do you see me?
- Do you care that I am here?
- Am I enough for you?
- Can I tell that I am special to you by the way that you look at me?
These questions require the nurturing of the child. Schools are institutions and by their very size, structure, and nature, cannot truly nurture our children. There are many wonderful teachers who can impact their lives, but their limited time availability only allows so much interaction. As we have turned over parenting responsibilities to schools, our home lives have begun to mirror the transactional character of these institutional relationships. Our short time together revolves around questions like “Did you do your homework?”, “What time is the game?” or “How was the test?” The focus is on productive output, not the person. We are not conveying that we truly see them.
Kids are bored in school. A recent Gallup study showed that student engagement drops as they progress through school–by 8th grade, it is 45%, and by 10th grade, it drops to 33% and remains in that range until the end of high school. The world has dramatically changed. They know it. The material they are required to process is irrelevant and unrelatable and yet they are obligated to devote hours at school and at home memorizing it.
They are anxious because they don’t feel they can measure up to all the expectations around them. They are exhausted from trying to keep up and feeling like their value is in their external performance–one that can be quantified and measured. Our children are screaming at us that they need help but they are not using words. They are screaming at us with their anxiety, depression and suicide rates. Their inner turmoil is reflected in their stomachaches, headaches, self-harming and numbing mechanisms. Rather than looking at the context of their environment, we treat individual students as the problem and label or medicate them so they can move through the education system.
One of my favorite poems is called On Children by Kahlil Gibran. It reminds us that our children are not ours, they belong to life itself. They are their own beings. The middle stanzas are particularly relevant:
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
This epidemic doesn’t get solved by trying to control the vaping devices or telling them how bad they are for their bodies. It gets solved by creating environments that engage the social-emotional parts of our children, that allow them to be valued for their unique qualities and that provide the freedom to explore and pursue things they are interested in. With new pathways opening and the economic road rising to meet them, they will find their way. We can help our children navigate out of this quagmire of cultural expectations by addressing the factors creating the need to numb in the first place. Let’s focus on why.