Kids these days.

We’ve heard it, we’ve thought it, and we’ve probably said it out loud ourselves.

Heck, I’ve said it myself.

I might not be an official expert, but I am uniquely poised to weigh in. Why? I spend the majority of my professional life interacting with them.

If you count my baby toddler as a kid, then I actually spend virtually every hour of my waking life in the presence of young people. I see their success, and I watch their failures.

And you know what?

These kids are alright.

Of course, today’s young people are going to face challenges that we can’t fully grasp yet. Sure, parts of the political, environmental, and financial landscape in this country look a bit bleak. But I can honestly say without reservation, if anyone can change their lives in this world for the better, it’s these young people.

The Challenges Young People Face

The world is changing faster than I can even comprehend in a lot of ways. From technology to trends, it seems like we’re stuck in fast forward compared to the pace the world we might remember.

As a 90s baby (who was born in the late 80s), I do really weird things:

  • I write in cursive.
  • I call customer service.
  • I think of the last name Hanson, not Jonas, when people mention a band of singing brothers.
  • I type with an alarming accuracy because I know how painful it is to make corrections on a typewriter.
  • I remember how mind blowing it felt to Ask Jeeves a question instead of thumbing through an encyclopedia.
  • I also understand what it means to say, “I’m hanging up now” and “Let’s rewind.”

But my middle schoolers today are digital natives.

They live and breathe technology and the instant gratification that it brings with it, and they always have. It doesn’t mean that society is moving slower for them; it just means that they’ve never understood life any other way.

There’s also a lot of concern about how they’re growing up. Maybe parents are parenting too much…or not enough. Screen time might be re-writing their brains, and it’s certainly messing with their eyes. They’re also being reared by a group of parents and teachers who are up to their eyeballs in debt.

Then there’s the whole entitlement problem we keep hearing about.

All of this day-to-day drama is compounded by the fact that they live in a world where active shooter drills are the norm and politics have never been weirder. Wars, street violence, mental health issues. Oh, and don’t forget Fortnite. It seems like the deck is stacked against them, right?

There’s no doubt that young people today–and every generation before them–face formidable obstacles. They do. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Where I Watch Them Struggle

Of course, kids are going to struggle in the same places that we struggle. The stumbling blocks that we face are tales as old as time:

  • waning motivation,
  • peer pressure,
  • self doubt

The same things that plagued me at 13 still challenge me at 33.  

But these perennial issues have iterated and evolved. That mean kid who literally pushed me in the mud in fourth grade? I learned to give that jerk a wide berth at recess, and he moved onto a new target.

Today, though, bullying and general meanness is almost inescapable.

The school day doesn’t end when you hop off your bus because you’re surrounded by classmates 24/7 thanks to social media. Even if kids aren’t being mean to one another, they’re living in a time where every awkward encounter, hairstyle, and fashion choice is documented for all the world followers to see (sorry, kids, the Internet doesn’t forget and Snapchat might not either).

There are a dizzying amount of social-emotional issues that need to be sorted out, and then there’s the fact that too many kids don’t have their most basic needs met.

While I’ve hopped schools over the course of my career, I am fast approaching veteran status in my current district.

Excuse me while I adjust my grandma sweater.

After nearly a decade in this particular building, I can tell you that even in an affluent suburb, our free-and-reduced lunch numbers are soaring. One out of every three students counts on the school for lunch, and food insecurity is a huge obstacle.  

I have a student who is homeless, and his ability to show-up is nothing short of breathtaking. And he’s not the only one. Nearly, 57,000 kids were homeless in Illinois in 2017. Stunningly, many of them come to school.

But I don’t want to romanticize these challenges.

There is a real crisis confronting our country: nationally, 21% of kids live below the federal poverty threshold. Kids who don’t know when or where their next meal is coming from have a hard time learning. And yet, we act shocked when test scores drop and schools underperform.

To make matters worse, some people–sometimes even fellow educators–spend more time judging than helping. Telling kids that they are undeserving of shoes or Starbucks because of the socioeconomic status they were born into is unproductive at best, cruel at its worst.

We can help people better themselves and still preserve their dignity.

Despite these struggles, I am optimistic. While many students come to school facing huge hardships–financial and otherwise–I don’t think they’re the problem with the world; I think they’re the solution.

Where I See Them Succeed

Teachers are in a really unique position when it comes to kids. Not only do we spend all of our time talking to them, but they actually talk back to us.

When my students go home and their parents ask about their day, they toss out a “fine” or a “boring” or maybe a criticism of me if I’ve taught a particularly boring lesson. But they don’t get the details and they certainly don’t get to see their children in action.

It’s true that I have front-row seat to the struggles that this next generation is facing, but I also have the perfect spot to watch them succeed. And if social media is any indication, I need to share some of those successes.

(Thanks for the opportunity, Steve!)

I don’t know if this tax season was particularly difficult for adults or if we are just showing are age by getting really worked up over an Internet joke, but there is genuine panic in my Twitter feed about this next generation and their inability to do taxes.

One tax meme turned into panic the tweets.

I’m not worried.

I see kids wrestle with math on a daily basis. I watch them calculate the cost of a laptop bought on credit, and I see them solve word problems with percent-off sales.

Do they struggle? Of course. Do they figure it out? Usually. Mostly.

They can do the math, and yes, we even talk about money. Sometimes for school and sometimes for fun. What’s even more promising is that they do something else. They dream these big, hairy audacious dreams that most of us forget we ever dreamt.

They see a problem, and they tackle it head-on.

This year alone, I’ve also seen students orchestrate a fundraiser for access to water in developing nations, a food drive for a local teen center, and two toiletry drives for active military and homeless people.

Sometimes they get bogged down in logistics (Can we actually afford a dunk tank?) and sometimes they miss the obvious (Now that we’ve decorated two square blocks with sidewalk chalk, what happens when it rains?).

In class, I watch students do more impressive things with Kiva than I’ve done on my own. At the start of the school year, I tell them that I’ll give their class $50 to invest in short-term loans. The object is to choose wisely so that our loans are repaid and we can invest again.

They research countries, read about the likelihood of the loans defaulting, and then pitch their candidates to the class. Sometimes, they do silly things like choosing Sal from El Salvador because they like his name, but for the most part, they are more meticulous with my charitable donations than I am.

Our school also supports a token economy system as part of a behavior intervention program. That’s teacher-speak for saying kids can earn fake-money for the work that they do.

Throughout the year, they have opportunities to spend their money on trinkets and treats. They can also shop for family and friends during a winter gift event. I can tell you that they aren’t all savers, and some of them learn the hard truth about what happens when you spend all of your bucks on yourself…and don’t have any left to shop for grandparents (or favorite teachers…ahem).

No matter the situation, they are tenacious, they flexible, they are undeterred.

In a lot of ways, they are everything I am not. Everything we are not. They are everything that we’ve forgotten how to be.

So, no, I don’t think that this generation will approach their taxes with unusual zeal. I don’t think that they will take to busking in order to raise funds to hire an accountant the same way they raise money to drill a well in Haiti. But I do think that they are largely capable of doing most anything.

As long as the world doesn’t waste its energy underestimating them.

How We Can Help

Sometimes, I listen to adults talk about future generations, and all I see in my mind is that curmudgeon-y Clint Eastwood GIF. Their biggest worry seems to be whether or not this next generation will stand on their lawns for too long. But for the most part, people do seem genuinely concerned and sincerely interested in helping.

Which is good news because like it or not, these kids are going to run this world one day. Helping the future matters.

Every single person reading this has something to offer their community. Of course, schools can use financial support. But in addition to that, schools can use your time and your talents.

Exploratory programs are generally always looking for a helping hand. Some districts invite community members in for after-school homework help. Other times, individual teachers would love to connect in person or via Skype to talk about how academics look in the real world.

Whatever wisdom you hold, whatever lessons you wish you had heard years or decades ago, share it now. Reach out to schools, libraries, and museums. Young people are clamoring to learn and get a taste of life beyond what they already know.

Be as involved in your local community as you can.

And most importantly, remember what it’s like to be a young person with big dreams. If this next generation needs anything, it’s fewer people to stand in their way and more people to cheer them on.

With a little luck, their dreams and ambitions might rub off.