Monday, March 29, 2010

Building the capacity to dream... the face of a passive attitude towards life.

After a recent session a mentor wrote to me:

Hi Tony,
Last night's meeting was a true learning experience.
As a long time teacher I often thought that many of the youth have a passive attitude towards life- a sense of futility.
Last night when I asked one of the mentees what subjects he's interested in and what goals he has for the future, he really couldn't answer. He didn't know.
Finally he said: Whatever life brings me. This stunned me into silence. But I did reply:
"It's good to think in terms of -What can I bring to life?"
How should we deal with students who display this passive attitude of helplesness toward life?
Sincerely, Elsa

My response:
Thanks Elsa,
It is sometimes true that young people have been so wounded that they seem to have already given up on life at a tender age. However, it is more often true that they simply have never been asked what they want out of life and are dumbfounded by the question. Combine that with their natural resistance to our queries and distrust that we actually mean it, and you get the typical youth answers like, “whatever” or “I don’t know”. We call it the “youth Miranda rule”. They have learned that anything they say to an adult can and will be used against them at some later date. So, they say as little as possible.
So, what should we do? Let's send an invitation to their dreams.  We can look at this as our opportunity to show them something different. I love your question: “what can I bring to life?” But how can they answer that question if they have never been shown that they have something to offer? We need to slowly develop their ability to answer the question. We do it by continuing to show up for them so that they can first develop trust. Then we look for ways to validate them when they finally trust enough to give us a glimpse of the gifts they hold. This takes full commitment on our part as often the way they demonstrate their gift is by acting out. If you continue to show up and demonstrate what we call “unconditional positive regard” they will get the message that you mean it and that you see something in them that they may not even see. If you can take it a step further by seeing “their gift” (some call it the genius) within the behavior you really start to get them thinking. For example, the kid who cracks a joke at the wrong moment and makes everyone laugh should be helped to understand that his/her timing was not good, but can also be told how clever the joke was. I might find myself saying something like “That was funny, and when someone is as smart as you are, you should be careful about your timing because you have the power to disrupt everything.”   I noticed that you did this as a teacher when you write in your book about admiring the artistry in their graffiti writing skills.
On the other hand, if life, especially as it relates to their relationship with adults, continually brings them judgment and blame, they will not be in a position to offer anything back to their own life, let alone life in general.
Finally, we need to suspend expectations and trust that the process will work at whatever pace each young person needs. Some are more severely wounded than others and will take longer to respond.
More than anything else, the presence of a caring mentor can inspire a young person to see himself as someone who matters enough to have a dream.

You are building the capacity to dream!


Tony LoRe
Youth Mentoring Connection/Urban Oasis
Boarding House Mentors

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