When my parents were small children the message they received was clear and consistent. And that message was be honest, be kind, be a good little boy, be a good little girl, and you will make your parents proud, you will make your country proud, and you will make God proud. Conformity was not problematic, it was essential. It was easy to see and hear the path to success, just look around you and see how and what you are supposed to be.
We all know that this goal-setting worked for many, many people who successfully and happily navigated these expectations. And we know that for many, many people there was a considerable amount of baggage to be exercised in their adult years as who they were did not conform to whom they were expected to be. Creating the conditions for a homogeneous society requires a deep sense of a normative culture, where all of the institutions in the society are singing from the same hymn book. Families, schools, churches, boy scouts, girl guides, minor sports, do-gooder groups like Women’s Aid, Lion’s club, Rotary, and organizations like the Masons and the Eastern Star, all working together to produce a sense of norms and expectations that young people like my parents could absorb.
Since my childhood in the 1960’s that sense of normative expectations has been evolving. Individualism is now the battle cry of our libertarian society. As we deal with the downside of a mono-culture, where people whose lives and dreams do not neatly fit into that older paradigm there is a need for a new and different message for our young children. For people my age and later generations there has been a conscious effort to reach for a message that gives people with different experiences and different goals something they can believe in.
And what is this message our children hear? “You can be anything you want to be, we believe in freedom of opportunity, where people are limited only by their imagination and hard work.” I heard these exact words from speakers at both the Republican and the Democratic Party conventions this past week. I have heard words like these spoken by school Principals, valedictorians, inspirational speakers, politicians, and preachers for over 50 years. This newer message has a clear advantage over the old one, it includes more people, it allows for a diversity of experience and expectations. Little girls now can be anything they want to be; in my mother’s day it was teacher, nurse or secretary. Little boys can be dancers, nurses, and stay-at-home Dads. It’s a new world.
I am delighted to be raising our teenage daughter in 2016 and not 1956. Still I see the challenge institutions have as they seek to draw a new generation of volunteers to their midst. Why? As we rightly broke down the rigid and uniform expectations for our citizens, as we gloriously unleashed the spirit of people living out their dreams, we also framed this new message to our children strictly within the new cult of individualism. The notion that we are intimately connected to the collective, that we have some responsibility to the public good, that we are truly human when we are truly community, this has been lost to us. This is not a message we are being told.
So environmental challenges, challenges of people who live many continents away, challenges of people in our community who live lives very different from our own (far away from the community where we live), challenges of people who are not part of our social media network, these challenges are not necessarily part of what we were told. And in what way are these challenges connected to our imaginations and hard work?
No one, especially not me, is nostalgic about what we were told in my parents’ generation. And no one wants to limit the imaginations of our children. But as our collective challenges grow larger we will need to tell ourselves stories that connect our unique dreams, gifts and work with initiatives that make our communities and more resilient. Remember that someone told you,we need each other.