Seven years ago, when I was 15, I sat in my parents’ living room creating a Myspace page for my vice principal. I was choking with great heaves of adolescent laughter as I declared her fetish for Johnny Depp in boys’ underwear. I then guffawed loudly regarding the implications of naming her two favorite celebrities: Bob Barker and The Devil. I invested hours of creative thought, meticulously planning every fictional detail of the woman’s life.
In retrospect, it wasn’t very kind of me, but in small-town America on a Friday night with no transportation — what other options were available?
My extracurricular prospects were usually limited to purchasing a bag of pot from my friendly, neighborhood drug dealer or getting wasted in the abandoned shack up the road like most of my lower-socioeconomic comrades. I felt my time was better spent by teasing school officials on the Internet, as opposed to taking recreational drugs. In an sad turn of events, I doubted that sentiment after being incarcerated for the now-infamous Myspace page. I was in detention for three weeks, but I spent years feeling indignant about being locked up for what was, essentially, a joke told in poor taste.
It is imperative that people begin to contemplate the ways in which children gain our attention. If a teenager created a Myspace about me, I’d like to believe I’d recognize it as an innocent prank and think of a creative way to deter any similar behavior.
What if she had to draw me a picture of what her Myspace would look like and explain how it made her feel? What if the child had to write a public letter of apology? School officials are presumably adults and shouldn’t be holding grudges against students. They should be taking into consideration the reasons why the child is misbehaving, and brainstorming appropriate ways to enforce rules while instilling knowledge.
The decision to expend my creative energies on a parody page for a school official was admittedly unwise. But, if that school official had elected to confront me about her feelings, she would have discovered a teenage girl utterly mortified at the thought of hurting another person, and she would have received a sincere apology. Instead, that school official delivered a child into the hands of the juvenile justice system, a counter-productive measure briefly inhibiting that child’s ability to feel remorse for that action.
I firmly believe there is no such thing as a “bad kid.” Like anyone else who isn’t having a great day, or suffering from a private, invisible affliction, kids have negative motivations too. A child acting out could easily be responding to a number of problems: learning disabilities that prevent classroom stimulation, issues with family, or even the frustration of living in rural America with no means of productively expending energy.
We shouldn’t ignore their cries for attention, or vilify adolescence. We should encourage strengths, stimulate minds, and attempt to understand adolescent behavior so that we can isolate incidents of misbehavior. Doing the right thing for a child is as simple as asking, “Why did you behave this way?” and, “What can I do for you to prevent further outbursts?” If you’re incapable of suspending your adult prejudices long enough to evaluate the best course of action to protect the welfare of a child, then the child isn’t the only one with the problem.
I still lose sleep trying to discern why my vice principal was so deeply affected by what I wrote. I can’t help wondering how our lives would be different if she had spoken with me, allowed me to understand how I hurt her, and then let me apologize. I’m no longer angry with her as a person, but annoyed with her as an educator: It was her responsibility to control the outcome of the situation between us. She ignored an opportunity to teach a child about the impact of words, a lesson that children in our present, social media-driven society desperately need.
If a child acts out or offends you, before asking what’s wrong with the child; question how and why you are responding to that child’s behavior. If you want to understand why a child is lashing out, start by telling him how he made you feel. Having an honest discussion with a misbehaving youth is crucial to eliminating unwanted behavior, because dishonesty is detrimental to all interpersonal relationships. Stop underestimating the emotional capacity of children and over-estimating their ability to assess consequences.
Instead, open yourself to trying to understand children and treat them with compassion. If adults followed this model with each other, I believe we would be much closer to world peace.
That kind of thinking may be a tad grandiose, so start small. Start with our children.
Hillary Transue is a former Juvenile Law Center client, a subject in the film “Kids for Cash” by SenArt films and is currently a graduate assistant for Wilkes University’s Creative Writing department. Since her brief incarceration for the creation of the Myspace page, she has become an advocate for juvenile rights and an adamant defender of the child’s inherent right to behave like a child. She lives in Ashley, Penn., where she aspires to becoming an educator in the field of English.