Have you noticed all the teenage hugging everywhere? I live with three teenagers (actually, our oldest is “aging out” but whatever… I know teens). And I swear: everybody’s hugging everybody all the time. Every goodbye is a sap-fest, even if they’re going to see each other in three hours. They say, “I love you” at the slightest provocation. Teenage boys sleep in the same bed, like puppies, at sleepovers. They’re just so damned cute and affectionate with each other.
I know, I know: some kids are monstrously cruel. I’m not glossing over that age-old reality. But I’m seeing a whole swath of teenage kids in 2012 (who a generation ago would have been sort of mildly nice to each other, maybe even merely indifferent) who are pulling out all the stops with sloppy affection and deeply earnest support for their friends.
There’s so much hand-wringing in the media about the ill effects of technology and the decline of empathy and the prevalence of bullying and myriad other social ills. But it’s not what I see at all. Maybe it’s the adults who are projecting their own unattractive zero-sum views. I see kids who are incredibly nice to each other, who understand human vulnerability, who embrace both human difference and sameness. I’m not saying things are perfect. I know there are still plenty of bullies and victims. I also know –because people remind me constantly – that I live in a particular kind of social bubble where kids are raised to value kindness as much as success. But generally speaking, I think we are seeing an uptick in adolescent civility. And, fyi, these kids are also delaying sex, smoking and drinking less, and seeking more romance and intimate relationships than kids did in my generation.
The boys, especially, seem so different to me now. I still remember when guys acted like cardboard cutouts of human beings a lot of the time. They rarely revealed emotions, especially to other boys. Girls, too, were closed off in certain ways. There were things too embarrassing to discuss – like family secrets, bodily insecurities and so forth – and so much unspoken competition and shame.
I’ve noticed a sea change in so many ways recently: at my daughter’s 8th grade graduation, where the Iranian girl in her hijab was blissfully at ease with all the American girls in their strappy sun dresses and high-heeled shoes. Or the recent trip to my high school junior’s school, where his best friend ran over and threw his arms around me and volunteered to escort me across campus to a meeting, with another (male) friend in tow; the three of us walked arm in arm for a few minutes and when I pointed out how utterly sweet it was to see this kind of comfort and generosity, and when I also mentioned that in my day teenage boys had to leave an empty seat between them at the movie theatre, lest anyone think they were “gay” for sitting too close, they burst out laughing and kissed each other on the cheek, half-ironically, and said “I love you, man!” as if they literally couldn’t imagine such an inane world.
I know there are a million retorts. Cyber bullies. Teen depression and suicide. Rampant cheating. The race to the top. It’s not a perfect world. But I think the kids will be all right.