It’s 2017. Looking out only for yourself is encouraged, being outright mean is a-okay, and young people are apparently less empathetic than their parents. These days you have to work hard to find signs of hope. But from talking to school students, I’ve found that these signs do exist.
Last week, MSNBC got a hold of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax returns and shared them on live television. This follows Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and advisor to Trump, stating that Trump’s tax avoidance was “genius”, and “he would have been a fool not to take advantage” of it.
Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets segment, where celebrities read insulting Tweets from strangers across the globe, reveals the nastiness that we’re all capable of. The tweets range from hugely offensive to just plain odd.
Elsewhere, we hear that empathy levels are falling amongst young people. An oft-cited 2010 study by the University of Michigan found that college students were 40% less empathetic than their counterparts two to three decades earlier. Now, this is worrying.
I’ve spent the last few years visiting schools in different countries, and talking about the charitable work our team is doing in Cambodia. Primarily, I’m there to talk about a challenge called Day Without Speech.
In a nutshell, Day Without Speech helps kids learn what it’s like to have something valuable taken away from them — their ability to speak. They give up speaking for part of the day, learn valuable lessons, and then debrief with volunteers at the end. They also raise funds for OIC Cambodia, to help those who need speech therapy, in a country where there is not one locally trained speech therapist.
So far, we’ve mostly run Day Without Speech with primary school aged kids. The benefits for these kids has been huge.
Talking about Day Without Speech with older kids is a different proposition. A few weeks ago, I was in a well-known high school in Sydney, Australia, talking to over 150 Year 11 students. It’s a fascinating time in their lives. These are young adults contemplating how they want to add value to the world. It’s a time where they can make a decision: to choose kindness or to choose cynicism.
I spoke to these students about how difficult it was for children in Cambodia with communication difficulties to thrive in a classroom of up to 50 children. And how, with some basic speech therapy, we can improve their lives. As long as I littered my talk with enough references to Beyoncé and Snapchat, the message seemed to resonate. The students showed that they understood how, as individuals on the other side of the world, they could contribute to those in Cambodia.
Someone asked whether this challenge should be done only in this year group, or whether the whole school could do it. Most of the kids seemed to think that the latter was possible.
But one young man, slouching on the side of the room, disagreed. There’s no way the whole school would go for it, he said. When asked why, his reasoning was thus: “There’s no way that the rest of the school will go for this soppy sh*t.”
A silence fell over the room. I was curious to see what was going to happen next.
It was as if that decision I mentioned above — to choose kindness or choose cynicism — was playing out in front of me. What happened next gave me hope. His peers, sitting around him, and across the other side of the room, expressed their disapproval in many different ways. They refused to give in to cynicism.
It’s easy to see the world only through what we read online. That the world is dominated by people who are self-serving, unjustifiably cruel, and unable to empathise with others. This interpretation of the world may be accurate.
Maybe the people in positions of power, our modern day role models, are often this way. Maybe you have to look a bit deeper to find signs of hope.
But this one situation taught me that we can’t write off generations below us as more self-centred and less caring. Perhaps we’re just not looking deeply enough.
We need to give them opportunities to develop and learn true empathy, of which Day Without Speech is one way.
A wise friend of mine, who has decades of experience working with young people, and raising her own children, once summarised perfectly why Day Without Speech works.
By themselves, neither of the individual parts of the left hand side of the equation is of any use. But combined, they have the power to change the world. And who knows? Maybe in the future, when these young people get to positions of power, we’ll have better role models for the youth of tomorrow. They’ll be more selfless, less cruel and display more empathy than ever before.