Who exactly are these tough kids we’re always hearing about?
Are they the kids selling drugs in the back alleys? Are they the adolescents electronically plugged into their iPhones waiting to perform another flash-mob attack by running into the local Walmart and making off with as many goodies as they can before the police arrive? Are they the bullies who constantly torment their victims causing them to be so fearful that it’s easier on their psyche to stay home rather than attend school? Maybe it’s the young loner planning to seek revenge or gain attention by committing some violent act?
Well … maybe.
It used to be that being a kid and being thought of as tough was usually delegated to males who participated in some physical athletic endeavor. But now too often, the tough kid is viewed as a menace, a troublemaker or influenced by the criminal element. Certainly, there are more than a few kids who fit into those categories.
But in this day and age of anything goes and anything is allowed, for right or wrong, we so often judge a book by its cover. We often see today’s kids, and I’m not just talking about teenagers but even as young as 6 and 7 years old, who by their attitudes or the way they dress or the way they talk ultimately influence how we view them. We become leery when we see their pants sagging or their hair tinted orange or shaped into a mohawk. Or perhaps they are a kid who has been allowed (or not) to have numerous pieces of metal filling the piercings in their lips and eyebrows. Maybe they are someone who has engaged in acts without thinking of the consequences. The result is we make up our minds that this kid is trouble and needs to be avoided.
But avoidance is not an option.
All of us come into contact with such kids. Many of us are required to because of our employment such as teachers, social workers or if you work in the field of criminal justice like police and probation officers. Others of us come into contact with tough kids at the public pool, the grocery store or just pass them as we make our way home. Some of us may even have a tough kid as a neighbor or a relative.
Sometimes our own paranoia prevents us from even offering a greeting. It’s easier just to look down at the ground and walk on by or retreat back into the safety of our homes, afraid only of what we think might happen.
Years ago when I served as a conflict mediator at a local high school, there was a group of young males who hung around a certain spot in the hallway each morning before classes began. I knew that a couple of them were members of a local gang. But nevertheless, each morning I would stop and offer a handshake then say something like, “Gentlemen! And how are we doing this fine morning?” Often, I would get some snickers and see them nudge each other. And when I’d walk away, I could hear them make some not-so-subtle remarks such as “Po-Po” or “5-O” meaning they were dishing out disrespectful terms about my prior employment inside the criminal justice system.
But I refused to allow any of that to bother me. However, before I walked away, I’d let them know, “Do me and your mothers a favor, don’t let your anger mess things up for you. If you got a problem, come and see me before anything gets out of hand.”
Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before several of those same young men would knock on my door and say, “Mr. Rinearson we need to get something settled, or it’s on!” This usually meant a fight could take place. We would then get the conflict settled and they would get back to class. No disruption, and because those tough guys were willing to place some trust in me, they got to stay in school.
For all the adults who I’ve believed to have been successful with those boys and girls that projected a tough-kid image, it starts with the adult’s level of self-confidence. They are the adults who put assertiveness ahead of hesitation and can look that young person in the eye and even offer a smile whenever appropriate.
But don’t get me wrong. No tough kid or any other kids for that matter should ever get a free pass when committing a wrongful act. Every kid needs to know that when they step over that line we as adults will provide the deserved consequences. They need consistency, fairness and direction.
But it is also my belief that when those consequences are served, then the new day begins and once again my hand is out and I’m reminding them that if they need help, then it is their responsibility to seek help and my responsibility to do what I reasonably can.
If and when you finally are able to simply say hello to a neighborhood kid who always has his or her iPod earphones inserted, listening to some heavy metal, you might just get a reaction that will allow you to see a different person than the one you barely looked at previously.
In fact, you might like what you see. In fact, you