Like so many Americans, I have been transfixed by recent videos that show Americans just losing it. Whether it is the many “Karen” videos of a racist woman going off on a human being for no legitimate reason, or videos of airline passengers fighting or having a verbal meltdown, it feels like America is just angry all the time. Social media companies have learned that anger increases engagement, and they reward it through various algorithms that affect and shape our culture. We have celebrities who, despite all they have in terms of material wealth, will take disagreements with others forward.Twenty-four-hour news networks on the political left and right broadcast anger and emotion to their viewers. And political leaders have come to see the opposition as the enemy. Recently, we had Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of the National Review and Washington Post, give an amazing lecture on campus about the infusion of anger in politics and its historical context.
This year, I have wondered how exposure to anger affects child development. I am not writing about any specific event, but truly asking a broader question that I worry we are not dealing with as a society. I grew up in the 1970s in an academic household in which Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were on the turntable. It was all peace and love; our politics were generally those of civility. But that has changed dramatically during my adulthood.
Watch the Netflix documentary, Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, about the disastrous efforts of the original Woodstock promoters to re-create the 1969 experience. Aggressive music combined with horrible planning led the crowd to set fire to the venue and commit acts of violence. When I watched the documentary, I saw a through line to the January 6 insurrection, where the average age of those who have been arrested and convicted is 40 years old. The motives behind both events are totally different, but I find it interesting that it is essentially the same generation.
And let’s face other facts—you don’t have to be a concert-goer in the 1990s or a present-day insurrectionist to impact kids. I just read an article about how one New Jersey youth baseball league was running out of umpires because the parents at the games kept verbally accosting the volunteer umpires. The league created a rule that if a parent yelled out a complaint about a bad call, that parent would have to gain empathy by serving as an umpire for three games.
(On a side note, when I once remarked to a parent that I don’t understand why anyone would want to referee youth sports today, that parent sharply said, “Mike, aren’t you kind of a referee?”)
We know that children who are exposed to the anger of their parents can face a variety of psychological and behavioral issues. They are more likely to be angry themselves. They can be less likely to follow the directions and expectations of adults. They can be more aggressive and antisocial. And, as they grow up, they are more likely to face depression, as well as pass that cycle of anger and potential violence forward. This impacts how they will parent and also affects how successful they will be financially. I don’t know what the impact is of the kind of societal anger we are seeing, but my guess is that it is not good.
I always find it interesting to consider what we Americans get angry about. In faculty lounges across the country, every teacher has a story of an angry confrontation with a parent—typically over something not very important. In my experience, serious issues that need to be dealt with are often brought forth by a thoughtful, serious parent looking for a rational conversation. (Part of that has to do with our culture as a school.) But we have all witnessed a scene at a restaurant, hotel, or airline in which a customer loses their cool over something insignificant or beyond the staff member’s power to control. When we see it objectively, we know that those are overreactions. But humans, including myself, can get into that “red zone,” where self-awareness becomes physiologically impossible.
I think it is important for all adults in our community, be they faculty, staff, or parents, to be mindful of the example they are setting. There is really no room in a school for a teacher to raise their voice in an angry way at a child. And, every time a child hears a parent getting angry about something as they are driving, discussing a work issue, or having a personal conflict, that child is listening. As kids get older, they are able to better understand language and tone; but at a young age, they can’t grasp the nuance. Nor can they tell if you really feel anger or are just annoyed.
I know a lot of families do a lot to try to shield their child from anger that might show up on a streaming show, and I know some who don’t. In a school like CA, whose mission is to help nurture kind individuals, we cannot do this alone. It also takes parents who do their best to shape the character of their children.
So, take a deep breath when something goes awry, and know that someone is always listening.