Are you worried about what our nation’s youth are learning? Maybe you should be

Vector isometric scene with large books, glasses, letter a and people reading

There’s a deficit framing dominating the news media that our nation’s youth are entering their next school year having lost so much instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the educational upheaval continuing to this day.   

Let us not forget that school has never been the only place youth learn. 

This year, most youth across the country spent more time learning from home than in-person. And although supervising remote learning from home was a new part of the parental job description, parents have always been their children’s first teachers. Knowing that can empower us to teach them what we want them to learn.

But what have our nation’s youth been learning? 

The past 16 months, our nation’s youth have endured chronic and ambiguous threats to their health and safety, the continual loss of experiences, routines, their social lives as they once knew it, and for many separation from their loved ones — like grandparents and close aunts, uncles and cousins. They saw police brutality and murder, and divisive politics on display. They witnessed an insurrection, on top of countless endorsements of racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. 

Our lived experience presents opportunities to learn about the way the world works, about what is important, what matters, what drives us, what is reality and how we recognize the truth, even and especially when it’s difficult to hear, see, and feel.

Our youth’s learning is immediately grounded in their everyday experiences: countless lessons in the daily interactions and  “smaller” moments that accumulate over time. How their parents handle stress, what to do when you don’t agree with a public figure’s narrative, how to express disappointment, how to handle grief.

It’s not a secret: our feelings beget behaviors.

Our young people learn when they see adults greeting “unmasking” ceremonies with cheers, fear, or disapproval. They learn from how their adults react to the recent surges of COVID-19 variants. They learn as they listen to the commentary on the ball fields about what is happening at local schools and who is to “blame.” They hear when we respond to different perspectives with anger and judgment rather than openness and generosity of spirit. They watch how the adults in their lives treat others, and they take those lessons with them.

And are our youth learning lessons we want them to learn?

It’s possible they’ve observed despair and grief driving the interpretation of fantasy as facts. They may have observed maniacal, powerful, distrusting people using the fear of others to polarize, minimize, conquer, over run and confuse. They may have observed political self-interest and hatred reverberating loudly behind the paywalls and policies and parading as truths in the popular media. They may be learning from adults in their communities with the privilege of time to misdirect their anger at their school systems, calling to unmask our kidsopen our school doors, and restrict the teaching of racism in our schools.

Simultaneously many of our nations’ youth are learning that when things happen to people you care about, you get involved, show up, be an ally, and effect change. In so many households our nation’s youth were learning to practice gratitude, to celebrate people who supported our lives and cared for our sick. Many families are unpacking our complex histories, talking about biases, and the importance of embracing our common humanity, and are seeing their adults in their lives coming together for conversation, for raising funds to help others, for action in communities online united to create social media movements anchored in empathy.

Many of our youth are learning healthy life strategies from their parents — to listen with the intent to learn, to take responsibility, to take a deep breath, to reframe situations, to move through intense emotions by seeking social support. 

What if they all were learning at this juncture in our nation’s history that they hold within them the choice to change their world? 

The idea of parents as teachers is not new but perhaps it has never been more critical. 

Remembering caregivers and families are our children’s first and forever teachers means we have the opportunity every day, to look at the world around us with our families as learners together, and to teach them the lessons we want them to learn — the lessons of American evolution — to a more just, equitable, compassionate and innovative place to live and love and embrace each other. 

That’s the world we want for our children. For all children.

Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Follow her @drchriscip.

Robin Stern, Ph.D. is the Co-founder and Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a psychoanalyst in private practice. She is the author of the Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.