Copyright 2007 by Neil Chethik –

As the smoke clears after the horrific shooting at Virginia Tech, we can expect the usual national policy debates over gun laws, violent video games, and campus security. It's important for the politicians to hash these out. But while they're at it, there's one thing the rest of us can do that might reduce the odds of another such massacre.

Make eye contact. With a young person.

I know this is asking a lot. When we in middle age encounter today's youth—with their tattoos and piercings and shaved heads —our inclination is often to look the other way. When they cruise our neighborhoods in souped-up, window-quivering reclamation projects, we're tempted to offer only a fiery, get-off-my-planet glare.

In fact, by the way they dress and act, you'd almost believe those young people are trying to push us away. But they're not. They're only testing us. They want to see if they can be so unattractive—so obnoxious, so disagreeable—that we'll actually abandon them.

Their need to test adults is understandable. For the first dozen or so years of their lives, most of them respected and even idolized us. We took care of their basic needs, and most of them responded by trying to adhere to the commandments we set out for them: Be kind to others, be good to yourself, work hard and appreciate good fortune when it comes your way.

Then they got old enough to see the hypocrisy. , and they realized they were suckers. The adult world did not practice what it preached. One year, the news was presidential groping in the Oval Office. Another, it was ethnic cleansing in Darfur . In between, it was the character assassination to advance a call for war.

In my youth, we had Vietnam , Richard Nixon and corporate greed to feed our disaffection. But the dynamics were pretty much the same as they are today. Teenagers, almost by nature, are disgusted by the brutality and banality of the adult world they have been encouraged to worship.

Naturally, their reaction is rebellion. They don't want to be like adults. They grow their hair, wear their clothes, tattoo their skin, to incite the most repulsion in us. They slam doors, slam-dance, and slam us when they get a chance.

But beneath this anger, they are desperate for a life-line. They are hoping that somewhere among that sea of suspect adults is someone who actually cares. When we turn away from them, we confirm their greatest fear—that we are not really committed, that we will give up on them, that they are not worthy.

That's when we risk losing them. To isolation, or to the potentially dangerous subcultures that emerge to take our place as shapers of their futures.

On the other hand, when we meet their gazes, when we stand by them through their righteous fits, when we honor their anger, we offer a beachhead for their hope.

By meeting their eyes, we say to teenagers: We respect you. We are committed to you. We accept you. Only when we do this can we begin to work together with these soon-to-be-co-creators of our culture.

So the next time you meet up with that surly-looking kid who lives down the block, don't show him your fear and anger. Instead, make eye contact. You might even smile. If you're really feeling ambitious, say hello.

If one adult does this, he might think that person is a bit crazy. If a few of us do it, he might think it's a conspiracy. If we all do it, he might think it's a revolution.

And he'd be right.

This article may be reprinted if the following tagline is included:

Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at or at .

Back to Neil's Writings




Copyright 2009 Neil Chethik