I am getting old. This is an indisputable fact. Every time I attempt to play pickup basketball or high-five a student without stretching or pull a muscle sneezing, I’m reminded that I’m not as young as I once was. But what really made me realize my age was when I started telling my high school students about life “back in my day.” They marveled at my tales of dial-up internet, VHS tapes, and beepers. They gazed at me quizzically when I told them I was “all that and a bag of chips.” And they stared in disbelief that gas was 92 cents a gallon when I got my first car.
It’s fun reminiscing, and it can be beneficial for younger generations to hear how past generations lived. There is wisdom that comes with age, and I certainly believe that that wisdom should be passed down. However, there are a few pitfalls with “back in my day” thinking that I’d like to explore.
Problem #1: “Back in my day” thinking is rarely honest.
I typically reflect on my past with rose colored glasses. When I gather around my high school buddies, we don’t reminisce about the times that we cheated on tests, harassed teachers, made offensive comments, or bullied classmates. We talk about the good times and convince ourselves that those times those were all the times. However, for most of us, our pasts were darker and more complex than we’d care to remember.
Yes, there were great things that I did, but I also made really stupid mistakes. That’s the same for this present generation because stupidity is part of growing up. If I’m going to talk about life “back in my day” it’s only fair that I remember that life accurately, warts and all.
Problem #2: It is impossible to compare generations.
My life growing up was nothing like young people’s lives now. If it was, I would likely do the same things they are doing and vice-versa.
Take social media. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard adults say (and I’ve said myself), “When I was a kid, we actually talked with people instead of wasting time on social media.” Here’s the problem with that statement, social media wasn’t around when we were kids. Had it been, we would have likely wasted hours-upon-hours on Snapchat taking selfies with dog face filters too. We’re not better or more focused than kids today, we just had fewer things to distract us.
It’s the same for bullying. I hear people decry the downfall of society because of how much bullying has increased. They harken back to a better time, a safer time when kids got along and bullying wasn’t a matter of life and death. Here’s my question: When was that time? Look back at America’s history and show me a period where school playgrounds were free of discrimination, bigotry, and bullying. I don’t think you’ll find one.
Here’s the truth: kids haven’t changed, but the world around them has. Some of these changes are good and some are bad, but regardless, it’s important that we don’t try to compare apples-to-oranges because they are not the same.
Problem #3: “Back in my day” thinking drives a wedge between people.
I worked as a special education inclusion teacher for several years. This unique opportunity allowed me to see many teachers work and interact with students. One thing I noticed was that teachers often used “back in my day” phrases to reprimand students. They would say things like:
“Back in my day kids respected teachers and listened in class.”
“When I was a kid if I didn’t do my homework, I got a zero and no one came to help me.”
“You guys don’t know how to work hard. When I was young, we had grit. We would have killed for the opportunities you have.”
I’m guilty of saying some of the exact same things in my classroom. However, you know what I’ve never heard a student say back?
“Wow, thank you. You’ve really given me a lot to think about. I feel connected with your past, and because of that, I’m going to work harder in the future.”
I never heard that. Not once. Because “back in my day” phrases don’t connect people, they don’t build common ground, they merely establish a false high ground. If you don’t believe me, think about when your parents told you about their day. Did you feel connected with them? Did you feel like they understood what you were facing? Or did you think, “Mom and dad, your day was not my day. Your problems were nothing compared to what I deal with now.”
Each generation presents its own unique challenges and blessings. Rather than admonishing kids with half-truths about “our day”, we would be better served working to understand “their day” so we can help them move forward. That’s when real progress begins.