Growing up on a steady diet of ABC Afterschool Specials, I learned that Jodi Foster and other girls can play baseball on all boys teams, that saying “no” to marijuana will protect me from Scott Baio’s delinquency, and that teenage pre-marital sex could give birth to a Rob Lowe and Dana Plato love child and lots of sleepless nights. All of these made-for-television movies were good at showing kids like me that life came with many challenges. And, they taught us that adults would help us overcome problems so that we all could have good lives. But what would these shows look like today? What if the adults like Beau Bridges and Robert Reed didn’t show up to offer help and wisdom? What would happen to Jodi, Scott, Rob, and Dana if half of the adults in the world said, “Those are the breaks kid”? Well, we are about to find out. Roll the promo:
Stay tuned to “Please Don’t Clip My Wings” starring Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) as the hopeful and precocious little girl from a poor neighborhood. At 9, she is a budding artist and entrepreneur, selling her work to her neighbors and local stores. She wants nothing more than to own her own business one day, spending her time working alongside her partner and their two kids, three dogs, and four chickens. She yearns for the support of her grandfather, played by Ed “I hate spunk” Asner (Mary Tyler Moore), who insists she “stop dreaming and scheming” and start living in reality. “Keep it real, kid. Keep it real.”
If such a special aired, we should all watch, sitting on the couch with our kids. When the special ends, with Asner crumpling up and throwing away his granddaughter’s painting of her future family standing outside a little house under a rainbow, we should talk about what the future holds for them. But first, we should tell our kids that, according to recent polls by Gallup, almost all American youth are like little Quvenzhane. They have no doubt that they will have a great future, a better life than their parents. But only half of the adults, just 1 of every two people that children think are their biggest fans, believe that the cherished children of America will have a better life than their parents.
Undoubtedly, like me, the parent of a 7-year old boy, some of you will be tempted to explain to your children that there are economic and political circumstances in the world that they can’t understand that make their future less rosy than they think. You might even want to pull an Asner and point out that lots of children are fantasizing about a future that is out of their reach. These cautions are grounded in some wisdom but they also might be associated with the pessimism we adults have about our own future, our personal vulnerabilities, or our profound inability to predict the future.
None of us want to star in an afterschool special titled “Kid, I Am Betting Against You.” We want to make sure our young people have the opportunities to get ahead and realize their version of the American Dream. So some of us, more than half, have to bridge the great hope divide by talking to children about their future plans, jointly outlining the steps needed to get there, and then supporting them like their futures depend on it.
Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., a Gallup Senior Scientist, is the world’s leading authority on the psychology of hope. His forthcoming book Making Hope Happen will be released March 2013.