My 11-year-old son started at a new school last month. For the past six years he attended a relatively small, close-knit elementary school where he developed a high level of self-confidence in a nurturing environment. Unlike me he is naturally out-going, so much so that I called him “The Mayor” of the fifth grade. Now he is in a new environment and I’m worried that it is not going to be an easy transition for him.
When I was laying down with him one night he said “Dad, the new kids are all jerks.” Turns out he had tried to be friendly to kids he didn’t know and they met his friendliness with cold shoulders. Nate is such a good-hearted kid that he can’t understand why his approaches aren’t welcome.
I can’t help but feel like his experience is reflective of something seriously wrong with the community we live in and even the larger cultural moment. The late media scholar George Gerbner wrote about “the mean world syndrome,” the tendency for people who watch a lot of television to adopt a fearful and untrusting view of others. The sociologist Robert Putnam has identified a correlation between high levels of media exposure and low levels of sociability and community involvement. And critics of our commercial culture like Sut Jhally and Juliet Schor have argued that the consumerist mindset encouraged by advertising turns us away from people and toward products for the fulfillment of our social needs.
Is this related to what my son is experiencing? Are the other students so fearful and so trapped in their own little bubbles that they don’t know how to deal with the overtures of a truly friendly person? And, if so, what does this say about our ability to see ourselves as part of a larger community rather than just isolated individuals with no social responsibilities or compassion for others?