Rioters are rebels without responsibility

June 4, 2011

Teens lack of responsibility leads to acts of vandalism. Image source: Spaces Images, Getty Images.

Neighbours cowered in their homes while the “animals” — more than 100 teens — “went wild” and spray painted graffiti all over a west Toronto house slated for demolition. The inside was trashed and strewn with empty beer bottles.

There was no worthy explanation.

It was sort of like a mini riot. Fun. Wild. Alcohol-fueled. It happened a month before Vancouver’s and received minor coverage in the Toronto press.

When young people join together in an act of destructive abandon, what most often gets destroyed isn’t a downtown street lined with expensive handbag shops but suburban homes, owned by moms or dads, the very people they are supposed to love the most.

It’s a point worth noting as Vancouverites question why the mostly young rioters destroyed the city that they are supposed to love. It has little to do with love and a lot to do with responsibility, or the lack thereof.

We learned this from summers spent among the Maasai Warriors of Kenya, where boys become men through a series of ritualized steps. Learning responsibility is crucial to their community’s survival.

In Vancouver, the rioters weren’t anarchists. There was the former UBC rower caught on video leaving a store with two pairs of size 42 men’s dress pants. A professional mountain biker photographed sticking his tongue out à la Gene Simmons after helping flip a car. And the Olympic water polo hopeful who was recorded ignominiously stuffing a rag in the gas tank of a police car.

Stricken parents must have wondered how could so much parental care and calculation, not to mention chauffeuring, lead there, to that?

Let’s face it, 30 is the new fifteen. Young people don’t need to take responsibility for much of anything. Someone else — parents, teachers, coaches, the police, and janitors — will clean up their mess, drive them here, there and everywhere, bail them out, fork over the cash. They might lose their computer privileges due to bad behaviour, but most parents ensure their kids get to sport and music practice. After all, their children have to make something of themselves.

But at what age are they required to help build the community that they live in?

During our many summers running leadership camps and development projects in Kenya, we have witnessed the Maasai usher their young into adulthood in rituals far different than what we have in North America.

One teenager we came to know, Naabala, was tested repeatedly with new responsibilities. He herded cows, and then built a hut to live in after his initiation. He was attacked by fire ants and then endured ritual circumcision. Each trial was to show he could endure pain without crying out, an act that might scare away nearby game — the village’s food source — or alert an enemy.

Finally, he was exiled to kill a lion. It was only upon his return, clutching a lion’s tail, that he was judged a man responsible enough to defend, build and lead his community. And it was only then that parents and community leaders could rest easy, knowing they had done their job.

Naabala’s journey from boyhood to adulthood took months, not 15 years. We’re obviously not advocating you send your teen to Kenya to endure ritual circumcision, yet his story offers valuable lessons.

In North America, a Sweet Sixteen bash, getting a driver’s license, or earning a high school diploma defines the transformation to adulthood. Pretty mundane and uninspiring. Without formalized rites of passage, it’s no wonder children create their own in order to prove they can take on the world. The struggle for self definition leads some kids to rebel against parents and their communities, to shoplift for kicks, engage in early sex, joy rides, gang activity. And maybe even get swept up in the mob mentality that leads to house-wrecking parties, even riots.

We’re doing our teens no favours. They crave responsibility but are treated like adults-in-waiting — too young for challenges or to fight for their beliefs. Such kids are on the receiving end of everything — homework from teachers, orders from parents, pressure from peers.

When you’re responsible for nothing, you care little about the consequences of your actions.

Adolescence should be about doing, not being done for. How else can our young people learn to take responsibility for their actions, good and bad?

In Vancouver, we’ve seen them name and shame. Now we need to encourage them to “claim” responsibility for their community.

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