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Perspective: Teaching children to chart their own path feels more urgent than ever

From deadly TikTok challenges to fraternity hazing, children benefit from learning that it’s okay to be different from their peers

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Zoë Petersen

It has been one year since Adam Oakes, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, died from alcohol poisoning at a fraternity party. Eleven students were charged with unlawful hazing at the Delta Chi fraternity house, where the young man was given a bottle of Jack Daniels and told to drink it. Several are facing trialin the coming months.

Oakes’ case is sadly not unique. In 2017, Penn State student Timothy Piazza died after he drank too much and fell headfirst down a flight of stairs. His fraternity brothers failed to seek help for him; 18 students were charged in that incident. And then there was Chun Hsien Deng, an 18-year-old freshman at Baruch College in New York City, who died in another hazing ritual that involved crossing a frozen yard, blindfolded and wearing a backpack weighed down with sand. He died after fraternity members tackled him, resulting in severe head trauma.

While the conversation about the problems with fraternities has heated up in recent years, the fact is that hundreds of thousands of students will still wind up on campuses with Greek life. The question many parents need to ask is how they can protect their own children — not just from the dangers of fraternities but the broader dangers of being pressured into doing stupid things by their peers.

There are times that we don’t want our children to care what other people think. But this is an awfully hard virtue to instill in our sons and daughters, especially because we also want them to have friends and follow rules and get along with others.

How do we create a sense of independence in our children? Whether it’s speaking up in an era of cancel culture, standing up to a bully or holding fast to the values we teach, there are times that we don’t want our children to care what other people think. But this is an awfully hard virtue to instill in our sons and daughters, especially because we also want them to have friends and follow rules and get along with others.

Some get this training early on. I was struck by a piece that McKay Coppins wrote in The Atlantic last year. He mentioned the difficulties he faced growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Massachusetts, where many of his peers didn’t know other church members.

On the one hand, he writes: “My own testimony didn’t come in a blaze of revelation, but in living the faith day to day. The church was where I felt most like myself.” But, among his nonmember friends, Coppin notes, “I aimed to cultivate a reputation that sanded off the edges of my orthodoxy — he’s Mormon, but he’s cool. I didn’t drink, but I was happy to be the designated driver. I didn’t smoke pot, but I would never narc. All this posturing could be undignified, but I took pride in my ability to walk a certain line.”

I wondered whether it was in fact undignified. It’s hard to realize at a young age that you are in a minority, that the views of your parents and community differ from the larger world but nevertheless chart a path that allows you to befriend, and even live with, people outside the community.

But this is actually a lesson that many parents of all religions and no religion are striving to instill in their own children. Keeping kosher or observing the sabbath, for instance, set religious Jews apart from Gentiles, but being able to live and work and get along in a community with people who are not like you is also important.

There are other things besides religion that can provide kids with this independence and teach them that sometimes they can and should make different choices than their peers.

My own parents raised me with a certain intellectual snobbery. It was made clear that my peers might make certain choices — drinking to excess, having sex when they were too young, getting into a car with someone who was tipsy, blowing off schoolwork — but those were not “smart” choices. Neither was letting someone hit you with a paddle because you wanted to be part of a campus club. Or, especially relevant today, taking part in the latest, potentially deadly TikTok challenge.

Serious athletes sometimes develop this sense of independence. Though they often have the reputation for partying and participating in dumb team rituals, many quickly realize that in order to perform at their best, they cannot engage in all the foolish behavior they want.

But equipping our children with independence is not just about helping them achieve their goals; it’s also about ensuring their long-term well-being. In a June 2020 survey put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds said they had seriously considered suicide during the previous 30 days. Even before the pandemic, things had gotten pretty bad, with almost a fifth of that group saying they had seriously considered suicide.

Young people faced with bullying on social media often develop significant mental health problems. But just scrolling through and feeling excluded — even if you are not directly targeted — can leave young adults with a sense of hopelessness. Developing a sense of independence is also about knowing when not to care what everyone else is doing.

Teaching kids when to turn off technology, when to walk away from difficult situations and when to chart their own path is an age-old challenge but it feels more urgent now.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”