About the Author: I’m Sara Davis, an incoming senior in high school from Colorado. I’m an intern with Cultures of Dignity. In this blog series, I am using the tools I learned, along with my own experiences to show how dignity creates a healthy classroom culture.
Advice from a Student: Using Benefit of the Doubt to Strengthen Relationships with Young People
By Sara Davis
Among my high school choir teacher’s many bits of sage advice, my favorite is “Be generous in your assumptions of others”. We tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and usually believe that we are acting with good intentions, but we typically assume that when others act badly it is due to a flaw in their character. This cognitive bias is called Fundamental Attribution Error (or FAE), and it is something humans are naturally hardwired to do. But with practice, Fundamental Attribution Error is something we can easily overcome to the benefit of all our relationships.
Adults often draw their own conclusions about the meaning of young people’s actions without taking the time to consider, without judgement, a young person’s motivations. This is especially true when it comes to something the adult doesn’t understand, like technology. My generation knows how to navigate social media, video games, and online learning. We use all kinds of technology for getting news, talking to friends, doing homework, or applying for a job. But to adults, who didn’t grow up using it, they may struggle to play “catch-up” with the young people in their lives. Based on what many adults heard from other parents, teachers, and the media, technology is just something for young people to “mess around on”. This perception makes technology something that adults feel they need to control, and clamp down to make sure it’s being used only in ways they are comfortable with. Many adults come at technology from a point of judgement, instead of assuming that young people are using technology to educate themselves, or keep in touch with their family and friends like many adults do.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made FAE much more difficult to manage. Outside stressors, like COVID-19, working from home, and worries about our family’s safety make it more difficult to remember to give others the benefit of the doubt. Due to the overwhelming lack of control everyone feels right now, it is even harder to slow down and stop ourselves from making assumptions.
Treating people as trustworthy, and starting with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
Leading with the benefit of the doubt helps to dismantle FAE and strengthen relationships with each other.
In a time when it is so important for adults and young people to do their best to work with each other, here is a list of behaviors that adults do surrounding technology that deprive young people of the benefit of the doubt:
When a young person is looking at their phone, smiles or expresses another emotion and an adult says, “Who is that?” “What are you looking at?” “Who are you texting?” and often followed by a demand to see the young person’s screen, the adult comes across as annoying, and invading the young person’s privacy.
Impact: It makes young people feel like they have to justify every use of technology, and also makes them feel like adults don’t trust them.
These are rules like “No phones at the dinner table” or “Everyone has to take an hour outside without technology per day”. The young person always has to follow these rules, or punishment occurs. But adults break these rules by saying things like “Well, now I work from home so I need to be available” or “I’m just extra busy today”, without allowing young people to utilize the same exceptions.
Impact: It makes young people feel like their needs do not matter as much as yours, and that their experiences aren’t valid.
“Why do you waste so much time on TikTok?” “Ugh! Nobody reads books anymore!” “When I was your age….”. This fails to recognize that young people live in a drastically different world than adults do, and as a result have different experiences. It does not mean that those experiences are any less complex just because they aren’t familiar to adults.
Impact: It makes young people again feel like they have to justify any use of technology, and feel as though their experiences are not valid in the eyes of adults. It also means that we can’t share our experiences online with an adult, regardless of whether those experiences are good or bad.
Young people understandably want to avoid these situations, so they develop their own behaviors to feel a sense of control over their lives.
When adults do not extend benefit of the doubt to young people, it leads to:
This can look like flipping a phone down when an adult walks in, turning the screen off, or clicking on a different tab. Usually the young person isn’t doing anything bad. They may be Facetiming a friend, scrolling through Instagram, etc. But because the adults in a young person’s life typically always have something negative to say about young people on technology, we want to hide it. Or when they see a young person doing anything the adult doesn’t like, the technology immediately gets taken away, often without explanation. So it’s often easier for the young person to just hide what they are doing.
This can be as innocuous as saying “Nothing!” or “Just homework!” when a young person is asked what they are doing on technology. This again can be because of adult criticism, or because the technology has been taken away before the young person ever had a chance to explain themselves. This behavior also becomes common if hiding doesn’t work, because the adult immediately demands to see the young person’s screen (which often feels like an invasion of privacy) when the young person hides their technology. Somehow, the adults in this young person’s life have led them to think that the adult will always be angry about their use of technology.
Avoid seeking help or guidance
Adults see stuff on the Internet that confuses them all the time. Well, this happens to young people too. The difference is that often when young people ask an adult a question about something they saw, the adults use shaming tactics, such as saying “Where the heck did you learn that?” or “What kind of stuff are you looking at?”. I’ve even experienced scenarios where I asked about something I learned in school, and an adult went on a rant about Internet safety. The irony of course being that young people are taught media literacy skills in school, whereas many adults are prone to sharing fake information they found online. This again teaches young people that adults don’t trust them, and therefore young people cannot trust that they will feel safe when they ask an adult a question.
In order for young people to feel that they are being treated fairly, adults have to follow the rules of reciprocity, in all areas of life including technology. That means you respond to a positive action with an equal positive action, for example if you buy lunch this time, I’ll buy lunch next time. In psychology, a primary way to ensure you will be in conflict with someone is to break the reciprocity rules, such as always “forgetting” your wallet when it’s your turn to buy lunch. Asking for the benefit of the doubt from others without extending it to others is a major erosion of trust, and is asking for conflict. The use of technology is not a monolith for anybody, so it’s a very good example of why we should always be generous in our assumptions of each other.
You can also replace the word technology with dozens of other factors in the life of a young person, from listening, to going out with friends, etc. One common phrase young people hear is “life isn’t fair”, as if that makes the situation okay. No, life may not be fair, but that does not mean we can’t treat other people with dignity, and this includes the young people in your life. I resent the phenomenon where anything a young person does that an adult doesn’t like is automatically viewed as doing something with attitude, sass, or disrespect.
As we know dignity and respect are very different, but presumed “attitude” is not permission for the adult to punish or dismiss what the young person is saying, just so they don’t have to acknowledge those experiences. It is dismissive of a young person’s reality, and breaks the rules of reciprocity, since an adult can demand “respect” from young people without extending it to them in return. Adults believe that their greater life experience means they know best, and make the unfair assumption that young people just haven’t learned yet. And in turn, young people then make the unfair assumption that adults can’t be trusted. It seems like an unbreakable cycle, but in reality, there is one simple solution: LISTENING.
At Cultures of Dignity, listening means being prepared to be changed by what you hear. When adults and young people listen to each other, when everyone’s perspective is given fair and equal weight, and they give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they have good intentions, it means everyone is being treated with dignity.
This is part of the Navigating Politics with Dignity in the New Decade series.
Read Megan Saxelby’s blog on Benefit of the Doubt and Fairness for the educator’s perspective: