Much has been written about the increased mental health concerns facing Gen Z and Gen Alpha. In addition, as I talk to employers and educators, I often hear how many young people today lack the problem solving and critical thinking skills we saw in older generations at the same age. As we consider ways to support the health and growth of young people around us, we often overlook some of the best tools and opportunities at our disposal: fun and free play.
Neil Postman wrote, “It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children; but it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood. Tim Elmore, in his book Marching Off the Map wrote that childhood as we have known it historically is disappearing, and that a strange paradox is emerging in young people as a result. We are witnessing the extinction of childlikeness and the extension of childishness.
The reality is that free, unstructured play builds skills and maturity. When young people can play without an adult to dictate every action and guideline, and provide every resource, they have to start relying on their own abilities to problem solve, find solutions, resolve conflict, and exercise creativity. Furthermore, when they achieve something on their own, whether it is building a fort, designing a new game, writing a song for fun, or creating a small business idea, the resulting sense of fulfillment produces intrinsic motivation that helps them overcome apathy. When they encounter a complication and are able to overcome it, using their own skills and ideas, they gain confidence and resilience to face the next obstacle.
Fun activities that have no predetermined purpose allow young people to just explore, problem solve, and test their skills and ideas. Free play can also help decrease stress and anxiety by giving them time to just think and be. One of the best gifts we can give young people around us this summer is to model what it looks like to disconnect from our devices and step away from our structured task list and just have fun. Invite them to join you, or give them opportunities to do so themselves. If this is a skill they have never developed, they may need some help getting started, but it will be a skill they can benefit from the rest of their lives.
For more on free play, check out this article, or listen to the most recent episode of The Leading Tomorrow Podcast.
Gifts for Gen Z Graduates
Bradberry and Greaves, in their great little book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 said the following:
Of all the people we’ve studied at work, we have
found that 90 percent of high performers are also
high in EQ [emotional intelligence]. On the flip
side, just 20 percent of low performers are high
in EQ. People who develop their EQ tend to be
successful on the job… [and] make more money--
an average of $29,000 more per year than people
with low EQs. The link between EQ and earnings is
so direct that every point increase in EQ adds
$1,300 to an annual salary.
While emotional intelligence--which includes skills like self-awareness, empathy, and relationship management--is emerging as critically important for leaders today, given the prevalence of technology, many young people are lacking in these skills. As we head into graduation season, many high school seniors and graduating college students are facing new challenges and opportunities which will require increased emotional intelligence. As leaders, teachers, parents, and mentors, we can encourage them to grow in these important skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. Here are a few ideas for helping the graduate in your life:
For more on students and emotional intelligence, check out this month’s episode of The Leading Tomorrow Podcast, where I chat with Gen Z high school graduate, Ariana Chaparro, about self-awareness and self-leadership.
The National Student Clearinghouse released their latest college enrollment numbers on October 15, 2020. They are showing that a month or so into the fall 2020 semester, undergraduate enrollment is running 4% below last year’s numbers. “Most strikingly, freshman students are by far the biggest decline of any group from last year, with a decrease of 16.1% nationally and a 22.7% drop at community colleges in particular. First-time students account for 69% of the total drop in undergraduate enrollment.”
It is not surprising that many undergraduate students may be putting their college plans on hold amid uncertain times. This means a lot of students who might otherwise be in college are doing something else right now. I couldn’t help but wonder what this season looks like for those who are waiting to reengage their college plans. While mental health risks for college students were high prior to the pandemic, we are now seeing an increase in depression rates for college students since the beginning of the pandemic. It is critical for students today to have support and encouragement in this season as they make decisions that will allow them to thrive amid the uncertainty.
If you know a college-aged student who has put their plans on hold, or who is reconsidering their plans, here are a few ways to encourage them:
4 Keys to Engaging Students Online
During two decades of teaching in both K-12 and college contexts, I have had to adapt a lot of my teaching strategies to the many changes we are seeing in technology and students today. I have taught online courses for several different schools and developed a deep appreciation for the opportunities that exist in virtual classrooms. I believe virtual learning can provide opportunities that are unique to the online setting. As you engage students online, here are a few keys that I find essential to effective online education:
Key 1: Allow for Choice
When we have some choice in a situation, we tend to feel more motivated. As a result, I often give options for assignments. For example, sometimes students can choose between participating in a written online forum discussion (introverts tend to prefer this!) or a live virtual discussion (verbal processors love this!). On some activities, I allow submissions to be either written or a recorded video. They can often choose between a paper or a project. I also like to give some freedom, when possible, for students to choose topics or applications to explore in course assignments.
Key 2: Encourage Student Ownership
Sometimes students prefer that instructors do the hard work of teaching and providing feedback but engaging them in these processes ensures better learning. I like using peer reviews, student-led presentations, and group activities to maximize student ownership in learning.
Key 3: Get Feedback!
The greatest contribution to my learning as an online educator has been student feedback. I do at least one mid-course feedback survey/form with open-ended questions, in addition to final course evaluations, in every class I am teaching. I ask the following: what is working, what is not, what would improve your learning experience? I immediately respond to areas of concern and make changes to the course based on helpful student input. Students value that I listen to them and care about their learning experience.
Key 4: Learn from Colleagues
I have found solutions to so many of my challenges in online teaching by connecting with and learning from colleagues. I also regularly take courses or watch webinars that help me learn new tools and methods. It can be easy to get into a routine, so adding some new tech tools regularly helps keep our online teaching sharp!
I hope you find these tips helpful and encouraging as you engage students in online learning! For more on this topic, check out the most recent episodes of The Leading Tomorrow podcast.
Research continues to link the overuse of technology to depression, attention issues, and poor social skills. Many parents and grandparents I talk to feel overwhelmed by the powerful influence of technology in their families and homes. Technology, if not managed, can impair our family's wellbeing. One of our best defenses against devices controlling our time and relationships is to develop a culture in our homes that encourages healthy technology use. So, how do we go about inspiring a tech-smart family? Here are a few strategies and resources: So, how do we go about inspiring a tech-smart family? Here are a few strategies and resources:
Book Jolene to speak to your church, school, or community group on Tech-Smart Parenting or visit the Leading Tomorrow podcast for more on this and related topics!
Tim Elmore, in his book Generation iY, explains the fact that most young people today learn and interact through “uploading.” They engage in forums and activities via devices where they can share opinions, perspectives and preferences, and receive instant feedback. Nonetheless, many of our formal leadership and learning environments continue to implement “downloading” methods to engage, lead and teach those in our care. We talk at people, give orders or directions, and provide important information without stopping to receive input, give explanations or engage in discussion.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, many lived by the motto that children were to be seen and not heard. That philosophy was applied to many in "follower" positions such as students, soldiers or employees. While this perhaps made life easier for those parenting, teaching, or managing, it could result in decisions or information based on limited understanding. The ideas and desires of those in leadership roles were "downloaded" to the followers and silent obedience was often expected. Some leaders still adhere to this top-down approach to managing followers.
Since childhood, Millennials and Generation Z have been taught and encouraged to be seen and heard! They are accustomed to having input…whether it is choosing a favorite game on their device, posting a response on social media, or texting their vote to a favorite television show, they are uploading generations. If we want young members to feel engaged and committed to our teams, whether in the office, pew or classroom, we must allow participation, discussion, and “uploading.”
While there are some negative consequences from this need to be heard, there are also many benefits. Active participation can lead to increased creativity, understanding of diverse perspectives, and greater engagement and ownership. Regardless of the pros and cons, leaders today must understand that those they lead or teach are used to "uploading." Failure to provide opportunities for them to do so limits our ability to gain respect and earn the right to speak constructively into the lives of those around us. At times we need to address the negative aspects of our "uploading" culture. First, however, we must prove we are leaders who intentionally listen to those we lead.
Ideas for "uploading" as a leader:
*Ask open-ended questions regularly; allow the time and space to actively listen and ask follow up questions as we learn from those on our teams.
*Be sure that training and learning experiences incorporate as much discussion and active participation (uploading) as lecture and instruction (downloading).
*Request ideas, and when possible and appropriate, allow students or employees to pursue a course of action they value (even if it seems a bit problematic). Encouragingly help them navigate the challenges or consequences of the decision/action. This can help teach effective decision making, critical thinking and problem solving, equipping future leaders with needed understanding and skills.
*After listening to the input of others, there will be times when as a leader you need to make an unpopular or hard decision. When this occurs, explain your reasons, and honestly engage and answer questions. This becomes a mentoring opportunity and demonstrates transparency.
One of my 3-year-olds beckoned me excitedly over to her toy oven. We squatted down next to it and peered through the tiny clear plastic door. After a few moments, she made a “ding” sound and removed her playdoh “cake.” After setting it on the table and sticking it with a fork (my preferred makeshift cake tester), she started walking back to the toy oven. Confused, I asked her what she was doing. “It not done yet, just a little bit longer!” Suddenly the significance of the moment hit me. She was imitating, step by step, what typically happens when I am baking. From peering through the oven door, to testing the cake’s doneness, to my usual explanation for why a treat is not yet ready to consume. As I returned to washing the dishes, I could not shake this profound reminder that young people around us are always watching and always learning.
I recently heard a leadership presentation where the speaker explained that there are three significant ways we communicate what we value. The first is conversation, what we say. The second is our calendar, where we invest our time. The third is cash, where we spend our money. As I reflected on my daughter’s natural response to imitate my behaviors, I was challenged to reflect on what values my conversation, calendar and cash communicate, and how they are influencing, intentionally or unintentionally, the young people around me.
What we talk about, and when we talk about it, communicates our values. What do I say about other people when they are not around? This is perhaps one of the most powerful indicators of our values. Do I communicate respect for those who are not present in what I say about them? Do I show what it means to be a trustworthy and life-giving friend, employer, teacher, spouse or parent by where and how I verbally process challenges, frustrations, or doubts in those relationships? Do people around me think more creatively and critically, feel encouraged or inspired, and know they were heard after talking to me? How we converse with people around us daily conveys volumes about our values, and models for children, students, and young employees what is appropriate, acceptable, and professional!
Time is so precious and yet sometimes we become responsive versus proactive in how we use it. Take a few minutes and map out how you spend your time. Besides sleep and required work hours, what are your top three values as indicated by the quality or quantity of time you invest in them? If you are a parent, map out your child’s time. Our society often pressures us to prioritize a traveling team, that elite school, or some potential scholarship opportunity. We can become responsive to these demands. While it is valuable for kids to learn teamwork, discipline and excellence, we often see priorities like family time, our faith community, and relaxation edged out of our schedules. We then grieve when kids hide behind technology on family vacations, walk away from God and faith, and experience high anxiety. As we practice balance in the use of our time, we can model and help young people around us as they learn to manage their calendar.
I recently read an article about how much parents are spending as kids head back to school. It was stunning. I couldn’t help but wonder what we tell kids if we put a new smartphone or designer shoes on a credit card. The message we send about appearance, convenience or preference being more important than debt is powerful. As employers, we send a message when we give raises to certain people or improve specific spaces, but not others. We need to be intentional in those messages and ensure they represent what we say we value.
My husband and I recently made some significant decisions that allow us more time with our kids, but require us to cut back on the things we can buy for them. One morning, we were really questioning our decision. I left the house that day to do some work while my husband stayed home with the kids. When I walked in the door that afternoon, one of the girls ran up to me and announced, “Mommy, I SO happy!!!” I asked why and she responded, “I got to play with my daddy all day!” As those influencing the next generation, we sometimes need them to remind us the most valuable things in life cannot be purchased and are worth intentionally prioritizing.
Why Millennials Are Truly Unique
It happened again just last week. A gentleman at a roundtable I was facilitating made the argument that Millennials are just like any other generation. There are indeed life cycle effects—things that are similar for every generation at specific seasons of life. Most of us know better than everyone else when we are 25, right?! However, there are period and cohort effects that give each generation unique perspectives. The recession of 2008 could be considered a period effect…how it influenced a 22-year-old who had $50,000 in student loans and no job prospects was different than how it affected a 60-year-old who lost their job of 30 years and half of their retirement savings. One result for that 22-year-old is that he or she is unlikely to have the same confidence as older generations to commit 30 years to one job or rely on the stability of investing in a home or retirement funds. Unfortunately, this will often be criticized as irresponsibility or a lack of commitment, rather than a survival instinct!
While period effects, how events influence us at specific points in our life, are significant to the development of any generational cohort, I believe it is the cohort effects that truly make Millennials one of the most unique generations in American history. Cohort effects are how trends influence us during critical developmental stages of life. When we look at Millennials, we see the confluence of several incredibly significant changes occurring in our culture and society as they were in formative seasons of life. This has resulted in not just a generation gap between them and older generations, but also a cultural gap. The resulting worldview emerging in younger generations today is fundamentally different from that of previous generations.
So, what are the cohort effects most influential in the development of Millennials (and following generations)? Of course things like technology and globalization have been significant. Research is now showing that the brains of young people who have been exposed to technology since young ages, for extended periods of time, are actually wired differently. We know that the way communication occurs now is different. In many ways there is nothing new under the sun, but the way old issues manifest has changed. For example, there is still marital infidelity. Whereas an affair was more likely to occur for a working parent at the office while putting in long hours, it is now just as likely for an emotional affair to involve a stay-at-home parent who reconnects with an old friend on social media. While Millennials were introduced to many forms of technology much later in their lives than Generation Z, they represent the first generation of digital natives.
Philosophies of parenting and education also underwent significant changes as Millennials were born. Many of these trends are continuing with Generation Z. Of course, involved parenting, often termed “helicopter parenting,” has been perhaps the most significant of these trends. The self-esteem movement, where everyone gets a trophy, is closely related. Another significant trend that receives less attention is the focus on student-centered learning in education, which has added to the societal focus on providing what a child wants or needs. Like other trends, it has at times stripped young people of opportunities to learn how to overcome obstacles, solve problems on their own, or deal with failure and disappointment.
Most significant of the cohort effects, however, is the fact that Millennials represent the first generation of post-modern natives. Peter Drucker, in his book Post-Capitalist Society, explains, “Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation…society rearranges itself…its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions…we are currently living through just such a transformation.” Postmodernism, a response to the failing promises of the modern era, with its reliance on systems, science, logic and reason to solve our problems, has been the impetus for this transformation. David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity, describes, “Somewhere between 1968 and 1972, we see postmodernism emerge as a full-blown though still incoherent movement out of the chrysalis of the anti-modern movement of the 1960s.”
So, what does this post-modern movement mean for Millennials? As it unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, it gradually worked its influence into the fabric of our society. By the time Millennials began arriving in the 1980s, post-modern ideas were firmly at work in our education system, media and popular culture. Millennials are the first generation to be raised with predominantly post-modern values. While some of them still identify with modern values based on their particular upbringing or education, they belong to a peer culture that adheres to a post-modern worldview, a peer group of post-modern natives.
What are some of the key differences between a modern mindset and a post-modern perspective? As mentioned earlier, the modern era relied heavily on science, logic and facts. Postmodernity values experience, emotion and stories. As a result, decisions made by Millennials and Generation Z are often influenced by feelings versus reason. The rigid systems, hierarchies and structures of modernity are giving way to organic processes, open participation, and networks. Collaborative education has taught students the value of working together, engaging in a process, sometimes without concern for a specific outcome or result. Perhaps the most significant difference is related to views of truth. Modern perspectives held to absolute truth that could be discovered and proven. Postmodern perspectives hold pluralistic views of truth to be equal and believe they are defined in the context of community. As a result, we often find those of older generations strongly committed to their views of truth, whereas younger generations are much more open-minded, but can struggle to articulate personal convictions.
While there are many more differences and nuances, the points above begin to illustrate the fact that we are truly facing a cross-cultural gap as we seek engage across generations. This gap does not always neatly fall along generational lines, with many older individuals identifying with postmodern views and some younger ones still grounded in modern perspectives. However, Millennials are unique as they represent the turning point, the cusp of the transformation occurring in our society, the first cohort of postmodern natives.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!