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.
What is "Sharenting?"
“Sharenting” is a term that describes sharing about kids or young people online. “Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online,” is a new book by Leah Plunkett. Plunkett argued that “sharenting” happens any time an adult in charge of a child’s well-being, such as a parent, grandparent, teacher or coach, transmits private details about a child via digital channels such as social media. Some of these activities clearly involve a public share, such as posting pictures of your child on Instagram, or blogging about your kids. Others seem to happen in private, but often end up turning your child into a set of data points, via fertility apps or Amazon wish lists, the use of a Nest cam, or photos stored on a cloud server. Though these platforms and devices aren’t necessarily exploitative, Plunkett argues that they involve adult decisions that accelerate a child’s entry into “digital life.”
A struggle for many of us is that we want to share about our kids for family and friends; cute kids are a positive feature on social media as compared to some other types of posts; they get likes and comments which make us feel good; and social media is now part of the world we live in. So, is concern over too much “sharenting” warranted?
Tim Elmore shares a story on his blog that illustrates one of the potential dangers of too much “sharenting:”
It all started when April, Christine’s youngest daughter, was five years old. Christine knew April would be their family’s last baby and wanted to document each milestone and comical moment of her childhood. By the time she was ten, April was avoiding photo ops; shying away from the camera. By 13, when she had a phone of her own, April witnessed on social media just how much mom had posted on both Facebook and Instagram. She felt violated.
Eventually, as a teen, April requested her mom stop sharing photos of her. It was embarrassing and drew sarcasm from her friends.
In my relationship with my own kids, I have seen the shyness or embarrassment on occasion that result when they realize I have shared something about them. It has made me realize that no number of likes are worth hurting my relationship with my kids. While kids may not need full agency to dictate what can be shared about them at a young age, we don’t want to violate their trust. It can be difficult finding the balance between honoring and celebrating or sharing, and jeopardizing trust.
Another real factor is privacy and security. The BBC reported on a study by Barclays bank estimating that by 2030 nearly two-thirds of identity-fraud cases affecting today’s children will have resulted from sharenting. The bank warned that parents might be "lulled into a false sense of security" and fail to understand that they are making their children "fraud targets" in the future, by publishing so much personal information which will remain online forever.
Tim Elmore shares some practical guidelines to consider as we share about our kids, grandkids, or other young people online:
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:
In this season, our relationships have adapted to a world of social distancing and virtual interactions. Whether we are spending more time with our kids as they homeschool or do virtual courses, or spending less time with students or employees who are learning and working from home, there are unique opportunities to encourage and support the young people in our life. One way we can do this is to identify and acknowledge how they are smart, the natural intelligence they have, and affirm and encourage them in developing their abilities.
This is a generation that is incredibly individualistic and is growing up in a world that tells them identity is fluid. This can create uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety. This is further complicated as social media creates a tendency to compare ourselves to others. Young people today need confidence to understand themselves and grow in their abilities. We can help them.
Dr. Kathy Koch, in her book The 8 Great Smarts, talks about the different types of intelligences we can watch for in the lives of the Gen Zers around us. She gives descriptions of how each type of intelligence thinks, responds, and learns. There are great suggestions for activities to do with young people based on their interests, and ideas for guiding them into a career field that fits who they are.
The eight great smarts that she delineates are:
· Word Smart
· Logic Smart
· Picture Smart
· Music Smart
· Body Smart
· Nature Smart
· People Smart
· Self Smart
I highly recommend Dr. Kathy’s book. As a parent who is Word Smart, it has given me so many great insights as I raise Picture Smart and Nature Smart kids. As a People Smart coach and educator, I have learned to better appreciate and relate to the Self Smart people I coach and teach.
As you engage the Gen Zers in your life, I encourage you to pay close attention to the “smarts” they possess, encourage and guide them as they develop the unique intelligence they possess.
Making Memories That Last
In his short story, A Christmas Tree, Charles Dickens writes: “I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree.” He describes the wonder of the children as they looked at the ornaments. “This motley collection of odd objects, clustering on the tree like magic fruit—some of the diamond eyes admiring it were hardly on level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses—made a lively realization of the fancies of childhood.”
Our children today do not have the same experiences as the children Dickens describes. Lights on a tree hardly hold the same wonder when they compete with high definition screens. Imaginations are not ignited with wonder, sitting and staring at twinkling ornaments, when they are stimulated instead by continuous noise from handheld devices. Furthermore, innocent ponderings are interrupted by mature content, flowing into our homes and lives via technology.
Tim Elmore, in his book, Marching Off the Map, describes, “We have now begun to experience a strange paradox in our young: The extinction of childlikeness; the extension of childishness.” He explains that the “infectious flow of information” is exposing our kids to adult topics. As a result, they can “lose (1) their sense of innocence, (2) their sense of wonder and (3) their sense of trust.”
Not only are we losing our child-like wonder today, but also our ability to connect with our environment, the way people used to engage the beauty of simple things like Christmas decorations. Kirsten Weir wrote a fascinating article, “Never a Dull Moment.” She explains how in today's technological world, it's unusual to be stuck with absolutely nothing to do. “Most of us are bombarded by near-constant stimuli such as tweets, texts and a seemingly limitless supply of cat videos right at our fingertips. But all those diversions don't seem to have alleviated society's collective boredom.” She cites Psychologist John Eastman who says the reverse may be true. "These might distract you in the short run, but I think it makes you more susceptible to boredom in the long run, and less able to find ways to engage yourself," he says.
Weir reports that several researchers concluded boredom is best described in terms of attention. “A bored person doesn't just have nothing to do. He or she wants to be stimulated, but is unable, for whatever reason, to connect with his or her environment.” Connecting, and helping others connect, with the environment around us is critical as we seek to develop meaningful moments and lasting memories this Christmas. Most of us are used to our environment stimulating us, and if we are bored, we reach for a device. We have lost some of our ability to connect with each other. When we get together for holiday parties, and family gatherings, we often struggle to stay engaged with the people or activities around us and can be tempted to seek stimulation in our social media feed, text messages, or email notifications.
Creating meaningful memories may require some discipline and planning. We can start by being aware of when we are tempted to pull out our device, instead of engaging with someone who is in the room with us. We have to be intentional in creating focused time for interaction. For example, designing a fun box for phones and encouraging people to drop theirs in during family dinner. Planning some interactive activities (games, discussion questions, collaborative project) can give people tools to engage with each other rather than turning on video games or a movie. We must practice good emotional intelligence by asking questions, engaging others in conversation, and modeling for kids how to build relationships.
In her article, Weir cites researcher Van Tilburg. "We saw that boredom actually increased people's tendency to recall these very nostalgic memories and actually made them feel that life in general was more meaningful." Some boredom is essential to the wonder that Dickens described! It creates room for the most nostalgic and memorable moments to occur and be remembered. So, this Christmas, don’t just hand the kids a device, rather sit down with them to play a board game, decorate cookies, or share stories by the fire. When they complain about being bored, just smile!
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!
Why Safety Can Be So Dangerous
Gen Z (b. 1996-2012) is being raised and educated in a culture of fear. This is the result of many factors. We live in a post-9/11 world, marked by ongoing wars and terrorism, an economic recession, and 24/7 coverage of global, domestic, and personal tensions, trauma, and anger streaming into our lives via our smartphones. Many adults have succumbed to the perspective that the world is an uncertain, dangerous, and scary place. As a result, we work diligently to protect the young people in our lives. We monitor them via video feed throughout their infancy and track them by GPS when they get older. We feed them organic food, buckle them into every seat they sit on, give them helmets and knee pads, and keep them in safe, enclosed spaces. We discourage them from doing anything dangerous or risky, citing the great harm that could befall them. They listen as we talk to one another in frightened or angry tones about what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. They see what we post on social media. They get the message repeatedly that the world is a scary and unsafe place.
In a world perceived as dangerous and uncertain, safety has become the priority. This has had some positive results. Jean Twenge reports in her book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, that there are several positive indicators of increased physical safety for kids and teens today. Homicide rates, sexual assault and rape, and alcohol consumption have all been on the decline. However, there are some other troubling statistics emerging. Depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people are on the rise. In fact, some experts believe that Gen Z is on the verge of a mental health crisis.
Twenge explains how we have not only focused on physical safety for young people today, but also on emotional safety. We have taught them to be tolerant and that they should never be made to feel uncomfortable emotionally. As a result, many do not know how to handle criticism, conflict, or even conversation about tough issues in a healthy and constructive manner. Instead, many young people see words and social interactions as potentially dangerous and harmful.
The emphasis on physical and emotional safety is promoting an aversion to any kind of risk or danger. We neglect to teach and model that it is in failing and experiencing pain that we realize how strong and resilient we are. Healthy conflict, disagreement, and dialogue are where we learn new things, gain diverse insights, and deepen our understanding of ourselves, others, and important issues. It is only through getting hurt that we can ever truly learn the beauty and power of forgiveness and healing. So, while safety is important, it can also be dangerous. Too much safety can strip young people (and the rest of us!) of desperately needed confidence, resilience, perspective, and hope.
So, how can we encourage young people in our lives to avoid the inherent risks of too much safety?
3 Challenges to parenting today
Steven Covey’s comment toward the end of his book, First Things First, grips me: “I deeply believe that if we attend to all other duties and responsibilities in life and neglect the family it would be analogous to straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.” As I seek to parent my own daughters, mentor young leaders, and research and teach on generational trends, I am haunted by a sense that we spend a lot of time in our culture straightening deck chairs. I believe three factors contribute to our tendency to ignore or delegate what is most important in our lives. I sense the pull of these powerful forces in my own life, and see them in the lives of my family, friends, and people I interact with across the country as I travel and speak. So, what are they and how do we combat them to focus on what is most important?
The beauty of today’s technologically connected society is that I can easily keep up with my friends and family scattered across the country and globe. An unintended consequence of this connectivity, however, is that I am constantly witnessing what everyone else is doing. I see my friends whose kids are playing tennis, basketball, and soccer. I see other friends who have their kids in choir, gymnastics and dance. Other friends are at Disney World, while some are camping in tents at a State Park. Inevitably, I begin to compare my life (and my kids’ lives) with everyone else’s. Slowly, I can get pulled into the busyness of doing things because other people are doing them. I begin rearranging chairs.
Each family is unique. What mine is gifted and called to do might look very different from another family. In resisting the overwhelming pull of comparison, I must know what our mission statement is, what we are supposed to be focused on in this season of life. If my husband and I have not spent time in prayer and conversation about this, we become reactive rather than intentional. This fall, after praying, I rearranged my schedule to ensure quality time with my kids. We changed the time and place of family devotions to make sure they would happen regularly, and we set a time for evaluating the activities in our lives to be sure they were not overwhelming what is most important. In my family, we find it important to reevaluate our rhythms three times a year to be sure we are not falling into the trap of comparison and compromising what is most important.
Opportunities in our society today are abundant. If you want to learn to play piano, you can search for piano lessons online and easily find hundreds of options, including teachers coming to your home, piano studios, online courses, or YouTube videos. When I open my social media feed, local events are popping up for every age and interest. The temptation with opportunities is that they can be hard to pass up. Because something fun is happening or there is an opportunity to learn something or connect with someone, we can feel pressure to do so. This is not bad, but sometimes we can find ourselves busy with opportunities that are not our priorities. Just this week, I found myself in this position. I had scheduled every free window of time with wonderful activities and interactions. However, as I looked at my week, there was little quality time left over for me to spend with God, my kids, or my spouse. Knowing we all needed some time together, I said “no” to some great opportunities and said “yes” to time together for snuggles, stories, chores, games, and great conversation. I find these are often the moments when mentoring and discipleship happens, trust is built, and memories are made.
Author and speaker, Tim Elmore, delineates several parenting types in his book, Generation iY. One of them is the Dry Cleaner parent. He explains that this style of parenting entails dropping our kids off for other people to teach or raise, like we drop off our clothes to be cleaned. I think all of us can recognize that our kids can learn some things better from other people. What too often happens, however, is that we begin to delegate most of our parenting. We find ourselves in the role of chauffeuring our kids from activity to activity, sitting on the sidelines and watching them, but not actually teaching them ourselves. Some of this comes from insecurity. We trust a tutor, a coach, or a mentor to teach them better than we can. Ironically, the time we spend with our kids as we work on a project, wash dishes, bake a cake, clean the yard, or eat dinner will probably have a much more significant impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing and life skills than any number of programs or activities ever will. At some point, I must set aside my insecurities and embrace my role as a parent, knowing I won’t always do it perfectly, but I am the only one who can fill that role for my family and I am going to do it to the best of my ability.
The Power of a Good Question
A recent study revealed that 18 to 22-year-olds are the loneliest age group today. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this troubling statistic. One, of course, is the prevalent use of technology in our society today. While devices help us connect to people in new and beneficial ways, there are some drawbacks. Empathy, for example, has decreased as technology has increased. One study reported that college students are 40 percent less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago, prior to the widespread use of the internet. Screens dull our ability to feel the pain and joy of others and to connect with them emotionally. This presents a threat to deep, committed relationships that are impossible to maintain without continuing empathetic interaction.
While Millennials and Generation Z are especially adept at communicating online, valuable intimacy often gets lost in virtual communications. Quantified Communications reports that an average adult today makes eye contact between 30 and 60 percent of the time in conversation, but emotional connection is built when eye contact is made during 60 to 70 percent of the conversation. When there is less eye contact, fewer connections are made. Virtual connections, while valuable, cannot replace the emotional connection and sense of well being that occurs with eye contact, touch, and physical presence.
Leaders and managers today often report that young staff lack the relational skills and emotional intelligence to connect with others effectively. In many ways, it is the older generations who must take responsibility for this. When we hand a 5-year-old a device instead of answering their tenth question about giraffes or princesses, we rob them of an opportunity to develop face-to-face communication skills and connect with us in a way that is meaningful to them. When we miss the body language or facial expressions of a 10 or 12-year-old in our life because we are busy checking our social media feed, we lose the opportunity to model good emotional intelligence. When we avoid a conversation with an 18 or 20-year-old in our life because we assume their earbuds mean they don’t want to talk to us, or we fear rejection, we miss an opportunity to demonstrate sincere interest or unconditional love.
Young people today need opportunities to practice healthy relational skills, and they desperately need to see them modeled. Many leaders, mentors, teachers and parents I talk to, however, do not know even where to start in actively engaging the young people in their lives. What I have found, in interacting regularly with 5 to 25-year-olds, is that there is great power in a good question and active listening. I have yet to encounter a young person who did not respond positively to someone sincerely asking about their perspectives and concerns. True, there might be an eye roll or two at first, but when they see you persist in your interest in them, despite their eye roll, trust and respect begin to develop.
So, what does a good question entail? First of all, it must be open-ended. If it allows the young person to respond with a simple “yes,” “no,” “good” or “bad,” a grunt or sigh, it is not a good question. Instead, it should require some thoughtfulness. Instead of asking, “Did you have a good day at school?” try something like “What was the best part of your day at school?” The response to a good question should give you some insight into the young person’s life and provide an opportunity for a follow up question. For example, if they respond that the best part of their day was chatting with a friend, you could follow up with a question like, “Tell me about your friend? How did you meet?” A good question can thus communicate that you care about what they care about. Check out some other great sample questions here.
Good questions are one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate interest, gain empathy, and develop deep connections. As a result, they are a critical tool for all of us as we interact in a society that is increasingly distracted and busy. Make it a goal to practice asking good questions and taking the time to listen actively to the responses.
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.
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!