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?
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.
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!