Talking to teens


I’ve had the great pleasure of working with a number of young people recently. The Robotics League team at Great River School are a dedicated and smart group of kids with extraordinary skills at times. They make things happen.

Learning about them as people has been a terrific joy for me, too. I’ve learned a bit about how to motivate the next generation of adults and what they are capable of. I’d like to share my experiences and ask your opinions, too.

The next generation are more than the people who are going to inherit the earth once we are done with it. They seem to share a can-do spirit with the last generation to survive a depression. Being “real”, or explaining the truth of the situation, seems to go very far. They seem to have pretty good BS detectors and respond well to direct, plain talk.

I’ve always had best results when I talk to older kids as if they are adults, although with a bit more positive feedback and encouragement. It seems to be more a matter of showing respect early in a conversation as the key to getting them motivated. Letting them know I have a lot of respect for them and expect them to perform seems to be the best way to motivate them.

My daughter Thryn put it rather bluntly. “Our generation is different than the one before us. We’re not special or anything, it’s just the normal difference that you have to expect. Traditionals didn’t understand Boomers, who didn’t get Gen-Xers, and so on.” When I asked her what was different, it wasn’t hard for her to call it. “We don’t tend to live in boxes, everything is a bit grayer. You’re not just the gay kid or the black kid or any of that. We let the lines blur more than you did.”

That didn’t set well with me, so Thryn knew how to send it back. “Like in ‘Breakfast Club’, when they said they weren’t just the kids that adults saw. That was reacting to a hyper-competitive environment that expected things from kids. We don’t live in that world and reject labels just like they did.”

George is younger, so his perspective is a bit different. He does value the freedom he’s been given but likes to keep it in perspective. “It’s important for us to be able to screw up because we do a lot. Too much responsibility puts a lot of pressure on us to do everything. It doesn’t work.” So while he does like that I talk to him as an adult he needs a little bit of space to make it actually happen.

He’s harder on his friends and where they are, however. “You have to draw the line at teen drama and BS,” he was careful to add. “You can’t let us just get away with things. There is a time when you have to clamp down on us and be the parent.”

I haven’t had problems like that on the Robotics Team. They are all great kids who can do nearly anything. They may not be a representative sample of the next generation, given how dedicated and talented they are, but they are very inspirational. The most common difficulties I see are pretty much the same ones I had at their age.

While adults aren’t perfect at it, I find that what kids have the most problems with is taking a step back and seeing the big picture. When presented with a strategic view of things, or even just encouraged to find one on their own, they tend to stop and freeze up for a moment. Sometimes that’s a hint of rejection and sometimes it’s just time to think it through. But when they take a moment it is important to encourage the longer view, at least until it becomes overwhelming. When that happens, time to write things down or at least talk it through is needed.

What I like best about this group, however, is that leadership through strategic thinking does make sense to them. Their natural view of leadership is very democratic and personally motivated, a distributed model based on accomplishing goals. As long as they are keyed into their part of the overall picture they seem to be very happy and eager to be a part of it. That seems to be where I can help them the most.

There is a lot more to raising kids than open dialogue and motivation, of course. But it’s a good start. I find that if they are definitely on their own path they will at least learn something from the experience. None of the kids I know are on destructive paths so a strong intervention hasn’t been necessary. But even if there was I don’t think I would talk to them much differently than I do now.

Any other experiences or ideas you would like to tell us about working with teens?