Reaching Teens in Their Natural Habitat: A Field Guide for Savvy Parents
By Danny Holland
I cannot tell you how many Boomer parents have said to me, "You have no idea how lazy my teenagers are. They just sit around and do nothing." This observation about Xers and Millennial, although common, is not completely accurate. That's because each generation has different values. When parents or other adults fail to recognize and understand these differences, communication is impaired, and the transfer of vital information and values fails. Therefore, let's look at generational paradigms that cause misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Triumph Versus Togetherness
Boomers had a clear agenda in the world: they wanted to rule it. The Boomers were all about what they were accomplishing; their jobs gave them their identities. There is no question that the course of history was impacted by the character, values, and work ethic of the Boomer generation. Their drive to triumph resulted in a global environment where advances in technology, medicine, and other industries began taking new ground. But, again, the Boomer family dynamics many young Xers and Millennial grew up with resulted in two generations determined to rule their own individual destinies. For instance, it is not uncommon for a Millennial to think, I might work at Taco Town for the rest of my life, but I will surround myself with a community of people I want to be with.
If you think your teenager is lazy, try to take away his community. Take away his cell phone, e-mail, instant messaging, Web page, and other means of communication. You will suddenly see passion.
I could list names of students who do nothing in school-and I mean literally nothing. I have seen students write "Get drunk" as every answer on every test they take. But let the authorities try to administer discipline by removing them from the school environment and see what happens. When up for expulsion, these students will almost always fight it. Why do they fight being removed from an institution that they don't even attempt to participate in? Because they are being removed from their community.
Clearly, Millennials and younger Xers are driven by relationships. Many Boomers and older Xers contemplate how to "get ahead," but younger Xers and Millennials seek ways that we can all "get along. " The difference is valuing accomplishments as opposed to valuing social interaction. Despite their apparent lack of drive, the Millennials' primary value is people. They value relationships.
This generational difference is evident in commercials and television programming, and the examples are endless. When I was kid back in the eighties, one of my favorite shows was The A-Team. In every thirty-minute episode the A-Team thwarted some catastrophic event. Hannibal always had a plan, and that plan always came together. It was awesome. This story line was common in the Boomer television era. Boomers wanted to see something accomplished, so shows gave them that. And what a contrast to television today.
Most teen programming today is created by Generation Xers for Millennials. Friends was one of the most popular television shows of our time. The six main characters were neighbors. Only half of them had careers, but they all lived in huge apartments in New York City. Most of the time they hung out in a coffee shop and discussed life. Period. That's the show. Many Boomers don't find this concept entertaining in the least; nothing is accomplished. Such community-fueled shows offer nothing more than thirty' minutes of hanging out. This is the case in most of the TV shows popular among this young generation. The Real World, Laguna Beach, American Idol, Fear Factor, Blind Date, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and Survivor are other examples of relationally driven entertainment designed for a relationally driven generation.
Ends Versus Means
Closely related to the triumph-versus-togetherness paradigm is the fact that Xers and Millennials are all about the process, while Boomers are concerned about results. Let me give you an example.
When President George W. Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, those opposed to war voiced two main concerns. Many Americans felt that war would drive the price of gasoline up so high that it would cause an economic crisis in our nation The other concern was for the young people who were likely to be killed or injured.
It was the Boomers who seemed concerned about the "end" side of this issue. Boomer leaders spent countless hours estimating the war's financial impact. The economic consequences were of very little concern to most Xers and Millennials, though. Generation Xers and Millennials opposed to the war seemed to primarily voice the other concern: "What about my friends who could die?" and "How will those boys feel over there? They're my age and not ready to die for their country." MTV even did a documentary on what its like to be young and ready to go to war. And Xers and Millennials watched video footage of the invasion through the lenses of relationships. The means of the war was more important to them than what ground was conquered that day, or when the war might end, or the economic fallout of the war
Me Versus We
Boomers say, "I'm going to do my own thing," while Xers say, "We're doing our own thing." An African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child," and Generation X is living that out. Xers and Millennials are saying, "We will succeed," as opposed to, "I will succeed." Have you noticed, for example, that kids today do everything in groups? They walk in groups, study in groups, read books in groups, chat in chat rooms in groups, and even kill in groups. This last trend has alarmed those who study youth violence. There were fifty-two violent deaths in American schools in 1995-more than in any other year recorded. In 1999, the year of the Columbine High School massacre, there were twenty-five violent deaths. Despite the fact that Xers as students were more violent, there is a huge emphasis on school safety in the Millennials world. That's because almost every school shooter in recent history acted with a partner or a group, so vigilant parents of Millennials find video game-like replications of horrific acts by boy-next-door teenagers in groups as alarming as it gets.
The "we" of the younger generations can be positive or negative. One positive aspect of "we" is the reduction of racial tension in the midst of a growing multicultural environment. There is much less racial tension among our youth than there used to be. Interracial relationships, which were taboo two generations ago, are largely a nonissue now. This is a signature of young people today. American culture can be more aptly described as a stir-fry rather than a melting pot.
I have a good friend who served for thirty years as a police officer in a public school in the Washington DC area. During his time working in the same school, the ethnic makeup of the school changed dramatically By the time he left the school, eleven languages were spoken in that one building. All of us may not encounter this firsthand in our communities, but our culture at large certainly does.
We are also seeing the Hispanic population passing the African American population in some states, so new dynamics are at work in America. Though tensions have largely lessened, there are still aggressive conflicts between Hispanic and African American young people in many cities, and these conflicts are putting a new face on gang violence and related conflicts. The paradigm at work here is again the importance of the group over the individual.
Follow the Rules versus No Boundaries
Another huge difference between today's young people and their parents is what I call the anything-goes mentality. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, relativity is alive and well among Xers and Millennials. The only thing Millennials consider wrong is telling other people they are wrong. After all, they think the government, religion, society, parents, and friends cannot determine what is right. "That's okay for you, but not me" is the war cry of these kids, and most of us looking on already understand this on an intuitive level.
Now that we have explored a little about four of the major differences between the generations, let's look at some of the messages that our society is bombarding our children with.