Authentic Maturity: How to Bring the Best Out of Young Adults
Recently, I spent some time with some great educators from Shelby County, AL. I spoke to principals, assistant principals and teacher-leaders about how to connect with and equip the emerging generation (young people born since 1990).
After my second day, a principal approached me with what he called "cognitive dissonance." He agreed with everything I said about the challenges of teaching these kids who grew up with YouTube, Facebook, smart phones, Google and Wikipedia. Their attention spans are low; their sense of entitlement is high; they know a lot, yet have experienced surprisingly little. They are social yet not necessarily relational. Their conversations are on a screen. They are tough to harness.
At the same time, he told me his teachers already recognized all of this, and if they heard us talk this way, they’d respond: “Yeah! We need to stop coddling these kids and introduce them to the real world. We've been far too easy on them. We tell them they’re all winners and now they’re not prepared for the future, where their boss won’t be clapping for them every day because they showed up at work on time.”
Herein is the conflict.
We do need to prepare these kids to become responsible adults, but the best way to do this is not to suddenly become “tough” on them. The shock would push them away. It would be like exiting a dark cinema and walking outside into the daylight. We quickly shut our eyes and want to go back inside. The light’s too harsh. We must somehow ease them into adulthood through an intentional path.
Six Steps to Bring out the Best in the Emerging Generation
So can we help these students become all they could be? How do we build a bridge from the “coddled life” to the “disciplined life” that adulthood will demand. Let me suggest six steps teachers, coaches, youth workers, employers and parents can do:
1. Cultivate a relationship
Every student panel and focus group we host asks for this. They wish their coach or teacher would actually pursue some kind of relationship. Often students are reticent to initiate this; they question if a relationship is welcome between adult and child. To be honest, it often isn't. We want to do our job and leave. Why not approach them, start conversations, ask personal questions and let them know you care.
2. Earn the right to be heard
I know you’re the leader, but this generation of students hasn't been taught to respect the badge or the title. You may have authority but you must earn your influence. Build trust by doing what you say you’ll do; showing up on time if you require punctuality form students; embody the attitude you demand of them. Often, the best way to earn the right to be heard—is to listen to them.
3. Communicate belief
You can’t fake this. Teachers and coaches who win their students over authentically communicate that they believe in them. In fact, they convince students that the reason they push them is because they believe that student has potential. Every young man and women needs a caring adult to look them in the eye and say: “I believe you have it in you; I am convinced you have what it takes to succeed.”
4. Teach like a mentor
Both student panels in Shelby County expressed how much they want their teacher to be a mentor to them. This simply means there is a connection beyond lectures and giving grades. When this kind of adult teaches, they do it in the spirit of hope, desiring their students to grasp it, apply it and ultimately to win. Once again, this requires relationship, belief, motivation, and passion for the students.
5. Remove the fear of failure
When students don’t try, it’s frequently because they've been conditioned to think that failure is unacceptable. Many of them have never failed or struggled; they have ribbons and trophies in their rooms just for “playing.” Now that failure is an option, they don’t want to let anyone down. So they don’t try. Adults must relay that failure isn't final or fatal. In fact, it’s the way everyone really learns and grows.
6. Challenge them with a hard assignment
I have come to believe that deep down, every kid wants to be involved with a project that’s very important and almost impossible. When we give a tough assignment and let students know it will take everything they've got, it communicates we actually take them seriously. They are “legit.” On a foundation of support and belief, this is a logical way to prove you think they can really do it.
One last thought. This may take time. We really do need to build a “bridge” they can cross from “artificial maturity” to authentic maturity. They may have had years of parents making them the center of their lives, so it won’t happen overnight. I believe, however, if we’ll follow these steps, we can help them grow up into great adults over time. It’ll require us to stop preparing the path for the child, and begin preparing the child for the path.