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Teens: Learning To Talk With Them, Not To Them

March 15, 2011

Recently, I was invited to speak at the high school from which I graduated – Bristol Junior Senior High School in Pennsylvania.  When the request came, instinctively, I said, “Yes.”  I felt honored to by the invitation and thought this was a good opportunity to give back.

As time passed, I thought more about what I had agreed to, and with that, my internal conversation began to shift.  I acknowledged to myself and a few trusted allies that I don’t know how to talk to high school kids.  I’ve spent my career working with adults.  I have no idea what to say to high school students…not today’s kids.  I don’t feel relevant.  I don’t even think I understand them.

What I didn’t say, but was feeling, is that I was scared, nervous, unsure, afraid of failing and failing miserably.  I was face-to-face with the terror and false boundaries set up and protected by the Border Patrol – the mental menace that lives in my head.  The one who says, “You don’t know how to talk to kids.  Today’s kids are tough.  They’re impossible to reach.  This is not going to work.  You’ll see.  You have no idea what you’re doing.”

A part of figuring out what to do involved getting some help from a few young people in my life – those with whom I have a relationship and can talk.  Their counsel:  “Talk with them, not to them.  Tell them a little about yourself and then get them talking about themselves.  Have a conversation.”

My nephew, Cory, was especially helpful.  He said, “They’re used to people telling them stuff.  You’ll be different if you show up and talk with them; if you listen and show interest in what they’re thinking about.”

I took Cory’s advice and had an amazing experience.  I had no trouble getting five different classes of young people to talk with me about their talents and dreams for the future.  I felt exhilarated throughout the process and drove home smiling to myself.  “I can talk with kids.  Maybe I can do more of this.  This is great.”

Several things have stayed with me beyond that day and the five periods I spent with as many different groups of students:

  • Frequently, kids have a vision of the life they want.  While they’re eager to share their dreams, they feel vulnerable and a little shy and sensitive when doing so.  They’re afraid their ideas will meet with adult criticism.  Our challenge is not to criticize, but to encourage them toward every good and honorable goal they want to pursue, even if what they envision is not in keeping with our ideas about what is right for them.
  • A fairly large number of young people have no idea what they like, enjoy or find interesting, let alone what they want to do in the future.  Their lives are narrow.  Their experiences have been few.  These kids would benefit from new and constructive experiences that will broaden their perception of the range of options and opportunities life holds.  If you’re in a position to give that to a child, I encourage you to as often as you can.
  • The kids that appeared most slouched and lethargic did not seem to have any readily identifiable goals and challenges. When I asked how they spend their time, one young lady said, “Chillin.”  She was not alone; that was a common response.  The truth is that boredom and nothingness saps energy.  Lacking a sense of purpose and a reason to get up and move, kids languish in the void of emptiness.  How can we help them connect with a sense of purpose?  How can we stimulate them with the introduction of goals to accomplish and challenges to surmount?  That is work we can also do.  We can work to bring a spark of life back to a youngster who needs support and encouragement.
  • That day, I asked, “How many of you have someone you can turn to and rely on, no matter what?  Someone who loves you, will look after you, and will be at your back, no matter what?  Someone, through thick and thin, you can count on?”  About 25% of the students raised their hands.  That’s all.  I was shocked.  My heart ached as I realized that in my little sample seventy-five percent of the kids have no one they feel loves them unconditionally and on whom they can rely.  What an isolating, scary and depressing existence.

We say kids are hard to talk to.  Maybe that’s our problem.  We talk to them instead of talking with them.  Talking with involves sharing your point of view, listening to the other person and validating their point of view.  Validating their perspective doesn’t mean you agree or disagree with what they’re saying, it just means that you acknowledge and understand their perspective, and see it as valid.

Listen to and validate the young people in your life.  While they’re hard to talk to, they’re not hard to talk with. That’s the lesson I learned when I walked past the Border Patrol and down the halls of my high school.

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