In our projects we have developed and tested an elaborate toolkit how to react to youngsters of Generation F. In short this boils down to: communication online, employing positive empathy, provoking constructive confrontations and developing soft, 21st century skills such as the ability to resolve conflicts.
Many adults see youngsters as a group of digital natives who feel completely at ease with technology. Many youngsters see this differently. When asked by us: “What would you want adults to ask you about what you do online?” the most frequently given answer was: “How can I help you?” In the USA this generation therefore is called: digital naives.
Many youngsters are open for help and open for a dialogue with adults. From research by Euro Kids Online it appears that this is a sensible attitude. Just talking with adults about what they do online is for youngsters the most effective way to protect themselves online. But adults are, in the eyes of many youngsters, not ready to accept their invitation. In a slide from a course that we developed for teachers the image many youngsters have of adults is succinctly summarized: adults do not understand communication online, nor new technologies. They have neither the time nor the apatite to communicate and rather just ruthlessly interfere in unwanted situations. They calculate and lie, check on others and spy, are moralistic and have different frames to interpret the world. It is thus not hard to see why many youngsters rather keep adults at a distance with regard to their online activities.
Adults first need to win youngster trust before youngsters open up and are willing to conduct a dialogue that requires vulnerability. The easiest way is doing this online, as appears from answers in our research. On the open question what youngsters would need to open up to adults a long list of near identical answers was produced by almost all individual participants. Adults have to promise not to punish when youngsters are open. They must listen and treat the words of youngsters with respect. They need to take what youngsters say seriously and need to talk about a topic that is also interesting for the youngster. To the open question what youngsters needed to open up online the answer of a large majority was: “The right app and an Internet connection.”
From everyday life
An example of this was provided by a colleague who is a therapist. His fifteen-year old daughter drove him mad by ignoring him or calling him names. To his default question: “How was school today?” he daily got the default answer: “Mind your own business.” One day he reminded our advice to communicate online with her. He overcame his scepticism that if it doesn’t work in the real world, how on earth could this work online. When he saw his daughter being active on Facebook, he typed in the question: “How was your day at school?” The colleague belongs to the happy minority of parents who are friends with their children on social media. After a short pause in which nothing happened he noticed that his daughter was typing something, but no answer appeared. Then she typed again and again no text appeared. After half an hour she sent him, to his big surprise, a long and detailed answer to his question. But, when he came home and wanted to follow-up on the conversation, she gave him her default answer: “Mind your own business.” Since then they regularly chat online. In real life the father avoids his default question.
The reason why contact online as a rule works better was mentioned earlier: asynchronous communication, like chat, provides youngsters with a greater feeling of control.
Everybody loves getting sincere compliments – read for instance Dale Carnegie. The current generation of youngsters is even more sensitive to sincere compliments because they are more externally oriented than the generations before them. Compliments and positive affirmation empower many youngsters to trust adults more and to tone down their more extreme emotions and harsher opinions. But, more often, adults choose a different approach. They try to rationally disprove youngster opinions or attack these opinions directly.
This rational approach does not work because hardly anyone has rational opinions to start with, least of all fragmented youngsters. An attack forces youngsters to the defence and hurts them emotionally. Since many are incapable to create a frame to interpret the world by themselves and rather lean on adopted ideologies, they depend on their opinions to shield them against anxiety, loneliness and purposelessness. Therefore, an attack on their opinions is experienced as an attack on their entire identity – and thus they feel forced to defend themselves any which way they can.
Adults who employ positive empathy, on the other hand, are capable of winning trust of many youngsters in a short time, as we ourselves experienced many times in classes in Greece, Poland and the Netherlands. At the beginning of those meeting many youngsters would typically look at us with mildly hostile faces and held their arms crossed before their chest. In this situation they would at most say politely what they thought we would want to hear. But after twenty minutes or so the overwhelming majority would relax after which the first pioneers would lower their guards and would start to talk more openly. After around thirty minutes almost all students would be willing to formulate their opinions full of doubts and insecurities.
For this reason interactive methods like PBL (Project Based Learning) and prophylactics work well in the classroom. Within a clear frame, youngsters themselves get to take responsibility for their learning, opinions and activities. Instead of having to defend themselves and having to adapt themselves to the demands by adults, in this frame youngsters can show their passion and creativity.
What also works greatly is to have youngsters comment upon each other, and judge each other, but under the precondition that they only mention what is positive.
Naturally, not every act by a youngster needs to be met with positive empathy. That also is not what many youngsters would want. Compliments for behaviour that is negative are often met with contempt. Many youngsters love clear opinions and clear boundaries and expect punishment when they cross these boundaries. Would this punishment fail to materialize, many youngsters would loose respect for the person who does not treat them consequently.
Within the trust that is triggered by positive empathy a lot of leverage space is created to confront youngsters with their shortcomings. Many youngsters want to be shown a mirror, even when it is not flattering – under the precondition that no judgment is taking place, only coaching. It is important that they are not evaluated as people but that only negative aspects of their activities, capabilities and opinions are being addressed, so that they can improve those.
An example of this is the use of video cameras during our projects. Except for a very small minority, no one likes to be recorded. For most youngsters from the age of around twelve looking at their own recordings is even worse, especially when these recordings are displayed on a large screen in front of the class, in the presence of their fellow students. But almost all youngsters who go through this experience are positive about it when it is over. They see the confrontation with themselves as painful and shameful but also state that it makes them stronger and in the end gives them more self-confidence – and thus is constructive.
The underlying thought comes from social psychology. A few theoretical currents state that we define our identity by talking about it. According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen[i] this auto-narration consists of identity labels such as: I am pretty/ handsome/ ugly. I am smart/ stupid, I am good/ bad at math. The narrower and more absolute these labels are, the more they hinder us. If a student would define herself as “I am smart” and “I am good at math” and would flunk a math exam, the situation is experienced as very threatening. The bad grade does not match the identity labels. The result and the labels cannot exist together when the labels are taken as narrow and absolute by the student or by her parents. To avoid a complete identity crisis the cause of the bad grade thus must be located elsewhere: the exam was faulty or the teacher had it in for the student. This explains why so many parents nowadays react aggressively to teachers.
Less absolute labels
The alternative is to define the labels less narrow and less absolute. That would also deal with the extremity of the opinions and emotions that many youngsters have about people, opinions and situations that are not in line with their narrow and absolute identity labels. But widening and opening up identity labels is very threatening for the students and thus requires an atmosphere of trust created by positive affirmation.
Less narrow and less absolute labels can help students to better deal with critical feedback, setbacks and people and situations that are different or new. That is why constructive confrontation aims at stretching the identity labels and making them more relative by means of critical coaching, based on a fundament of positive empathy.
This critical confrontation also is a good start for further developing youngsters’ soft skills. Zygmunt Bauman calls these skills “civil skills” because these are skills that help us keep our dignity in these liquid times. Bauman enumerates the most important of these civil skills: being able to conduct a dialogue, to negotiate, to come to a mutual understanding and to solve conflicts.
All these skills are about helping us deal with people who are different and situations that are new and unexpected. That is why these skills form the most important alternative for extreme opinions and the condemning of people who think or act differently.
Generation F’s big plus
Online communication, positive empathy, constructive confrontation and soft skills together ensure that youngsters are empowered to deal with the liquid times in which we live easier and with more dignity. They do not need to fall back as much on harsh opinions anymore. Within a frame in which they feel trusted and protected youngsters are enabled to show their passion and compassion more easily. At that moment the big plus of Generation F becomes clear. Because of their more external orientations and their insecurities they are less steered by their egos and thus, in comparison to adults, are capable of better cooperation, an easier and deeper acceptance of challenges and an opener access to a state of flow.
[i] Douglas Stone/ Sheila Heen – Thanks for the feedback (2014)