Friday, May 28, 2010

The Only Rule You Need To Know When Talking To Teenagers

Lots of people have no idea how to communicate with teenagers. Some of the responses to this blog have highlighted this sad truth for me, though its something that I experience frequently in my daily life as well. When adults disagree with you when you are a teenager, its rarely because its because your viewpoint is inferior, and more often because you as a teenager are inferior. Many people assume that because you are younger, it is impossible that your opinion is actually a valid point based on sound reason, not a function of your age.

This is definitely not to say that all teenage viewpoints are well developed, or that all adults are unfairly judgmental when it comes to conversing with teens. Plenty of teenagers are incoherent, and plenty of meaningful exchanges happen between non-judgmental adults and the teens to whom they listen. I am beginning, however, to think that these cases are exceptions to rules, and that a problem does exist-- a problem that is impeding productive communication between adolescents and adults. The good news is that this problem is a lot simpler than you’d think, and if we worked together to correct it, we could form the basis for a prolific cross-generational relationship.

I polled my friends on what they found to be the biggest problems with the relationship between teens and adults today. People were really helpful and we generated a long list of gripes that we have about the way that adults treat teens. I was going to post the whole list, but I realized that the entire thing could be summed up in one simple rule that, if followed, would help to foster a less hostile relationship between generations. So, without further ado:

The Only Rule You Need to Know When Talking to Teenagers

1. Don't make assumptions.

Following this guideline will ease a lot of intergenerational tension, and allow kids and adults to communicate more comfortably, which is something that is entirely worth pursuing. We, the people in my generation, are the first people to be raised with the internet as a permanent fixture in our lives. We are the lab rats for a new kind of culture, and the first generation to wholly embrace a web-based way of perceiving things. It goes without saying that there must be some practical application, somewhere, for this new way of thinking. We can’t possibly explore this option, though, unless we overcome the communication gap between teens and adults.

I can’t offer any advice on closing this gap for teens from the adult perspective, but I can say that following the above advice will at least help bring teens closer to a state conducive to conversation.

To clarify this rule, here are some things that adults shouldn’t make assumptions about:

Don’t assume that teenagers need things “dumbed down” for them. Don’t assume that just because you know and understand one teenager that you know and understand all of them. Don’t assume that our opinions are a function of our age. Don’t assume that when a bunch of us are hanging out that we are up to no good. Don’t assume that what we are going through is exactly the same as what you went through as a teenager. Instead of assuming your journey to adulthood was the same as ours, simply offer us what you learned from your experiences, and allow us to pick and choose those that seem applicable to us. Don’t assume that everything we do is the result of an insatiable desire to be cool or liked.

These things may be true, but don't assume them at the outset!

I know it is easy to fall into making these sorts of assumptions, because we as a society very much subscribe to a, “kids these days…” way of thinking about adolescence. These assumptions are also helpful for adults to cut down on the awkwardness that sometimes ensues when trying to talk to teens. In the long term, though, these assumptions are hurting us by creating an environment that makes it difficult for teens and adults to collaborate. Ceasing to assume will ultimately benefit everyone—teens and adults alike.

If anyone agrees that this is an issue and would like to write some adult advice to teenagers on cross-generational communication, I would definitely be interested in cross-posting it here. Feel free to email me any thoughts on this topic, or post them in the comments.