Ask Don’t Tell: What We Could Learn From Gen Z During a Pandemic

I know four sets of parents who are now at odds with their young adult children. The kids are between the ages of 17 and 24. Each of these families are experiencing more arguments than normal, and the young people all seem to possess underlying anger directed at the older generation.

Do you see what I see? This is something I saw coming about eight years ago.

So, I set out to talk to these teens and twenty-somethings to gain insight into their attitudes–not merely toward their parents but at older generations in general. These conversations were with a total of 11 students and 20 parents and teachers. (Some of the parents were also faculty.) I drew one big conclusion by the end of our discussion. Here is a portion of the conversation (various students responded):

ME: Thanks for taking the time to talk. Let me begin with a question. Several of you seem to be expressing some anxiety and anger at your parents? Is that accurate? If so, why?

STUDENT: Yes, we’re mad at many people in the adult population for failing to live up to what they taught us — to be kind, to get along, to live out your values. We see our leaders in Washington D.C. squabbling over clearcut issues, fighting over the World Health Organization’s direction, and putting up with racism when they know it is wrong. We wonder: Why are we still protesting police brutality in 2020? And then, it seems like no one was ready to lead us during the quarantine; adults were confused about how to teach a virtual class or what to do when we’re at home all day. It’s stressful.

ME: Why are you feeling so strongly about this now, not earlier?

STUDENT: Well, the coronavirus pandemic snuck up on all of us, and none of us were ready to have a conversation about it. All of a sudden, we were all at home. So, I guess I can see how we were all confused about how to handle things.

As far as the protests go, I don’t think I knew enough about the issues to be passionate years ago. But when I started to watch programs about systemic racism and when I began to see how many sexual predators our country allowed to go unpunished, I couldn’t be quiet any longer. When we see injustice, we feel we need to speak up.

ME: That makes sense. And I bet your parents and teachers are proud that you are willing to take a stand for what you believe. Am I right?

STUDENT: Well, yes and no. They tell me they’re glad I’m exercising my right as an American, but they don’t agree with how I am doing it. They want to tell me how to protest and what to do and what to say, and I don’t agree with what they’re saying.

ME: What do you wish your parents and teachers would do to lead you better?

STUDENT: I wish they would just listen to me. They always have to lecture me on what they know or what they went through when they were young. I feel like I don’t need that as much as I need someone who cares and who wants to hear what I think.

ME: Recently, students’ test scores in civics and history were revealed, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. This recent release of scores from the 2018 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in those subjects was cause for alarm for both educators and parents. Perhaps adults are concerned for your lack of context when you speak to civics issues. What do you think?

STUDENT: Yeah, I can see that POV. But I know we are getting a current lesson in civics with how our government is handling the COVID-19 issue and the lack of a unified message for America. Sometimes it seems like our leaders are incompetent, and that matters to us more than a history lesson. Thanks to social media, we know a lot more about what’s going on than my parents did when they were teenagers.

ME: Do you think there’s a chance your parents may know some things you don’t know and that civil conversation might be a good place to begin solving the problem?

STUDENT: Yeah, but it seems we always get into a fight when these topics come up.

A Word of Counsel 

So, parents and teachers — hear ye, hear ye. When I finished this candid discussion with these students, I felt they were asking for an honest, two-way conversation with you. Not yelling and judging, but listening and responding. 

  • What if we began with belief, not correction?
  • What if we began by listening to them, not lecturing them?
  • What if we modeled warmth and care, instead of condescension?

This is what Jack Welch calls reverse mentoring. Two generations get together to talk and learn from each other. This means we enter a conversation with the intention of listening and understanding,  not merely lecturing and imparting. Sure, our kids have a lot to learn. But we build a bridge to that learning by empowering them to upload their own thoughts to a listening leader. Washington Post journalist Valerie Strauss put it this way: “Instead of criticizing what they don’t know, adults are overdue to catch up to what young people do know and what they can do.”

Ask Don't Tell: What We Could Learn From Gen Z During a Pandemic