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Three Conversations to Connect With Youths

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

Unless you work in a school or have a teenager in the house, it seems rare these days for an adult to have an extended conversation with an adolescent about something that matters.

The U.S. has 42 million young people between the ages of 10 and 19--that's 13 percent of the population. Yet their lives don't intersect easily with those of adults outside their families or schools. Their social networks, their gathering places, their online communities--even the ways they use language and other expressive media--often separate youth from meaningful cross-generational conversations.

But during this wrenching period of discord in our national politics and policies, it seems especially important to strike up that dialogue in person, in our communities. The insights we gain and the actions we undertake in local--even one-on-one--contexts may someday make a critical difference on a larger scale.

Finding Meaningful Connections

As summer vacation approaches, young people are eager for work and other opportunities to expand their horizons and grow their skills. Do you have a short-term project where you could use a hand? Whether it's mundane or mind-expanding, paid or pro-bono, a collaborative activity provides a basis for connection and conversation that expands both the young person's perspectives and your own. Your local high school is a good place to start. The principal's administrative assistant can often point you to a school adult with an advisory role, who can introduce you to students who fit the bill.

Many community groups also have the potential to bring adults and youth together. A sports league, an arts organization, a church group, or a library committee can all build cross-generational understanding. If you belong to a group that lacks a cohort of young members, summer is a good time to recruit them. For example, I've offered help with college applications through a local library, which proved a great way to forge connections with students.

Grassroots civic organizations can draw participants of all ages to address issues that face all communities, such as climate, criminal justice, or immigration. Voter registration efforts, in particular, can involve youth, who are as diverse as the general electorate. Young people (ages 18 to 29) make up 21 percent of those eligible to vote in the U.S., yet only half of them voted in the 2016 and 2012 general elections, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Entering the Conversation

How might these conversations with young people begin? Your genuine interest matters most. Here are three generative questions:

  • "What's something you like and are getting really good at?" (Follow-ups: "How did your interest in that begin?" "How did you start getting better at it?")
  • "What do you think most shapes us, in our society?" (Follow-ups: "What most separates us?" "What brings us together?")
  • "When you enter the world of adulthood, what do you hope you'll stay connected with?" (Follow-up: "What new connections are you hoping to make?")

Anyone who knows teenagers has heard plenty of conversation-stopping replies. There's privacy to consider, of course. But also, we've trained students to wrap up answers neatly in a complete sentence. "What I am very good at is . . ." they might begin, and then finish with a word or two. "Math." "Basketball." "Drawing."

"Tell me more," I always say. And then I wait, while they rack their brains for the "right answer." Sometimes I have to prompt their memories. ("Was it always that way for you?" "Did you ever try to teach someone how to do that?" "What's hard in getting the hang of it?") Sooner or later, they get the message: I'm really interested in the details of their experience. They can tell the complicated truth.

And I can also share mine. If it connects somehow to their own experience (even just as a contrast), they'll make their own sense of it, and remember.

The Payoff: Hope

We all stand to gain from taking other perspectives. When we pay respectful attention to young people, they come to feel that they belong in a community of adults. And our give-and-take relationship with young people can enlarge our vision and energize our actions.

Programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America have long demonstrated the positive impact on youth of consistent mentoring by trusted adults. But even without a commitment at that level, we send a signal by starting a conversation--throwing a rope across whatever gulf may divide us.

This is a good time to try it.

Cushman photo.53017.jpg

How one young person captured a conversation.

Photo by Lili Shidlovski

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