Monday, June 1, 2020

Building intergenerational connections

Part of my occasional, ongoing work with the books, The Collapse of Parenting, and, Girls on the Edge, both by Dr. Leonard Sax.

It's important for children and youth to build intergenerational connections with trusted adults to help them truly navigate the world and workplace successfully, and to help them understand where we come from. Such a concept is certainly not new, but it seems to have largely gone extinct in recent times, replaced with the phenomenon of children turning to their peers for advice and insight.

Aaron S. Robertson


“Parents today suffer from role confusion…a term used by German sociologist Norbert Elias to describe the transfer of authority from parents to children,” writes Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., in his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-ups (p. 18). He continues, noting, “In American culture today, same-age peers matter more than parents. And parents are reluctant to change the rules - to insist, for example, that time with parents and family is more important than time with same-age peers - because parents are suffering from the 'role confusion' described by Elias” (Sax, 2016, pp. 19-20).

This situation is not new. It has been going on for some time now. Six years prior, Dr. Sax pointed out in his gender-specific book, Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, that, “Girls teaching same-age girls what it means to be a woman is a new phenomenon in human history. It’s fundamentally equivalent to the blind leading the blind. Teenage girls don’t have the wisdom, experience, and perspective that a 35-year-old woman or a 65-year-old woman can provide” (2010, p. 206). Certainly, this is going on with the boys, as well.

Tying into this wholesale abdication of parental authority and the phenomenon of kids turning to each other for advice and insight into navigating an increasingly-complex world, is the problem of technology addiction. Back in January, I wrote a post entitled, "FOMO is causing you to miss out on life." In it, I explain,
A few nights ago, I attended a program at my local public library on the subject of technology addiction among teens and young adults. The presenter was a local mental health counselor, and she did a wonderful job of offering facts, sound advice, and helpful resources concerning this timely, and, in my opinion, scary, topic. The picture is not pretty. But I'm hoping that, by you reading this post, you can help make that picture a little bit better in your own unique way.

According to the facilitator, kids as young as 5th grade are texting their friends at 3am, and she's counseling a number of young adults in their early 20s who want to learn social skills - skills that have been significantly stunted by technology addiction. In fact, as research has demonstrated and as she noted in her talk, being addicted to technology can certainly be as damaging as being addicted to a substance.
All of this sets the stage for the subject of this post - it's important for children and youth to build intergenerational connections - with their parents, their grandparents, other family members, and other trusted adults in their neighborhood/community, their place of work, and among their families' circle of friends. Such an idea is certainly nothing new. It may appear new to many children and youth today, but that's only because it seems to have largely gone extinct some time ago already in this country. We need to get back to that idea. As Dr. Sax reminds us, “One of the unique gifts we enjoy as a species is the ability to learn from other people who have lived in other times and other places.” (2010, p. 212)

My story

All my life, I have benefited from intergenerational bonds and friendships. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, to see children and youth of all ages socially mingling with one another and with adults of all ages was not uncommon. The social fabric was diverse and strongly interwoven.

It was as a young kid spending time with my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, other relatives, a large circle of family friends and their own families, coaches, boy scout leaders, and the families of my same-age friends that I developed a love for all kinds of music, film, art, games, hobbies, and sports (well, except for winter sports - it took the 16-year-old Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul to arrive at my doorstep via the cover of a Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine issue when I was 11 years old to change my mind about winter sports).

I learned fascinating family history, and the history of my neighborhood and city, which, growing up, was in Bay View, located on Milwaukee's south side. I received an education in ethnic and cultural histories and traditions. One of my childhood friends lived across the street from me, and his dad collected baseball cards and coins. I was already a big baseball card collector myself, and so we would swap stories and information about the hobby. He got me interested in coin collecting. I continue both hobbies a little bit to this day. While listening to a lot of the hit music of the day in the 80s and 90s, I also became fluent in 40s big band; 50s rock 'n' roll; the classic rock, pop, and soul of the 60s and 70s; and blues, jazz, and some country. I was exposed to all of this music, and grew to appreciate it all. A lot of the exposure was situational - it depended on whose home we were at, or whose party it was, if older relatives and other adults were in the crowd, and so on.
“One of the unique gifts we enjoy as a species is the ability to learn from other people who have lived in other times and other places.” -- Dr. Leonard Sax, Girls on the Edge
My friends and I learned a little bit about cars by watching our dads working on them. We heard stories handed down and first-hand accounts about immigrating to the United States, the Great Depression, World War II, and other major events and turning points in our collective history from older relatives, family friends, and adults in the neighborhood. These personal stories made learning about these subjects in the classroom that much more engaging and exciting, and vice-versa.

Speaking of World War II, I remember we had a barber in the neighborhood. His name was Frank, and he fought in the war - for the Germans. To be very clear, Frank wasn't a Nazi or a member of the SS. He fought in the regular army as a young man. Big, big difference. Just another young man, probably drafted at 18 or even younger, simply fighting for his country and trying to survive. It was interesting to get his unique, first-hand perspective on the war. He loved this country. I had a great-great uncle that fought in the Pacific theater against the Japanese. Uncle Buck was in the Army. I remember him a little bit. He passed away in 1990. He would share stories occasionally, along with proudly showing us his uniforms and other memorabilia from the war. Right up to his passing, he was always the entrepreneurial type. He would have many small business ventures throughout his life, and he would always have a few dollars for us kids. And I had another great-great uncle, Billy, who was a pilot in the war. He flew the B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber, in the European theater. Sadly, his plane was shot down while on a bombing run over Germany, and he and several of his crew members perished. But he would certainly leave his mark on his family for decades to come, and we cherished many stories handed down about his leadership and love for family.

And speaking of barbers - Frank was one of several men around his age in the neighborhood who were barbers. They all worked out of the same old-fashioned barbershop, and most boys and men in the neighborhood, including myself, were regular customers. They loved humor. They loved sharing stories. We loved hearing them. Their number one special was a "young man's haircut." We would go in and tell them, "Give me a young man's haircut," and they would fix us up nicely.

We learned how to cook, bake, grill out, set up camp, garden. We had regular, assigned chores we were responsible for. There were plenty of fun company picnics and company tours where we got to learn about the kinds of work our relatives and their co-workers and friends did for a living.

And it was through these intergenerational bonds that we learned social skills, how to get along with others, responsibility, and the world of work. We learned where we came from. We learned skills that have, so far, stayed with us our entire lives. We grew into well-rounded adults with the ability to easily adapt and endure.

Upon graduating from college in 2007, I started looking for ways to get involved in my community more, which was now Muskego, one of Milwaukee's southwestern suburbs. Among other outlets for involvement, I got active in a number of business networking circles and started meeting and getting to know many people from all walks of life, professions, and age groups - younger, older, much older, and same age, both men and women. Out of all this networking has come many rich, long-standing, personal friendships. And the learning that takes place - about various industries, the broader economy, self-improvement and professional development topics, volunteer opportunities, life and career advice, etc., etc. - is absolutely priceless.

Flash forward to the present day. The 2020-21 school year will mark my third year in the student government at Cardinal Stritch University as a Ph.D. student. I serve as a senator representing graduate students, a post I've held since the 2018-19 school year. This service brings back a lot of wonderful memories for me - I was very active in Stritch's student government as an undergrad, and had the privilege of serving as its president during 2005-06. Now older (37), heavier, grayer, and hopefully a little wiser, it's really fulfilling for me to be able to offer advice and insight to my younger undergrad colleagues on academics, life and the world of work, leadership, and the business of student government. As all of my degrees have come from Stritch, I'm also able to bring a lot of continuity to the table in terms of having historical context of the institution - with the exception of six years or so, I've consistently been a student of Stritch since 2001! And the learning is definitely a two-way street. I've learned so much from my younger undergrad colleagues about various issues affecting today's college students, and I'm a better person for having the opportunity to know, and work with, them.   

So what can we as educators, parents, and community and business leaders do to encourage more intergenerational connections?

Educators can assign projects and/or papers, and create fun, low-pressure learning activities, that seek to encourage engagement and understanding between students and their relatives and other adults in their lives - coaches & advisors, friends of family, family of friends, workplace managers, etc. The goal is to have students pick up some valuable life and/or career advice, or perhaps a new skill, or maybe even a hobby they'd like to take up.

Recently, I started reading another book entitled, Under-Resourced Learners: 8 Strategies to Boost Student Achievement, by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. Dr. Payne offers some suggestions that I think would work incredibly well here, too. She explains: 
Bridging social capital is Robert Putnam’s terminology, meaning people you know who are different from you. It is from people different from you that much learning occurs. Bonding social capital involves people you know who are like you.

a. One way to do it is with e-mail buddies [Mr. Robertson’s note here – think of this as the modern version of pen pals, updated for this highly-technological age]. They can be from another country, another part of this country, adults from the business community, or individuals from the non-profit community. The person is to provide information and support out of a much larger context. The e-mails always need to be copied to a school person. If the e-mail buddy is local, a meeting needs to take place with the buddy, the student and the school person. If the e-mail buddy is from another country or another part of the state or nation, the relationship will get set up only on recommendation of a school person.

b. Mentors are another way. One issue with mentors is that it’s difficult to find mentors, particularly when they’re supposed to come only at a certain time on a certain day. It usually needs to be more flexible to work with the mentor’s schedule. It’s better to ask if they can meet with the person once a week for at least 30 minutes. Again, these meetings must be supervised or in a public place.

c. Mentoring by the student himself/herself is another way and is very powerful. The student becomes a mentor to a younger student. (Payne, 2008, pp. 32-33)
Dr. Payne's ideas here recall for me a very successful and innovative partnership that the school district and chamber of commerce have built together over the years here in Muskego. As I recall in the post, Partnerships between school districts and chambers of commerce, back in October 2017,
A little shy of two weeks ago, on October 19, I had the immense privilege of participating in a luncheon at Muskego High School. The purpose of the event was to bring students and area business and community leaders together to discuss and reflect on the many career and educational paths that are available out there.

During this mentoring lunch, a joint effort between the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism’s Education and Mentoring Committee and Muskego High School, we broke up into two groups by gender, each in a separate classroom. From there, we broke up further into smaller tables, with one or two mentors joining a group of students for conversation and a pizza lunch. I was joined at my table by Rob Schopf, owner of the Indian Motorcycle of Metro Milwaukee dealership on Racine Avenue. Rob and I shared our stories of education, training, and work over the years with several young men that appeared genuinely interested in what we had to say. Likewise, we were certainly genuinely interested in what they had to say, and it was a great give and take of questions, talking, listening, and connecting.

After lunch and these small group discussions, the larger room joined together for elevator pitches, with each student and mentor standing up briefly and introducing themselves to the room. Mentors shared what they do, or did, for work, and offered meaningful career advice to the students. Students shared what they hope to study or do for work someday. After this, we broke up again into smaller groups for further conversation. This time, however, we changed the groups up in an attempt to match students and mentors around similar interests and work experiences based on what they shared in their elevator pitches.

The experience was as much of a learning opportunity for us mentors as it was for the students. We all became teachers and students of one another. For me, it was particularly rewarding to hear the stories of the other mentors. We had a diverse collection of talent assembled and backgrounds represented. Some of the mentors are college graduates, while others didn’t pursue formal education beyond high school. Some are still working, while others are retired. Some worked or are working for others, while others have pursued business ownership. Areas of expertise represented included sales and marketing, customer service, banking, engineering, trades, tech, police work, elected public service, office management, and entrepreneurship.

...In addition to this mentoring lunch, other events and activities that take place throughout the year in this powerful partnership include, among other items, mock job interviews and resume advice, interviewing skits, and career bus tours around town. And then of course, there’s the Chamber’s annual scholarship program.
Parents can start by, first and foremost, reclaiming their parental authority. On this important subject, Dr. Sax explains in The Collapse of Parenting,
Before we go any further in our discussion of the loss of parental authority, I have to make sure you and I are on the same page with regard to what I mean by “parental authority.” I have learned that when I speak to parents, many confuse “parental authority” with “parental discipline.” They think that parental authority is all about enforcing discipline. In fact, parental authority is primarily about a scale of value. Strong parental authority means that parents matter more than same-age peers. In contemporary American culture, peers matter more than parents. (2016, pp. 20-21)

What does it mean to assert your authority as a parent? It doesn’t necessarily mean being a tough disciplinarian. Among other things, it means ensuring that the parent-child relationship takes priority over the relationships between the child and her or his same-age peers. Not just for toddlers, but for teenagers as well. It means that parents are doing their job – fulfilling their biological role, if you like – of teaching the child how to behave both within and outside of the family unit. Recall that the purpose of a prolonged childhood in our species seems to be, first and foremost, for the child to learn the grown-up culture from the grown-ups. When parents lose their authority – when same-age peers matter more than parents – then kids are no longer interested in learning the culture of the parents. They want to learn the kiddie culture, the teen culture. Throughout this book we will see just how harmful that is. (2016, pp. 23-24)
This reclaiming of parental authority includes, among other things, eating dinner as a family at least several days a week, and without any phones or other devices at the dinner table; setting aside other time (besides dinner) on a regular basis for device-free bonding activities and conversations of real meaning and substance; and working to create a culture and understanding that, while having same-age friends is certainly important and necessary, family comes first. 

Community and business leaders can create a variety of engaging volunteer, enrichment, and career exploration opportunities through the many tools, resources, and networks they have access to, both as individual organizations and in joint cooperation with other organizations. Providing resume and cover letter advice, internships, apprenticeships, mock job interviews with constructive feedback, tours of their facilities, workshops and presentations on an array of insightful subjects, formal and informal mentoring programs, and finding outlets to partner with schools, are some of the ideas that readily come to mind. On that last point about partnering with schools, the partnership between the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism and the Muskego-Norway School District that I discussed earlier serves as a wonderful model.

In closing

I'll conclude with several quotes and passages from Girls on the Edge that are very relevant to this discussion. They're all taken from a chapter that Dr. Sax simply called, "Spirit." The chapter is devoted to the subject of helping girls discover who they truly are and where they'd like to go - essentially, helping them find and connect with their spirit. A lot of these passages are just as equally relevant for boys. Here they are:
“Community matters. The kind of community in which your daughter engages will shape the person she becomes. In Chapter 2, I described how a girl growing up 40 or 50 years ago was likely to be involved in communities that involved adult women, whether at church, or in her extended family, or just sitting on her neighbor’s front porch. Today, a girl’s community is more likely to consist primarily of other girls her own age. That means girls talking mostly with other girls. But Girl Talk can be toxic to girls, even when they don’t mean it to be. When girls talk with one another, the most popular topics tend to include their own personal problems. That’s as true of 9-year-old girls as it is of 19-year-old women. All too often, the sharing and self-disclosure can spin into an obsessive rehash of negative emotion. As the old saying goes, rolling in the mud is not the best way of getting clean…That’s what can happen when girls counsel other girls, because girls providing counsel to same-age girls isn’t the right kind of community.” (p. 204)

“The right kind of community bridges the generations. The right kind of community involves girls learning from women their mother’s age and their grandmother’s age.” (p. 205)

“It doesn’t have to be anything formal or structured. Sophia was a high-school girl working part-time as a receptionist at a medical clinic when she told me how much she valued the opinions and support provided by her coworkers at the clinic, all women. She had a huge crush on a guy at her high school, and he was taking advantage of her. The other girls at the high school saw nothing wrong with what was going on. In fact, they envied her because he was popular and athletic, and he wasn’t being physically intimate with anybody else. But he wasn’t making any promises to her either. When she told the older women in her office about it, they offered a different perspective…Sophia broke off the relationship…” (p. 205)

“How does a girl become a woman? What does it mean to be a 'real' woman? These are questions that almost every enduring culture has answered by providing a community of women to show girls the way. I’m not talking only about mothers teaching their daughters, but about a community of women teaching the girls. We used to have many such communities in the United States, formal and informal: quilting circles, sewing circles, all-female Bible study groups, all-female book groups, Girl Scout troops, the variety of women’s clubs that operated in association with the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and so forth. Remnants of such groups still exist, but girls today are much more likely to hang out with other girls their age than they are to mix socially with women their parents’ age.” (pp. 205-206)

“Your group should bridge the generations. That means ideally involving not just other parents but also grandparents. Encourage your daughter to develop friendships with women your age and your mother’s age.” (p. 208)

“Sometimes we may just need to rediscover old ways of connecting girls with women. Sewing circles were never primarily about sewing; they were about women and girls helping each other, which included helping girls negotiate the transitions through adolescence and into womanhood. The challenges are different today, of course, but the value of a mature adult perspective hasn’t changed.” (p. 208)

“Your daughter may know more than you do about how to upload photos from a cell phone to a Facebook page, but you know more than she does about how alcohol affects the judgment and behavior of teenage boys. She needs your perspective and the perspective of other adults your age and older.” (p.208).

Payne, R. K. (2008). Under-resourced learners: 8 strategies to boost student achievement. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc.

Sax, L. (2010). Girls on the edge: The four factors driving the new crisis for girls. New York: Basic Books.

Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups. New York: Basic Books.

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