Don’t Let These 3 Traps Trip You

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Tech-savvy kids still need grownups. Here’s how to build trust.

This is the first of five articles focused on how parents and other adults can connect with the iGens — young people born in 1995 and later — in their lives. Join us to read the rest of the series on our member portal, knights.net!

by Soren Johnson

Picture this for a moment: Standing before you is your teen or tween, with all his or her wonderful potential. As you look into your beloved child’s eyes, you see a member of iGen, already renowned for its digital savvy, openness, volunteerism, creativity, hard work, global concerns, and entrepreneurial drive.

And yet, whether it’s the teen under your own roof — or in your parish, neighborhood, or extended family — you are probably familiar with the “shadow side” of iGen’s extraordinary strengths. As your gaze is drawn away from the “wonderful potential” and toward the shadow, you may notice things like your child’s intense connection to devices, a lack of face-to-face relationships, a brief attention span, and a seemingly slow journey toward adulthood. You’re concerned about this, and much more.

Whether you are a father, uncle, mentor or young man, you are called to be a leader. Leaders see all of the shadows yet are relentless in calling forth potential. They rise to the challenge. They are curious, not content to go through life with caricatures or stereotypes. Leaders roll up their sleeves and get to know their people and never condescend. They walk the beat. They show up.

This series holds no easy answers for connecting with iGen — each teen, each family, each situation, is unique. View the series as your guided retreat: an invitation to prayer and reflection, in order that God might renew your understanding of and hope for this generation. To accomplish this, we will examine their worldview and faith; how they spend their day; their view of friendships; their academic and extracurricular aspirations, and what keeps them up at night. This is your chance to hit “reset” in how you relate to the teens in your life, and, if necessary, begin to establish better habits.

If we really want to have a positive effect in the lives of iGen youth, we need to be aware of three traps which we guys are notorious for stepping into. These traps block many of us from authentic relationships, from true leadership, and from summoning iGen youth to their innate potential.

1. Our Focus

Sorry, but don’t look any further than the nearest mirror to discover the first obstacle to your strong relationship with iGen youth. Dr. Justin Coulson, a father, psychiatrist and prolific author, calls out the first trap: being too self-focused. “So many men,” he explains, “think the kids are ‘fine’, until they’re not, and so they prioritize their bike, their golf clubs, their fantasy league, hobby or pastime. For others, it’s their own screen time, work, e-mail, the next pressing thing which always remains the priority.”

As we focus more intently on our own ego-drama — our own desires and comforts — we increasingly give our kids only the leftovers, our “lip service,” according to Coulson. We shrug off our kids, saying, “all’s well and fine,” he notes, “when too often it’s not.”

Don’t be that guy.

2. Our Lectures

The second trap is that we guys tend to prioritize “teaching over listening.”

Brace yourself: this one hurts. “Dads love to lecture,” Coulson explains. “When the kids do something dads are concerned about, they’re quick to respond with directives, correction, and a never-ending supply of judgments that alienate their kids.”

Think “helicopter-nagging-controlling dad,” and you get the basic idea. To demonstrate his point, Coulson cites the late Dr. Stephen Covey, who recalled a dad complaining to him, “I can’t understand my son. He won’t listen to me!”

To avoid this trap, Coulson advises us to begin by shelving our agenda. “Spend more time listening, engaging, and building the relationship with no agenda,” he says. And when you feel yourself slipping back into lecture mode, Coulson says to “zip it.” “This builds more trust than all the wisdom in the world. They’ll ask for our wisdom when they need it, if they trust us.”

3. Our Anger

The third trap, notes Coulson, is anger. “Dads get angry quickly,” he notes. “Nothing undermines trust and creates anxiety and insecurity in a child as fast as an angry, rampaging dad.”

This trap is particularly prevalent because, according to Coulson, in our culture “anger has been one of the only acceptable emotions for a man to show.” Not surprisingly, our unchecked reactions become self-defeating. “When our ‘lectures’ fall on deaf ears,” Coulson explains, “or when children fail to listen or live up to expectations, we can be quick to anger.”

The results of falling into the anger trap are devastating. “This anger,” explains Coulson, “creates important changes in our children that are unhelpful. First, it ruptures our relationship with them. Second, it ignores the reasons that underpin our children’s emotions or behavior — and it makes us the ‘center’ of the universe.” See ego-drama above.

But that’s not all. “Anger undermines our kids’ motivation to actually be better,” Coulson notes. “And it actually makes them increasingly selfish, often at a time when we’re trying to help them be selfless. They become the ‘victim’ and it becomes all about them and how unfair their world is.”

Anger is the gift that keeps on distorting.

Our ego-drama, our propensity to lecture rather than listen, and our anger. These three traps undermine our noblest resolutions with iGen. But only if we let them.

As you gaze into the eyes of your child, you are glimpsing anew this generation’s remarkable strengths and potential. And yes, you know that your son or daughter, nephew, niece or grandchild, also bears the tell-tale challenges of this generation. The shadow-side of the most technologically literate generation in history is visible to you. It drives you crazy on some days, but does not deter you. You love this child far too much to write him or her off. Newly aware of the traps which stand in your way to calling out the great potential of your child, you are equipped to take the next step.

Your Quest

  1. Reflect on your own “ego-drama.” What is consuming your time in an inordinate way and preventing you from being able to listen to the young people in your life with true interest and honesty?
  2. What about your anger? Reflect on a recent moment when you let your anger get the better of you. What caused it, what were the results, and how will you avoid repeating the same mistake?
  3. Get out a piece of paper, your smartphone, or tablet. List the names of the iGen youth for whom you have the most responsibility: your children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, godchildren. Going forward, take this list to daily prayer, asking the Lord to renew your relationships.