Why Listening to Real Young People Matters

assumptions about teenagers

Why Listening to Real Young People Matters The beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear…Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening […]

Why Listening to Real Young People Matters

The beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear…Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One of the reasons we conducted this research was to help adults like you—and ourselves—move beyond assumptions to truly connect with teenagers.

Assumptions keep us at a distance.

Assumptions lead to judgment. We judge across generations all the time, and this judgment allows us to comfortably dismiss what we experience as different by declaring it wrong.

Young people feel this judgment. Here are a couple of thoughts from teenagers we asked about adults’ misperceptions:

Teenagers are underestimated a lot. People are uncomfortable talking about conflict or something controversial in front of teenagers, but we aren’t surprised by it. It’s weird when adults act like we’re less, or like we don’t know what we’re talking about. Even small comments.

We notice.

Ask teenagers about something you wouldn’t usually ask them, even questions that are uncomfortable. Teenagers have a lot more to offer. We have real opinions. We have beliefs and experiences and thoughts about things going on that adults might not be aware of. Things have changed since you were in high school.

Indeed, things have changed since we were in high school. Whether that was more than twenty-five years ago (like both of us; okay, for Kara, it’s actually more than thirty) or even just a few years ago, things are different for today’s students.

Truly listening to young people pushes us past our tendencies to assume and judge. Listening brings us closer.

Listening helps us forge a new path across the generational impasse.

But we can’t stop there. Listening opens us up to the next step. It makes empathy possible.

Empathy Changes Everything

In our previous research studying churches that are Growing Young (see fulleryouthinstitute.org/growingyoung for details and resources), we identified empathy as one of six core commitments found in churches that effectively engage young people. Among all the things churches were doing well—developing a culture of “keychain” (shared) leadership, taking Jesus’ message seriously, nurturing warm community, prioritizing young people everywhere, and being the best local and global neighbors—intergenerational empathy played a unique and powerful role by weaving through the other commitments.

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We defined empathy in Growing Young as “feeling with young people…sitting on the curb of a young person’s life, celebrating their dreams and grieving over their despair.” Since that time, countless adults have asked us for more help with understanding empathy and putting it into practice. So we’ll add to our original description this way: we practice empathy when we notice and care.

Empathy = notice + care

Noticing is reading someone else’s emotions. Caring is responding to those emotions with feelings of our own.

Taking another’s perspective increases our ability to understand them and helps us avoid judgment and stereotypes. It humanizes them as we see reality through their eyes—if only for the moment—rather than othering them and holding them at a distance. It steps into their shoes for a few paces on the road. Empathy increases our drive to help others rather than ignore their pain.

Empathy isn’t just for tragedies and bad days. This is a common misconception, one we’ve perpetuated ourselves by the way we couch empathy as a response to pain. It is that, but it’s also so much more. In all days and in the midst of all emotions, empathy pushes past the superficial and creates a safe space for the real story to emerge.

Empathy can be hard because it forces us to break old habits. In our past efforts at FYI to help build empathy for teenagers’ search for identity, belonging, and purpose, we used to ask youth leaders to spend time in the spaces where young people gather, such as sporting events, skate parks, and coffee shops. We speculated that asking leaders to observe at a distance would be less intimidating for adults and less intrusive for young people.

We hoped leaders’ observations would trigger empathy. But that’s not what happened. While it was helpful to see young people beyond the church walls, most adults tended to reinforce stereotypes when they described what they learned:

“They’re always on their phones.”
“They are present but not really there.”
“They spend too much money on silly things.”
“They just seem lonely.”

Hoping to move beyond these shallow assumptions, we next asked leaders to talk with young people instead. We gave them question prompts to use. We reminded them to withhold judgment and ask for clarity, especially with cultural references or teenage slang.

This approach produced remarkably different interpretations. Leaders were struck by how distant they had become from young people’s real lives. Phrases beginning with “I didn’t know…,” “I never realized…,” and “I now see…” signaled a shift toward empathy.

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You’re likely nodding along. Chances are good that you already know this intuitively. You’re probably naturally empathetic toward teenagers—otherwise, you wouldn’t have picked up this book. Here’s your invitation to go deeper. Take another step closer. Intentionally practice noticing and caring.

NOTICE: Can You See Me? Can You Hear Me?

“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost the same.” When our friend Mike Park, a church-planting pastor in New York City, shared this quote with a group of leaders at one of our innovation summits, the room fell quiet.

We try a lot of things in our churches to attract or engage young people. Sometimes these efforts are fruitful. But if we aren’t creating environments and relationships in which young people can be heard and seen, we may be wasting our time. We’re missing true conversation and connection.

Many of us can call to mind the people who extended us this gift while we were growing up. I (Brad) remember the two teachers who really saw me. Mrs. Patty Davis was the first grade teacher I needed—the perfect combination of authority and love. She sent me to the principal’s office with a pink slip for talking too much. But she also tended to my social exclusion, my nervous tick, and the fact that I was lagging behind in reading. She knew I was growing up on a farm out in the country and noticed that I found it hard to fit in with town kids who swam at the same club and played in the same neighborhoods with other classmates.

I don’t remember why I had trouble with reading, but I remember the paperback book about a boy and his duck that I wanted to read over and over during quiet time. And I still remember the smell of the old-school photocopy ink on my personal version of that book, which Mrs. Davis took time to create so I could read it at home.

I remember these things because Mrs. Davis saw me.

Excerpted from 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager by Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin. Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2021. Used by permission. BakerPublishingGroup.com