How would you like it if someone was always breathing down your neck when you work? Well, that’s exactly how most teenagers feel. Most adults get pretty defensive when I bring this up. “They should act more responsibly, THEN I will grant them autonomy,” they tell me. But the opposite is actually true: how can young people act more responsibly when not given the chance? If anything, psychological studies have found that as you place more trust on someone, he/she is more likely to behave the way you want them to. Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, was one of the first community leaders who had such a mindset shift. He didn’t set out to “use” young people around him. He set out to give youth the tools to be “change-makers” – trusting that they will be motivated enough to take him up on the offer.
When a person doesn’t feel understood, he/she will never try to understand. That is the reality in which most youth live. Empathy is more than just “putting yourself in another person’s shoes” or being a really good listener. That advice has been repeated so much, there’s almost no meaning to it anymore. Empathy involves feeling what others are feeling. If your child’s pet rabbit died, and you empathize, you won’t say, “I understand.” You’ll grieve with him or her. If a teenager is concerned about looking “uncool” when volunteering, it’s something you shouldn’t dismiss as “teens being teens.” Empathy involves decisive action: What can you do to make volunteering cool?
James A. Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” There’s a biological reason for that. Not psychological, but biological. I won’t go through it here but if you’re interested, read about the effects of mirror neurons on group behavior. Bottom line: Don’t expect youth to do what you wouldn’t do personally.
Feeling like you’re invisible is a great way to kill motivation. After all, why contribute when you don’t feel like you’re contributing? This is why it’s crucial to communicate to young people that their work is making a difference. What most leaders do wrong is to do this to a group instead of to an individual. There’s a difference in impact when you tell a group of 100 how well they did vs. when you tell one person directly.