Giving Young Adults “Veto Power” Sets Them for Success as Adults
By Patty Alper, Author
Today, our young adults must learn the skills of survival in the 21st century. And those skills have changed and continue to change at a record pace. To thrive, students must learn the skills that are desirable to today’s corporate world or face the prospect of never gaining financial and social maturity.
Corporations have long known that their best employees are successful often because they have acquired skills beyond those needed to be an employee. In fact, the greatest managers and executives learn that skills to inspire and lead others do not naturally come from working as a subordinate. Rather, they come from testing out leadership skills in relationships with others.
People who grew up in difficult circumstances and yet are successful have one thing in common . . . at a critical junction in their early adolescence they had a positive relationship with a caring adult.
[ATT]—President William Jefferson Clinton
I am a firm believer that success and perseverance should be taught in the home. I have seen too many cases where it is not. The tone parents set, and the boundaries outlined as adolescents become adults, can make a tremendous difference in the young adults’ abilities to navigate relationships and careers in the 21st century.
In Robert D. Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, he details how dramatically different it is to be a young adult today, and how several factors can lead to an inequity of opportunity for our youngest populations. He suggests that in contrast to when we were all adolescents, youth today cannot escape the risk factors that infiltrate their school, community, and home environments. We need to be doing something different.
We now live in a world where we have the fortune and misfortune of 24/7 Internet at our fingertips. With that powerful resource – one that our children must embrace to be successful in any future career – comes 24/7 threats and a tremendous likelihood of negative influences. Unlike the world in which we grew up, our children face cyberbullying, inescapable peer pressure via social media channels – of which more are added every day – and unprecedented access to misinformation and horrible examples of behavior. Without positive and significant adult role models, Putnam says this generation is far more likely to experience a lack of self-esteem, suffer from depression, experience suicidal thoughts, or have a feeling of disenfranchisement.
Moreover, as a means to guard against the ever-present pain and disappointment, our youth now adopt an early a sense of mistrust. Many use it as their primary, and even proven method of survival. Putnam describes two Orange County teenage sisters, Sofia and Lola, who developed their own moral compass for this generation, their rule of thumb: “You can’t trust anyone, not even your best friends.”
One can easily see how this scenario leads to societal danger—one lost, misdirected youth at a time—starting with a kid dropping out of school, followed by an enticement of criminal activity for easy money, or potentially a new allegiance to an extremist sect that supply youth with a sense of belonging. Meanwhile, many lack the time, inclination, or role models to even consider their future or aspirational goals, particularly when they are just trying to survive.
Perhaps the greatest gift we can give our children today is positive adult influences. They need people in their lives that they can trust, and with whom they can share their feelings. Not only will this help them navigate these emotionally challenging times, it will also provide more opportunities for those adolescents to succeed as adults. But let’s be more specific. How can we be positive adult influences?
Create a Safe Space
One of the most important suggestions I have for all mentoring relationships – and that certainly applies to parent/adolescent relationships – is to first create a safe space. Especially in today’s toxic and judgmental environment, our youth need to witness that ideas can be openly discussed without fear of harsh criticism or judgment. When a parent presents that environment at home – where there is empathy and active listening (not just the obligatory “uh huh” while we continue with what we are doing) – that parent offers something that will have a lasting impact: a judgment-free zone where creativity and idea-generation can flourish. Once your adolescent realizes that his ideas can be welcomed and even cherished, the bridles are off, and you have effectively “freed” his mind to explore what else he can dream and accomplish. I have witnessed the before and after for these transitions, and they are powerful. They are life-changing. In fact, as Chris Gardner, the author of The Pursuit of Happyness, once told me, when we mentor with this mindset, we are not only impacting this generation; we are impacting their kids as well.
One of my favorite writers, who has also helped me in my own life and as a mentor, is Dr. Carol Dweck, the renowned Stanford University psychologist. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak extensively with Dweck about mentoring and parenting mindsets. One of her core mantras is to praise challenges and progress, not innate qualities. In other words, we should be teaching young adults that there will always be hurdles; it’s how you overcome those hurdles that matters in life. We should be praising the ability to come out of difficulties. She also stated that, whether students are aware of it or not, they are terrible at estimating their own abilities. The immense power to believe in oneself can strongly affect a person’s desire to learn, her overarching achievement, and her life’s potential. That’s what we as parents and mentors must instill.
How can you start your child thinking about that mindset? I like to ask, “What was your challenge today, and how did you work through it?” Take yourself out of the equation. Let your young adult share how he identified a problem, and he overcame it. “What did you learn from that?” This could easily be an entire dinner conversation – and rightly so.
Encourage a Project, and Put Your Young Adult in Charge
In my book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, I describe in detail what I call “Project Based Mentoring.” The model stems from Project Based Learning theories, but adds a skilled mentor to support the student and project. Through the project, these two different generations are given something to “do” together, and the project is both educational and transformative. The project is frequently based on tackling realistic problems with real-world application.
Importantly, however, there are important guidelines for that relationship. It is the student who is the idea generator, the responsible party, and the driver of the activity and its execution. Together, the mentor and mentee/student share a mutual goal of planning the project framework within a timeline to achieve successful completion. Eventually, in the classroom, the students will give a public oral defense. The project and the relationship mimic workplace assignments and intergenerational (and often cross-cultural) work relationships.
I suggest this sort of project is just as developmental and experiential if it is embarked by parent/child teams, and you review the project’s success in an “oral defense” at the end. Has your daughter wanted to paint her room a different color? Has your son been wanting to plan a weekend trip or activity for the family? These could be excellent projects in which the parents teach responsibility and project planning, while also encouraging creativity and positive mindsets.
Based on my 20 years of mentoring, I can tell you the relationship works. Young adults, often for often the first time, are developing skills that are relevant to an actual career. They are seeing first-hand that strategizing and hard work can yield results. The youth develop character and competence, and through both, they develop confidence. And naturally, bonds form that can have a profound impact on everyone involved (even the parent/mentor).
Give Them “Veto Power”
Importantly, the parent(s) need to remember that their role is to encourage critical thinking, but not direct the project. In fact, this is an opportunity to give up control – and see how your child can take on, enthusiastically, more responsibility with time. You should absolutely be asking questions and playing devil’s advocate in “what if” scenarios. But I would suggest giving the “veto power” to your child. In order for a child to take on more authority, you have to give up some of it. “No, mom, I really do want to paint the room black.”
Cringe! I know! But keep in mind the ultimate goal: instilling long-term values and hopefully a few lessons learned and/or disappointments overcome along the way. You are preparing your child for the real world of decision-making.
Make it Fun
Finally, it is your job to make sure this project stays fun. If there is a hurdle or negative outcome, help your child collect evidence on what happened. Don’t let the conversation or thinking turn to, “I’m so stupid,” as students will often say. Keep the conversation and comments constructive and positive.
Likewise, make sure your child’s effort, and not innate abilities, are praised. “What did you learn today?” “What did you try hard at?” Dweck says it is actually counterproductive to compliment an innate talent, physical attribute, or skills. Give your student this mentality and you have given them one of the most valuable lessons in life: “You are in charge of your learning and your mindset. It’s a choice.”
PATTY ALPER, author of Teach to Work, is president of the Alper Portfolio Group, a marketing and consulting company, and is a board member of both the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and US2020, the White House initiative to build mentorship in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. She has also been appointed to the corporate committee for Million Women Mentors.