©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Restless with the flight delay, the teenager absently tossed the silver dollar into the air and caught it. I watched as the action was repeated over and over. A split-second distraction and the coin rolled merrily across the floor, its owner in hot pursuit. Victory! But not before several passengers had been jostled, a toddler startled into tears, and a security guard alerted by the confusion.
Returning to the gate area, the teenager was greeted by a parent whose words flew faster than a frog’s tongue: “I told you to be careful with that coin! Why did you do that? What’s wrong with you? Don’t just stand there! Answer me!” Silence. The parent stood with muscles tight, face red, blood pressure building, ready to lose it any second; the teenager with head bowed, shoulders shrugged, and despair etched in every slumped muscle. Talk about a generation gap. Light years apart would be more like it.
Part of me wanted to explain to them that although the child was nearly as tall as the parent the teenager’s brain was still a work in progress, and that this parental style of communication would likely generate more problems that it would solve. But it wasn’t my place and, most likely, my comments wouldn’t have been well received.
Biting my tongue I strolled down the concourse thinking about a discussion I’d had with Dr. Eugene Brewer, Educational Superintendent in Florida. Many people believe that physical maturity equals brain maturity. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially during the first 2-3 decades of life. Just because a teenager’s body appears somewhat adult like, it’s an error in judgment to assume that the same holds true for the brain. Not only that, the brain may not be completely myelinated (the process whereby the nerve pathways are coated with a cholesterol insulation) until somewhere around age twenty or twenty-one, while the prefrontal regions may not be completely developed until mid-twenties or later. A misunderstanding of this mismatch can be a recipe for communication disasters, my definition of generation gap!
Would you believe it? As I reached the end of the concourse a similar situation presented itself. Just different players and a different object. When it got loose the squeegee managed to bounce off at least three passengers, barely missed the reading glasses of a fourth, and finally came to a stop against the traveling cage of a little pup that promptly erupted into frantic yipping. Just what everyone needed in a crowded airport!
With bated breath I waited to see how this parent would respond. No eruption. No pejoratives. Just a few words uttered in a relatively calm voice: “Put the squeegee in your back pack, apologize to the passengers, and then let’s talk about this.” The travelers appeared genuinely surprised by the apology and rushed to offer comments such as, That’s okay, Oh, no harm done, Not to worry, I know it’s tough to hang around the airport.
Curious to hear the remainder of the conversation, I ducked behind an adjacent pillar. “I realize you didn’t mean for the ball to get loose and I know it’s a pain waiting for our delayed flight, especially for someone as active as you are. Nevertheless, [I love that word!] you need to think ahead about the possible consequences of your actions such as a potential for hitting others, breaking reading glasses, upsetting cups of coffee, and so on.”
The teenager nodded and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think ahead.” His face held a wan half-smile.
Touching the child’s shoulder gently, the parent replied, “You’ll be more likely to next time. Hmmm. Now, what can you do to pass the time that will have a lower risk for negative consequences?”
How I wanted to shout, Bravo, great role modeling for the next generation! (My Ambiverted brain and a sense of public decorum restrained me.) The parent had identified the problem, gave instructions about behaviors required in consequence of the initial action, explained the need to think ahead about possible negative outcomes, and offered help to come up with a better choice under the present circumstances. All without yelling, demeaning, or shaming. No generation gap here, I thought, at least not in this situation. I’d spoken a trifle too soon as a strident, brittle voice caught my attention.
“So what good do you think that’ll do?” I peaked around the pillar. An elderly woman was addressing the boy’s parent. “You didn’t even make him tell you why he did it?” She shook her head, the muscles of her face wrinkled in a disapproving mask. Oh, oh, I thought to myself. Here it comes. And come it did with a vengeance. For the next few seconds all manner of suggestions poured forth of how she thought the child/parent interaction should have been handled.
I looked at the parent who a moment earlier had appeared calm and confident. Now the body language bespoke discouragement, weariness, and irritation. “We’ve had this discussion before.” The words were softly spoken but carried an underlying tension. “At best, why questions are difficult for adults to answer and almost impossible for teenagers. Why questions just get in the way of communication.” If looks could kill the elderly woman’s eyes might have accomplished the task effortlessly. Before she could reply, the parent continued, “Case in point, if I asked you why you are so upset with the way I just handled things, how would you answer?”
Her response, when it came, was nonverbal. Shoving her nose in the air, she sniffed, turned abruptly on her heel, and headed for the nearest beverage kiosk. There it was. Loud and clear and ugly. Generation gap! Just a different combinations of generations.
Leaving the safety of the pillar, I headed back down the concourse. This time I really had to bite my tongue to keep from saying to the parent, “I truly admire the communication style you exhibited with your son. You avoided why questions!” I’d also been pleased to note that the parent seemed to be quite well informed. Studies have shown that when confronted with a question, especially when in the midst of an emotionally charged situation, individuals tended to access differing portions of the brain based on their ages. Those above age twenty-one tended to access the thinking brain (cerebrum) where functions related to conscious and logical/rational thought processing are housed. Those under the age of twenty-one tended to access portions of the brain sometimes referred to as the emotional brain (e.g., limbic lobe, pain-pleasure center) where there is no conscious thought—but plenty of emotion!
Therefore, when individuals below the age of twenty-one are asked a question such as, “Why did you do that?” they may want to respond and may even try to do so, but their brains may downshift. As a result, they will likely be trying to formulate an answer from the emotional brain and may become defensive or even unable to articulate effectively. This negative outcome can be further compounded if the child or adolescent perceives the situation to be adversarial or stressful. If the adult (so-called) is processing from the thinking brain while the adolescent is processing from the emotional brain, it’s no wonder there can be a disconcerting disconnect.
Many adults agonize over why questions about their own behaviors. How much more those under twenty-one whose brains are “still in the oven,” so to speak! How easy it is to shame others, especially young people, for things that we ourselves find difficult to accomplish.
Back at my gate it was time to board. Soon we were five miles above the earth and I had sufficient food for thought for the entire trip. Fortunately, we can narrow the generation gap.
As the old proverb puts it, a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.