I was struggling with my iPhone when a 6-year-old relative took it from my hand, went to settings, changed something and — voila! — it worked! That's Gen Z — kids born after 1996, ranging in age from babies to teens.
Gen Z is our children's children and the kids of Gen Xers and even younger boomers who had babies later in their lives. Many of us "nanny" the grandkids to help our working adult children, so we have close encounters of all kinds with Gen Z. What do we need to know about these tech-savvy tots and teens?
Intrigued by the differences she saw between millennials and Gen Z, Los Angeles family therapist Wendy O'Conner wrote a Kindle booklet. A key point, she says, is that unlike millennials who adapted to technology as they grew up, Gen Z was born into a wired world. "They multitask on a whole different level, and that sometimes can look to parents like they are distracted and have very short attention spans. But they can actually pay attention and text at the same time."
However, technology needs to be limited. And it's difficult to be a role model for the kids when millennials and boomers check their phones constantly, O'Conner says. "The kids are getting mixed messages on what's appropriate. We need to set boundaries ourselves" as well as for our kids, she says.
An unexpected trait of Gen Z kids is that they sometimes become bored with technology — it infiltrates every part of their lives, especially at school. O'Conner suggests that parents and grandparents seize the opportunity to pull out a board game (remember those?) or head to the playground with them.
While you're in the park, encourage the kids to climb to the top of the monkey bars and jungle gym. It might be a little risky, but that's exactly what parents and grandparents should be doing, says Atlanta education expert Tim Elmore, author of Generation iY: Secrets to Connecting With Today's Teens & Young Adults in the Digital Age. "By insulating kids from risk, we are failing miserably at preparing them for a world that will not be risk-free."
Perhaps that's a normal reaction of a millennial parent who practiced lockdown drills in school. Now their Gen Z kids are practicing active-shooter evasion techniques. Elmore says he's not encouraging parents to abandon safety but that they should also not let paranoia take over. "Because we are so preoccupied with safety, the message we unwittingly send to children and grandchildren is 'Don't take a risk.'" He suggests risk-taking that extends beyond the playground to willingness to try — and fail — at new activities in school, sports and social life.
Discouraging risk-taking is one of the "Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids," the title of a Facebook post by Elmore that went viral. The other two are "rescuing too quickly" and "praising too easily."
When anything goes wrong, we jump in to solve the problem before allowing the child to find a solution. "Don't rush in with that forgotten permission slip or lunch or to solve the math problem," Elmore says. "We don't want to communicate low expectations that they can't solve their own problems or deal with the consequences." When it comes to praise, he suggests being very specific. "Praise the variable in their control, like effort," he says.
Elmore also acknowledges the impact of technology on Gen Z. "This is the first generation of kids that don't need you to get information," he says. "What they need you to do is interpret that information, putting it in context. We need to be the Sherpa [mountain-climbing] guides in terms of how they think about and use all that information."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://mothering21.com