Saturday, February 8, 2014

On talking to young people at church (and elsewhere)

I am now 28 years old, and I have been "so young" my entire life. 

Given, this happens when you start college at age 14, graduate college before you're 21, and have your doctorate by the time you're 26.  I get it.  I really do.  When you don't follow the typical social timeline, you're something of an anomaly.

However, when I was in my college English class at 14 and realized I couldn't earn the extra credit for the class because the extra credit was to go out and vote (and bring in your voting sticker), I told myself this couldn't possibly last forever.  In my creative writing class at 15, ignored by the 18-21 year olds and patronized by the non-traditional students, I told myself, "this?  This is only temporary.  I can't be 'so young' for much longer."

And yet here I am, 14 years later.  Lately, I have been told more times that I can count that I am "so young" or "too young to remember" or "too young to get it" or just, simply, "oh my goodness, so young."

Being a somewhat savvy young person, I get it.  I really do.  There are, in fact, things that happened that I was not alive to witness that a large part of the population lived through.  There are, in fact, things that I do not understand because I just have not yet lived enough years to have had that life experience.  Relatively speaking, I am young.  I don't necessarily feel like it (in fact, I've lived most of my life feeling like I've done this life on Earth thing before), but I guess age is relative and, compared to people who are older than myself, I am young(er).
Members of churches are particularly bad about this young thing.  Not just my church, for sure -- all churches struggle with it.  It has the opportunity to be one of the few places where intergenerational interactions and friendships can take place; however, in reality, it seems that many people are just out of practice in how to talk to one another if the "other" is a person from a different age cohort.  That's the only thing I can figure.

And so, I present to you (with my young "thinks she knows it all" wisdom) an explanatory list, from my perspective.  Here is a list of "what not to say to a person you perceive to be young:"

(1).  "You're so young!"  When you hear this more than once, what is perhaps intended as a compliment (or merely a statement of fact) takes on another meaning.  Young does not just mean "not having as many years."  Young takes on the meaning of "inexperienced" or "not as knowledgeable" or "not as informed."  When the fact that I am "young" is the only thing you can comment on, our conversation stops.  What is there to say?  How do I move forward into connection with you, now that you have pointed out one of the differences between us?

Can you imagine if I did the opposite?  What if I started talking about something I was not sure you would understand, and I prefaced it with, "you're so old!" or "you're older, but..." or "you're old, so you probably won't get this..."  This wouldn't happen and, if it did, you probably wouldn't want to talk to me again, right?  It would be incredibly rude of me to make such a statement.  So why is it okay to include a statement about my age in our conversation?  (I understand, of course, that this is different, because there is deep-seated ageism in our society against people who are older and against elders.  I also understand that being young is [supposedly] valued, and that being young/looking young is good.  I challenge you to see how this is not always the case, and the ways that it can impact young people [or those who look young] negatively).

There is an implied condescension, that is likely entirely unintentional, but is there nonetheless.  "You're so young" comes with a look that's hard to explain.  It usually comes with a head tilt and a slight raising of the eyebrows, such as what one might do when looking at a particularly cute puppy, and really?  I've seen myself.  I'm not that cute.  For real.

(2) "We should talk.  I like to hear what young people are thinking."  Why yes!  I would love to talk to you.  I would love to tell you what I am thinking -- but I speak only for me.  If you want to know what I think about immigration reform or gun control, let's talk.  If you're expecting me to speak for all young people, or you want to hear my opinion only because I'm young, I'm not quite as interested.  Again, let's flip it: I'm not going to say "I would love to get coffee sometime and hear what old people are thinking about human trafficking" or "Let's be sure and talk sometime.  I find it so interesting to talk to middle-aged people about climate change."  Of course I wouldn't do that.  That would be weird.  So why do I feel the need to feel honored when you indicate you would like to know what people my age are thinking, rather than just being able to hear my personal thoughts?

(3) "Where are you in school?"  I generally try to speak only for myself and from my own experience, but I'm going to stray from that a little here.  This question just isn't good for anybody.  I understand that you're taking a leap and guessing, but you could be very, very wrong.  In my case, I just finished 150000 years of school, so I'm no longer in school -- which then shatters your image of who I am, and leads us in a very circular conversation.  It tends to go like this:

Older person: "Where are you in school?"
Me: "Actually, I'm not in school.  I graduated about 2 years ago and I'm working at XXX Organization."
Older person: "Oh, you graduated already?  Any thoughts about going back for a Masters?"
Me: "I actually graduated with my doctorate 2 years ago."
Older person: "No!  Oh my.  I had no idea.  You're so young!"
Me: "..." [See number 1 above]
Older person: "So you're really a doctor?"
Me: "Yep."
Older person: "I just can't believe that.  You're just so young."

My options here are limited.  I typically say something along the lines of, "I hear that a lot" and try to change the topic.  The rest of the conversation is typically riddled with more "you're so youngs" in conjunction with doctor jokes and Doogie Howser references. 

Alternatively, the younger person may not be in school -- for any number of reasons.  Financial difficulties.  Academic challenges.  Maybe they straight up aren't interested in going to college.  Maybe they aren't able to go.  Regardless, why bring it up?  Why make that assumption when you could be so very wrong and risk making someone feel shame, or embarrassment, or any number of emotions that could be so easily avoided by asking pretty much any other question?

Let's flip it here -- should I ask someone who I estimate to look around the age of retirement, "how is retirement going?" or "how long have you been retired?"  No.  They may not be retired.  They may want to be, but can't.  They may not want to retire.  Just because we look to be in a certain age cohort doesn't mean we are necessarily IN that age cohort, and doesn't necessarily mean we are following the socially sanctioned steps deemed to be appropriate within that cohort.  It's placing an additional strain and burden on the other that just doesn't need to be there.  Society does enough of the pushing on a daily basis.  Must we choose to reinforce it in our conversations?

(4) "If you don't mind me asking, how young ARE you?"  I do mind, actually.  And the reason I mind is this: people's reactions don't change.  When I was "so young" when I was 15, and I told people I was 15, the reaction was, "OH!  15.  *funny tongue sucking noise*  You're so young.  Enjoy it!  Enjoy it while you can."  The reaction now that I'm 28?  "28?  OH!  *funny tongue sucking noise*  I remember 28.  You're so young.  Enjoy it.  Enjoy it while you can." 

In actuality, what does the number give you?  It doesn't tell you my life experience.  It doesn't tell you what I know or what I've seen or what I believe.  It doesn't tell you about my maturity or lack thereof.  It tells you when I was born.  Ask me instead to tell you about myself.  I promise you, that story is much more interesting.

(5) "Where do your parents live" or "Do your parents go to this church?" or "How did you get here today?"  I have, honest to god, been asked all three of these questions (some of them more than once).  If there is a young person there by herself, just assume she's a responsible adult who can live on her own, form independent ideas about religion, and drive.  Let's start there.

(6) This last one isn't necessarily a specific phrase, but more of just a reminder: remember that young people have life experience and opinions and ideas that are valid.  Remember that we have wisdom and thoughts, too.  Remember that life as a young adult (whatever age that is) can be ROUGH.  I understand sharing wisdom and looking back on personal experience and encouraging us young'uns to enjoy our youth, but remember that this time can also be hard.  There are blessings, and there are difficult transitions.  There are life circumstances, and there are hard times...just as there are at every other stage of life.

Now let's go out and learn from one another, shall we?  I have much to offer -- and so very much to learn.


  1. Oh, gosh. I hope I've never committed any of these crimes. If I ever do, call me out. I mean it. This is a great list.

  2. Please call me out too, if I do any of these, ever! Thank you for talking to this middle aged person about climate change. I know we're a bit of a drag. =)

    So as usual, your writing is filled with truth and perspective. There's only one tiny problem: you are SO cute, dammit.