Lately I’ve really felt a yearning to work more with teens. I recently had the opportunity to booktalk some of Adam Selzer’s books to some fifth grade classes, and it was amazing. To prepare, I asked Adam for some fifth-grade related biographical tidbits to share with the kids. One question was, “What did you think about going into sixth grade?” Adam’s answer was, “Getting to be in a different school than my younger brother.”
When I told the kids this information, I added a personal anecdote about how when I started Kindergarten, my sister paid a girl named Stormy five dollars to play with me, so she (my sister) wouldn’t have to be bothered. I told it with the self-deprecating verve of Louis CK, and half the kids laughed while the other half sort of gasped. It was really quite something to see the kids react to my sad little tale. I think they appreciated how vulnerable I was, while being humorous with it at the same time. It was a true story that they could identify and empathize with, and it really got them on my side for the rest of the presentation.
For another example, after showing the kids some pictures of Adam in fifth and sixth grade (which, man, those pictures are awesome), I wandered off on a tangent about hammer pants, scrunchy socks, rolling one’s jeans, body touch clothing, and stirrup pants.(I may also have sung a bit of, with hand actions, 2 legit 2 quit.) The kids had very little idea what I was talking about, but they (and their teachers) definitely responded to my dorky enthusiasm.
I think this trips up a lot of people when it comes to working with teens. They don’t need–or particularly want–you to be into exactly what they’re into, but they do appreciate if you are into your own thing, and can geek out, and therefore understand the feeling when they’re geeking out about something.
Sometimes your interests will overlap (some eighth graders I know share my enthusiasm for Doctor Who, and like that I know quite a bit about memes) but this definitely is not required to work well with teens. What they respond to is whether or not you’re being authentic, real, and genuine. You might have absolutely not idea what they are rambling on about, but if you’re genuinely excited that they are excited, they’ll keep talking to you, and let you in on what inspires, excites, and amuses them. If you’re fake, it doesn’t matter if you’re faking it about all the things they’re really into, they’re not going to like you. Nobody likes a poseur. It makes people feel like you’re not taking seriously something that’s important to them, and that pisses people off. Teens, especially, have finely tuned bullshit detectors. Don’t force squeals about Justin Bieber if it’s really Michael Buble who really trips your trigger (and don’t try to use teen slang if what you’d actually say is trip your trigger, awesome sauce, or 2 legit 2 quit).
I think that teens need to see people who are fully and confidently themselves, when they are in such a period of flux, growth, and discovery. At the very least, it’s a model of interaction that I’ve been able to use with success. What about you? Whether you work with teens or not, are you able to be as much your authentic self when you’re at work as possible? Or do you feel the need for an elaborate workplace persona?