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by Susan V. Bosak
Legacy Project

Community should celebrate and accommodate all ages

Although social media and online communities are popular with the young, children and teens are in many ways increasingly isolated from real community. In large part this is because they're isolated from older adults. But young and old need each other. Our society tends to marginalize both groups. A rich, fulfilling community brings together and celebrates all ages.

Being Young in Community

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that connections between the generations are "essential for the mental health and stability of a nation." There are significant benefits to the young, and to local schools, of a more intergenerational approach to community:

  • Research shows that children need 4-6 involved, mature adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially. Older adults can play a big role in mentoring and supporting students.

  • Older adults can be a tremendous resource for schools, from volunteering to mentoring programs to reading support programs. This helps schools achieve higher academic standards and graduation rates.

  • With older adults as role models, students develop higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to rise above peer pressure.

  • Strong relationships can often develop between those at both ends of the age spectrum – children and older adults. These relationships give children someone to talk with and confide in, particularly important for students at risk.

  • Communities that take an intergenerational approach find that schools have more family involvement, and support from parents and grandparents.

  • Children have a better sense of who they are and where they've come from. They have roots, a history, and a sense of continuity and perspective.

  • An intergenerational, life course perspective in schools helps combat ageism, and encourages students to look toward the whole of their lives. When they do this, they are more motivated and see greater relevance between what they're learning in school and their future. Research shows that "planful competence" – the ability to understand the life course and work toward goals – is key to student success in school and in life.

Communication Supports Community

The word "community" (fellowship, that which is common) has the same etymological Latin and French roots as "communicate" (to impart, to share, to make common). There are many definitions of community, but one common element is interaction or communication as the source and sustenance of community.

As we communicate to build community, we need to recognize that effective communication involves both talking and listening. Community is what we have in common with others, and having things in common is what makes us related. How do we know what we have in common unless we listen? By listening we share the insight, vision, knowledge, compassion, and understanding that is common in community. When we don't listen, we deny our membership in a shared world with others. We shirk the responsibility of responding genuinely when someone speaks to us.

The speaker-dominated heritage of our culture greatly limits community. In a speaker-oriented culture, we listen only when the speaker is given legitimacy – by status (including age, gender, and race), political power, logic, rhetoric. We don't listen because listening is the right or best thing to do. Nor does our culture give us praise for listening. So no one – child, younger adult, or older adult – feels listened to.

Regardless of our lack of emphasis on listening, communication is inherently difficult. It's ambiguous, imprecise, fluid. Add to that the fact that communicators are people – who have their own goals, can be less than honest, are often indirect and unclear. Now add to all that one more level of complexity: generational differences.

Intergenerational Communication

Intergenerational communication can be a breeding ground for misunderstanding. The chronological distance between people means they've lived through very different historical periods and may be operating with different communication assumptions, skills, needs, and experiences. Further, the concept of "generation" is as much a set of experiences as it is a range of years. A relative lack of change makes it easier to bring together the lives of grandparent, parent, and child. But when social change is rapid, as it is today, there are likely to be more separate "generations" created than when the passing years are indistinguishable. Rapid social change fractures children, parents, and grandparents, making intergenerational communication even more difficult.

Intergenerational communication is also affected by ageist stereotypes. Research shows that middle-aged and older people seem to have more complex schemas of older people than do young people, and are also more likely to identify positive traits of older people. So, they are more open to and effective at communicating with older adults. Young people seem to be more likely to rely on various stereotypes of older people and use patronizing "eldertalk." In our youth-obsessed society, many young people also feel threatened by the thought of their own aging and the fact that they will one day belong to the "other" group (i.e. old people). This may be why some teens and young adults actively avoid interacting with older people.

In one study of college students, participants reported that they spent about 85% of their time with young people (those under 35 years), 13% of their time with middle-aged people (over 45 years), and only 4.5% of their time with old people (over 65). I've often heard young people say, "Well, you know how old people are." How are they? From what I've seen, they are happy and sad, active and not, interesting and boring, polite and rude, caring and inconsiderate. In short, they are like the rest of us: human. The only thing most older people share is that they have lived a certain number of years on this planet, which admittedly gives them a common perspective to a certain degree. But at the same time, by denying older people their individuality, we rob them of one of the most precious things they have: their identity. We also rob ourselves of the chance to learn more about the fullness of humanity.

There are hopeful signs in intergenerational communication. One study looked at young adults in conversation with older adults (age 65-85) they didn't know. There were participants from nine countries, a mix of Eastern countries (Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines) and Western countries (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Canada came out on top in terms of the most positive interactions with older people, with the US second. Interactions were reported to be satisfying and positive. Older adults didn't negatively stereotype the young and were perceived of as supportive, attentive, and generally encouraging. The young tended to have respect for the older adults, with some age accommodation, but not a heavy obligation factor. And there was less ageism in the Western countries than the Eastern countries; participants tended to emphasize who the person was more than their age.

It's interesting that although Chinese culture, for example, regards elders more positively than Western cultures, this doesn't translate into improved intergenerational experiences or contact. Eastern cultures may be politer, show more outward respect, and feel a responsibility to care for older adults, but they don't report any higher satisfaction with their intergenerational interactions. Because of cultural conditioning, they may feel pressure or a burden when it comes to older adults. And they often still hold negative views of "old people" that include boredom, physical decline, and a lack of decision power. They treat elders well, but don't take them seriously. Eastern cultures have also undergone tremendous cultural changes along with rapid technological development, and this may account for the more negative views of elders as having been "left behind."

Although Western cultures may have come out on top in one study, it's important to recognize there's still a lot of work left to do. Whether interactions are described as satisfying or nonsatisfying, they still tend to be limited and to encourage ageist stereotypes. A "satisfying" conversation may be satisfying because a young person is surprised at how accommodating and interesting that particular older person is (which does nothing, ultimately, to deal with the bigger stereotypes of older people). In "satisfying" interactions, it may also be that each generation held to their proper "generational script" and didn't step on each other's toes. Young and old collude in talking about age. For example, the young person might say, "You're 87? You don't look 87! I hope I look like you when I'm 87!" And the older person may respond with, "Oh, thank you, dear."

Community Serves Children

We live in a world that has ambivalent feelings toward diversity. On one hand, it's celebrated and embraced. On the other hand, discrimination and prejudice toward those unlike us is prevalent. To build community, we must bridge this gap, particularly when it comes to those who are not the same age as we are.

That brings us back to the young. Children come into the world with promise and potential. They are little beings filled with hope. But many children quickly end up feeling hopeless – not only those we label "disadvantaged" but also those who come from middle-class homes. Middle-class children live in the same unconnected, media-dominated, pop culture environment. These children can be pampered into laziness, purposelessness, and a sense of entitlement by too much wealth and too little challenge. Or children can be trapped into failure by poverty, hunger, loneliness, and illiteracy. Both ends of the spectrum must be addressed.

Children are dependent on their family – their parents and grandparents – and their school to prepare them for adulthood and to participate in their world, their community. The school can be a key place where we begin to rebuild a sense of community. Our social problems cannot be solved by schools alone. But that doesn't mean schools, with our support, can't play an important role in making things better, especially for the young. Schools can become models of the larger sense of community we need in our neighborhoods, cities, and nations. Part of this involves giving schools the money, staff, and resources they desperately need. Another part involves a change in approach.

The classroom can become an oasis in a world that does not treat children fairly or encourage community. This can happen in a number of ways.

Cooperation over Competition

First, there can be a greater shift to a cooperative rather than competitive approach. There's a heavy emphasis on the adversarial model in our society – some people are "winners" while most others are "losers." Every person is out for themselves, and materialism and greed are everywhere. According to many sociologists and psychologists, this emphasis on competition is counter-productive and unhealthy. In other cultures, like the Zuni and Iroquois in North America, the concept of competition is unheard of. In places like the Israeli kibbutz, cooperation is prized and competition generally avoided. Problem-solving and working together toward common goals benefit everyone.

Old-fashioned competition has long been perceived as the catalyst that pushes children to perform better. But experts on moral growth warn that too much emphasis on competition can impede the development of fairness. An alternative model for the classroom, one that's slowly gaining more ground across the country, emphasizes cooperation, communication, respect and an appreciation for diversity, and conflict resolution skills. Children don't need anything special to pursue this alternative model. They can simply do things like take turns, share, negotiate, compromise, and engage in problem solving as they interact with others in a natural, unstructured setting.

One criticism of cooperation is that it reduces individuality and creative expression. Cooperation can actually encourage individuality. Competition encourages us to constantly compare ourselves to others. Cooperation encourages respect for individuality and diversity. Each person's unique strengths are appreciated and used as part of the whole. In research done on cooperatively-structured classrooms, results have indicated that students liked their classmates more, had higher self-esteem, had a stronger belief that they could learn from others, had better academic achievement, and liked school more. It's all a matter of balance – working cooperatively on some things and individually on others.

Cooperative learning is different than learning in groups. In a regular classroom, a group of individual students may come together to work on a specific project. In a cooperatively-structured classroom, group tasks are ongoing, from working on a project to helping clean up the classroom. Students do their fair share of work and take responsibility for that work. Slower learners are given tasks they can handle while contributing to the group and learning from others. Each student's participation is encouraged because it is essential to the progress of the group. And, most importantly, students are taught the skills for working cooperatively; they are not automatically expected to know how to do it.

Choosing the Right Kinds of Activities

The second way that schools (and families) can encourage community is through the activities we encourage children to engage in. This means getting children away from the TV and computer. They need to consistently interact with other people, particularly parents, grandparents, mentors, and other adults. Research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interaction with people, not things, for healthy brain growth. As they get older, children also need to be engaged in active rather than passive activities. Children learn through active, physical and mental play – games, making music, storytelling, experiencing nature.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child gives children a number of rights, including play, adequate nutrition, special protection, housing, health care, and education. Children's play is often not valued by adults, who consider it a mere time filler rather than an essential component of healthy development. We need to encourage children to engage in open-ended, spontaneous, active, cooperative play that allows them to freely explore, experiment, invent, and learn about themselves, others, and the world.

Teaching Civics

The third important component to schools helping to build community is educating the young about how to participate in community. Children need more of a background in civics. Civics involves those skills, attitudes, and beliefs needed to be a member of community. It was a course many people in previous generations took – a course about learning to become a useful citizen. Do we know how to participate in community? Who teaches us? A modern civics course might include information on cooperation, conflict resolution, media literacy, issues assessment, political structure, safety, and values such as responsibility, equality, justice, and integrity.

Schools for All Ages

Finally, if schools are to be a model of community, we need to make them an intergenerational place, not an age-segregated enclave. The ultimate goal might be transforming schools into lifelong learning centers in which people of all ages congregate to explore and learn about the world around them.

A powerful example is The Intergenerational School in Cleveland, OH. Each multi-age class of 16 students is made up of children across a three to four year age span. This provides a rich learning environment where students learn from each other and are taught to be role models from the start. Mentors and community partners are also part of the learning environment, resulting in a multigenerational community that participates in varied learning experiences. Rather than arbitrary age- and calendar-based grade levels, students learn in a time frame, manner, and context that supports their individual capabilities. Assessments enable teachers to determine each student's academic status and specific learning needs. Student achievement has been shown to be higher. Further, in a world of rapid change and significant challenge, dynamic lifelong learning opportunities for adults are more important than ever before for fostering productive, engaged citizens and for countries to remain competitive in the global economy.

In the short term, we should encourage more family involvement in schools, run a school Grandparents Day, encourage older adults to come into schools to serve as volunteers and mentors, and connect with seniors groups and nursing homes. A true community brings all ages together to benefit everyone.

Keeping Teens Involved

And what happens as children grow into teenagers and young adults? We have to make sure we also involve this age segment in community. Mentors can play an extremely important role here. So can service learning. Young people are often looking for opportunities to contribute to community. Even at-risk youth can respond to meaningful, positive community involvement. Researchers have reported that young people develop a sense of personal and social responsibility when they participate in acts of community service. So, not only do the young need to receive help (i.e. mentoring) but they also need to give help (i.e. community service). They need meaningful opportunities to participate in community before they become cynical and lose interest.

As more people live longer, these opportunities may be found in helping older adults who face physical, economic, social or other limitations. Young people could help out immeasurably by giving caregivers a break; helping older adults care for their homes so that they can remain in them longer; teaching an older adult how to use the computer; or even starting a neighborhood walking club to reduce isolation.

Young people under 25 years of age, particularly today in a world filled with complex choices, also need help to find their way into adulthood and the world of work. This is one very important area in which we need to develop new life maps. Everyone's life is pretty much mapped out until late adolescence; after that, it's an open field. It can be extremely difficult and frustrating to find your way in the world. And I think we "lose" many good people because they can't find their way, and end up tired and cynical.

Ageism Affects the Young, Too

I wrote an Op-Ed piece for a national newsmagazine when I was 19. It's interesting to listen to the young me express a lot of frustration at the ageism and limited opportunities many young people face.

Some things have changed since I wrote the article; many have not. There is passion and energy in the young that we would do well to tap into. One key change that needs to be made to our life maps is replacing the linear view of life that equates youth with education, middle age with work, and old age with leisure. A more evolved view should enable people to move in and out of education, work, and leisure throughout their life course. More flexible life pathways provide opportunities for personal fulfillment and community development at every life stage. We need ways to support young people as they establish themselves, lessen the burden on people in their middle years, and foster productivity during older adulthood.

Rebuilding a sense of community involves everyone accepting some responsibility for nurturing younger generations. We need more than just programs, but a restructuring of the way we do things, and the ability to get resources out to the people who need them. The emphasis has to be on building the capacity and knowledge of individuals, young and old, to enhance both personal and social change.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org