October 25, 2017

Dear Flint Hill School Families,

I dropped by the Upper School Robotics Lab recently and saw some of the incredible work the students have created with the 3D printers. I talked with them about an upcoming robotics competition and stood in awe of their intellect, problem-solving skills, and the calm, deliberate approach they take in dealing with things that are way over my head. And last Friday, I stood with pride alongside our Lower School Director Sheena Hall, our Director of Institutional Advancement Meredith VanDuyne, and a group of Lower School students as we cut the ribbon for the new Lower School Innovation Lab. It is a remarkable room, complete with a Lego wall, 3D printer, an engraving machine, plenty of space for brainstorming, and lots of instruments and tools to help them collaborate, create, invent and build. We know that the generation of students currently attending Flint Hill is vastly different from ours — and with varying periods of time come different intellectual and emotional needs and distinct requirements for the skills needed to lead productive adult lives.

Adults always seem to lament the changes they see in the “younger generation.” I know my parents were always aghast at the changes they saw in my friends and me. Boys were growing their hair longer, teenagers wore bell bottom pants, and people calling themselves “hippies” just seemed wrong to them. And my generation’s rebellion against authority, recreational experimentation with drugs and the loudness of the music all seemed foreign to them. But we were the “Baby Boomer” generation coming of age. By our sheer numbers, we overwhelmed our parents, but, fundamentally, I can look back and see that while we were trying to be different, we really weren’t. We just demonstrated our needs and fears in very different ways. At that time, society was in the midst of the Vietnam War, politically we witnessed some high profile assassinations, and television was evolving as a communication and entertainment medium.

Today’s world continues to change around our children in some far-reaching ways. There have been significant shifts in how people think, act and live. The rapid evolution of technology has made our children a truly digital generation that thinks and processes information differently from us. We see enormous changes in this generation on a whole host of fronts and, to some degree, it is leaving all of us a bit breathless and bewildered. Today’s youth have to balance their intellectual potential with their emotional well-being, and in a rapidly changing, hyper-competitive world, that can be a difficult task.

Naming this generation has been as challenging as defining it. Post-Millennials, Gen Z and iGen have all been used, and many articles and books have been published exploring the characteristics and challenges of this generation. I’d like to share two of them with you. Donna Orem, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), wrote this article summarizing the book, “The GenZ Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business,” by Tom Koulopoulos. Her reflections are thoughtful, insightful and full of relevance for schools. Her synopsis of the book helps parents and educators realize the magnitude of the shift that is taking place. There are concrete changes at hand that will impact all of us.

The other is a book I just finished  called “iGen: The 10 Trends Shaping Today’s Young People – and the Nation” (Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood) by Jean M. Twenge. Besides being a mouthful to say, it was a fascinating review of the traits and trends that researchers are seeing in today’s young people. The youngsters in our schools and our homes today are behaving, thinking and responding in very different ways than previous generations. They are bright, honest and innocent in many ways. Social media is a way of life for them, and they want everything fast. Video clips and on-demand streaming with sites like YouTube and Netflix shape how they want to absorb or interact with the world. “Why go to a movie theater when we can watch the movie at home, in my bedroom?” some students shared with me. Email is “snail-mail” for them; texting is the way to go. And sleep? They don’t get much of it, even though they desperately need it.

It is incredible to think about the trends that we are seeing outlined in these materials. Years ago, early in my counseling career, I was seeing 13- and 14-year olds making decisions about drinking, drugs and sexual activity that my generation didn’t have to make until we were 18 or 19 years old. I worried that they were speeding up their adolescence at a rapid pace. Those concerns led to a whole industry focused on drug and alcohol education, more open discussions about sexuality, and efforts to help save students from making poor decisions. But today, we see a reversal of sorts. Some young people act as if they don’t want to grow up. In fact, today’s 19-year-olds are behaving like yesterday’s 15-year-olds. And while even Peter Pan sought out playmates, the current literature says that today’s youth want to interact more virtually — with their smartphones.

Interestingly, rates of alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity are down, which is great news. But there is also little desire among many young people today to leave the house to engage with others socially or to get summer jobs. They know all too well about cyberbullying and have become aware of how dangerous it is to post information online. Yet, they are almost addicted to checking their phones for real-time feedback on their posts and to keep up on what others have put up. Internally, they are struggling emotionally with growing concerns about their well-being, feelings about themselves, and how to face the world around them.

The book “iGen” really helped open my eyes on a number of fronts. Today’s youngsters are the most diverse, potentially powerful generation we have ever seen, but to flourish, they need our help and understanding. Each chapter in iGen outlines a different trait that research has identified. It describes the concerns we should all have about children growing up slowly, about the time they spend online, the desire to only deal with others virtually rather than in person, and the increasing mental health crises we are all witnessing around us. The book touches on concerns about children’s safety, spirituality, openness, and inclusivity, and the conflict between their desire for independence and their reliance on their parents and others.

We have brilliant minds before us; children who are looking at the world in very different ways from what we experienced in our youth. Together, we have to understand who they are, not who we want them to be. And together, we need to create the safe, healthy foundation from which they can grow and develop. Let’s think about ways to give them the security that they need while giving them the skill set that will be required to move forward with confidence, determination, and resiliency to focus on the world in new and more engaging ways and reach that incredible potential we see in them. It is estimated that by the 2020s, members of this new generation will become a quarter of the American population. So please join me in learning all we can about this generation, so that we can positively help them take meaningful risks, be themselves and make a difference, and do it in ways that have them ready to lead us into the future.

Best wishes to you!

Sincerely,

John M. Thomas
Headmaster