Word to the Wise: What Not to Say To Young People

By Melissa Conroy 

As the holidays roll around, families and friends cluster together to spread cheer and ring in the new season. This is a wonderful time of year to reconnect with everyone and find out what is happening in people’s lives. No doubt, though, you will be hearing about both good and bad things occurring in the lives of people you care about. Your loved ones may be struggling with the same hot topics you hear about in the media — the recession, job loss, school bullying and divorce. Younger generations have always relied upon their elders for advice, consolation and guidance, so it’s likely a confused grandchild or frustrated young adult may be seeking your wisdom during the holidays.

 In a few words: Watch what you say. Elders can be a wonderful source of advice and assistance, but there are a handful of statements that well-meaning mentors are quick to offer that are actually unhelpful, irritating and sometimes hurtful. If a troubled younger relative comes seeking your advice, you would do well to skip the following: 

“You’re so young.” Age is relative, and to your 60-plus-year-old eyes, your 28-year-old grandson is probably ridiculously young. However, that same 28-year-old may have already purchased a house, bought a car, gotten married and started a career, things that are milestones for adults. To tell a young person, “You’re so young,” or, “You’re just a baby,” is like saying, “Your accomplishments and experiences to this date mean nothing.” Many of these young’uns have done quite a bit in the few years we’ve wandered around on this earth, so don’t discredit what they have seen, learned and achieved. 

“There are other fish in the sea.” As surely as there is oxygen in our atmosphere, people will get their hearts broken. However, breakups are usually agonizingly painful. If one of your younger loved ones is suffering through the sorrow of heartbreak, please do not dismiss it by telling them there are other people out there. This may be true, but it is not really that tactful to say so. Just sympathize with them and they’ll get through it eventually.  

“You’d better hurry up and get married.” Once a young person hits 30 without a ring, this statement is sure to be voiced at family gatherings. However, if you are a young person who wants to be married, being told to hurry up and get it done is maddeningly frustrating. The best example I ever heard to counter this statement was this, “Telling a frustrated single person to hurry up and get married is like telling an elderly lady crossing a road with a walker to hurry up and get across the road before she gets hit by a car.” Sadly, social acceptance of casual sex and cohabitation means that there are few incentives for young people to get married today, and it can be quite difficult for a marriage-minded young woman to find a decent young man, or vice versa, who is willing to commit to marriage.   

“When I was your age…” Perspective is always a good thing, and many younger people enjoy hearing about what life was like when their elders were growing up. However, the world we live in today is changing at an unbelievably fast rate. Technology becomes obsolete out of the box, new fashions come and go in a twinkling of an eye and progress never stops for one second. The world today is bewilderingly different from what it was just a few years ago. While some ideas and values remain true today – try, being kind to your neighbor and always telling the truth — be aware that your well-meaning advice may simply not be applicable today. 

“I want grandkids!” The old joke among grandparents is, “If we had known how much fun grandchildren would be, we would have had them first!” What’s not to love about grandchildren? But many young people today are hesitant to reproduce for many reasons, and one of them might be that parents today are under unbelievable demands. Raising kids is extremely expensive these days  and many of the child raising practices common several decades ago could get parents arrested today. (Think spanking kids or leaving the baby asleep in the crib while you run to the store.) Parents in this era are castigated if they let their kids eat nonorganic food, ride their bikes without a helmet and knee pads or race around the neighborhood dressed like Superman. Simply put, raising kids today is much more complex than it was.  Your adult children will appreciate it if you don’t pressure them too much to start popping out grandkids. 

“You’ve got plenty of time.” On the other hand, if you’ve got an adult child that desperately wants to get married and have children, don’t laugh it off. Just try telling that to a 33-year-old woman whose biological clock is ticking so loud it sounds like Big Ben. If your 30-something, single granddaughter is in a panic about her rapidly diminishing fertility, offer chocolate and sympathy. Otherwise she will start crying. 

“Kids these days!”  Many older people today can identify with the words  of this author: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” So Plato wrote in the 4th century BC. Not surprisingly, ever since civilization sprung up, the older generations have been worried that the younger crowd is falling to pieces. Yes, kids these days spend too much time on Facebook, are permanently welded to their cell phones, send naked pictures of themselves to each other and engage in other foolish and ridiculous behavior. But if we try a bit, we will recall that kids have always done stupid and dangerous things. The only thing that has changed is that technology allows them to do stupid and dangerous things with much greater impact and creativity. Young ones, much like in our generation, eventually learn from their mistakes. 

Mark Twain once remarked that, “When I was 17, I thought my father was the stupidest man on earth. When I turned 21, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in four years.” Just the same, there are some time-honored statements that younger people really would prefer not to hear, so be careful with that holiday advice.

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.