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by Chuck DeGroat
I think millennials get a bad rap. Why?
The prevailing psychology of child-rearing 50 years ago was very different than it is today. Back then, many believed that to hold and nurture a newborn was to spoil her, to indulge the child’s innate neediness, to foster selfishness. You could attend to the child’s most basic needs, but don’t give in to the baby’s selfish tears. There are some fringe-Christian child-rearing philosophies which continue to advocate for this.
We now know from attachment psychologists and interpersonal neurobiologists that nothing could be worse for a child. In fact, children who lack this nurturing tend toward avoidance, anxiety, and instability. Further, these patterns are encoded in the neural networks of the brain, becoming scripts for how they will do life later. I’ve seen the evidence over and over again in twenty years of counseling and pastoring.
In fact, I was speaking with a woman some years ago whose husband, a veteran of WWII, had died some years before. They married before he was deployed. I asked if it was difficult for them to be apart. She said, “I missed him, but it was his duty.” They eventually reunited and had three children. One of those children told me that his parents marriage was “stable.” I asked if it was intimate. He said, “Oh, I wouldn’t use that word. They were devoted to each other. But they also slept in separate beds. You know the drill…raised to be strong and stoic.” I reflected on this couple, true representatives of the Greatest Generation (as Tom Brokaw called it), committed church goers to a traditional Lutheran church for decades, dutiful to the end. But where was their love, affection, attachment, even joy? And by what standards do we ennoble one generation and critique another?
Thanks be to God…we now know that babies need to be held and mirrored from the beginning, and for all kinds of reasons – for healthy “mirror neurons” to develop (which studies show manifest in healthy relating to God and others), for healthy attachment, for healthy digestion, for a sense of self, and much more. We now know that babies who are held will become children who can separate and differentiate well. We now that babies who receive the loving gaze and smile from Mom indwell unconditional love and live from that fundamental wholeness. Of course, if all of those early yes’s are not accompanied by wise and timely no’s as babies grow, selfishness and narcissism will result. But let’s be clear – that is on the parent.
So, let’s get to my point. As a pastor and now a professor to many millennials, I’m uncomfortable with broad caricatures of this emerging generation.
I’ve heard others call the millennial generation “selfish, “narcissistic,” “spiritual but not religious,” and prone to “moralistic therapeutic deism.” I get the critique, but this is also a generation raised under the new science that attachment needs have to be taken seriously. Their earliest neurobiological scripts were imprinted with instincts toward connection and wholeness, not need-repression and emotional detachment. Rather than approach this generation with critique, I’d rather err toward curiosity.
What motivates their impulse toward sincerity? If you’re scripted for connection and wholeness, you’ll spot hypocrisy a mile away. This generation grew up hearing Mom and Dad talk about political and religious scandals. They were given unprecedented access to the world through the internet. They learned to be suspicious of dominant narratives. And now, they are fiercely tuned into injustice and inauthenticity. They are uncomfortable with mere moralizing, but long for action that restores the fundamental wholeness they bear in their beings.
That said, I get the frustration of pastoring and teaching this generation. They are not mindlessly compliant. They ask why. And yes, they’ll complain in ways I never would to my teachers when a lecture or an assignment or an interaction clashes with their internal values. They’re deeply passionate but…yes…they can lack focus, at times, perhaps because there are simply too many outlets for their insatiable interest. They long for authenticity but…yes…that can lead them to see inauthenticity everywhere, to become restless consumers who hop from church to church or relationship to relationship looking for the ‘one’ rather than taking the risk to stay, to grow through both the moments of beauty and brokenness.
But I also love them. I’m deeply curious about this restless, longing, and passionate generation. I choose curiosity over critique. Scripted for wholeness, they see a world that I need to see–a world of beauty, a world of justice, a world of peace. This generation is showing me Jesus, not the just the Jesus I studied about in seminary but the resurrected One whose beatitude-vision gives me hope for a faith-in-action. I’ve become a student learning from their courageous risk-taking and relentless hunger to see “all things made new.” They are a messy and irritating bunch, at times…and they get a bad rap by some…but they are our future, and I long to come alongside them to learn and perhaps, every so often, to impart some wisdom to them.
Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.