The value for young people of intellectual interaction with older people

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Quora

In general, young people are pretty happy taking cues from others their own age. In her book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris argues that the main environmental influence on young people is their group of similarly aged peers, rather than their parents or other adults in their life. Youngsters do seem to be influenced by celebrities, but that influence may be mediated more by the fact that their peers find the celebrity cool.

At the same time, one thing Jonah and I repeatedly noticed in our research for Cognito Mentoring is that young people are often very pleased at having substantive interactions with older people. The “older people” here aren’t necessarily people of their parents’ generation. It often means a high school student being pleased at interacting with a college student or graduate student or somebody who’s just started working. Some possible explanations:

  • Young people do like attention from adults when that attention comes through spontaneous voluntary interaction rather than in a coercive, authoritative context. Such spontaneous interaction signals to the young person that he/she is being treated on (approximately) equal footing with the adult, rather than a child to be bossed around.
  • We’ve been concentrating on smart, curious people, who often don’t find good intellectual companionship in their same-age peers. These people in particular benefit from adult attention. In particular, a very smart young person may be intellectually equal to a not-so-smart older person, and can have a productive conversation that’s stimulating to both parties.

Whether one of the above reasons holds or something else is at play, I think it’s worth considering methods to encourage more interaction between young people and older people in context that aren’t authoritative. Since one-on-one discussion is often infeasible, the best approach might be to encourage young people to participate more in forums where many adults have high-quality discussion but where the barrier to entry isn’t high. Possible examples are QuoraLess WrongStack Exchange – Free, Community-Powered Q&A, perhaps even Reddit (albeit the quality at Reddit is quite uneven). Similarly, adults who participate on these forums may benefit from keeping an eye out for promising young people and offering special encouragement to them, perhaps offering to connect one-on-one with them (though they need to make sure not to creep out the young people, who may be unused to being contacted by strangers).

Related Cognito Mentoring content: Maintaining your online presence (intended as advice for people starting out with building their online presence).

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