What Crayons, Coloring and My 3 Year Old Taught Me About Leading Millennial Nurses

One day, I picked up my 3 year old son from preschool and asked his teacher about his day. She was an older woman...5 years away from retirement, as she loved to say...and she taught preschool for over 25 years.  She let out a deep sigh and walked me over to my son's work folder.  She removed one of his worksheets and handed them to me. My heart sank.  "Blake has a good amount of fine motor skill but he's not coloring in the lines. I suggest you practice more with him at home," she said. 

So we did.  I pulled out his coloring books and chubby crayons and we practiced coloring in the lines.  He would show interest for about 5 minutes and then proceed to color all over the paper haphazardly.  I am ashamed to say that a few of our sessions ended with him in tears and me feeling like an absolute failure as a mother.  Then one day, I looked at him while he was coloring.  He hated it.  Coloring is supposed to be fun and relaxing but my son looked stressed.  (Pulls out white flag).  I hugged him and apologized to him for making coloring such a miserable experience.  "He will do it when he's ready," I told myself.  

Blake went off into the living room and picked up his tablet.  A few finger taps and he found a coloring app.  Within seconds, my son transformed into Picasso.  He not only "colored" in the lines using just his index finger but effortlessly selected a range of colors to use in his picture.  He finished and smiled.  He turned his screen around and proudly exclaimed, "Look, Mommy!" "Look at you!" I shouted back joyfully.  Then the light bulb went off: It was not that he could not color in the lines it was that he preferred to color in a different way.  This was a child that could transition between my iPhone, his father's Android, my iPad, a laptop and a tablet with ease at the age of three. He was, in fact, achieving his milestone.  In some respects, he actually surpassed it. We were wrong to measure him by a standard that does not apply to him.  Wax crayons are not his norm. Technology is his norm. He learns differently and has access to resources like no other generation before him. So why were we assessing his development using tools that seem foreign to him?

Here's what that moment made me realize about leading Millennial Nurses: we keep expecting them to operate as though they are Baby Boomer Nurses.  We want them to finish nursing school and pay their dues at the bedside. We incorrectly measure their work ethic by the group that is a few years shy of retirement. We want them to use crayons and color in the lines.  Their refusal to use proverbial crayons and color in the lines is not due to defiance or a lack of discipline.  The refusal is simply because they are not wired that way. 

Millennial Nurses, born between 1980-2004, grew up during an incredible time filled with technological firsts, unparalleled access to knowledge and a level of globalization that no other generation before them had ever seen.  The world is at their fingertips and new opportunities are a quick flight away.  Constant change is their normal. Omnivorous devouring of knowledge is their normal. Why do we keep shoving crayons in their hands and demand that they practice like generations before them in a profession that has changed significantly in the last 30 years?

If you want to lead and retain Millennial Nurses effectively, see who they are and meet them where they're at (bad grammar but I'm making a point here). They are our largest demographic group at 75.4 million strong, according to the Pew Research Center.  They are the future of nursing. Like my son, they do not want crayons.