Adulting. Failure to launch. Safe spaces. Microaggressions. Snowflakes.
A host of new terms has entered the vernacular to describe the actions, attitudes, and responses of Millennials and adolescents today. Why are we seeing such a phenomenon? More importantly, how can we raise strong, resilient, and independent adolescents who grow into well-adjusted adults?Today’s kids are the product of a rapidly changing society. While parents once dreamed of a better life for their kids, some now seek an easier life for their kids. In the name of making life “easier,” a host of technological and societal changes have conspired to create a set of values that Tim Elmore, author, speaker, and president of Growing Leaders, describes with the acronym SCENE:
Speed (Slow is bad)
Convenience (Hard is bad)
Entertainment (Boring is bad)
Nurture (Risk is bad)
Entitlement (Labor is bad)
When combined together, these values and the inherent implications create a mindset that is the polar opposite of that which is necessary for success in academics, athletics, the arts, and business.
Simultaneously, we live in an exceptionally over-protective culture. The 24-hour news and social media cycle sensationalizes crime and accidents at every possibility. Fearful parents who worry about their children becoming a statistic try to protect them from every danger, both physical and psychological. Rather than prepare the child for the path, they prepare the path for the child.
Kids are rarely on their own, and adults schedule and organize their entire day. Fearing litigation, many businesses and organizations have eliminated any activities that are even remotely “risky.” In reality, instances of child injury, mortality, and kidnapping are lower now than 40 years ago. According to an article by the Washington Post, there has never been a safer time to be a kid.
What then is to be done? The answer lies at the intersection of independence, failure, and resilience.
If we want kids to be independent, we must let them be independent. It starts with allowing them to engage in unstructured, unsupervised, unscheduled, and independent play. When kids engage in this type of play, they develop the ability to explore, create, cooperate, show empathy, and resolve conflicts. Everything is up to them. If an adult supervises the activity, however, none of these skills can develop. Kids will look to the adult to find solutions and fail to develop the competence and confidence necessary to make decisions on their own.
Sarah Crowder Photography
Kids need time away from their parents in experiences that require them to make decisions and take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Start kids with exploring the neighborhood on their bike, shopping at the grocery store, or preparing a meal for the family. Spending time in nature, going to outdoor education (such as Faith’s 6th grade trip to the Pali Institute), traveling to summer camp, or taking a job also foster independence. Mastery of these experiences builds self-efficacy - defined by Stanford University Psychologist Albert Bandura as the belief in one’s ability to influence events that affect one’s life (Bandura, 1994). The more that happens, the more comfortable they become with risk-taking, failure, and resilience.
You may be thinking... what about sports or the arts? Kids still benefit from organized activities but not when a parent watches their every move. I have no recollection of my parents ever watching a practice. Twenty-five years later, I coach athletes who have no recollection of their parents ever NOT watching a practice. Kids need authoritative adults (who are not related to them) holding them to a standard. A parental presence at practice reduces kids’ willingness to take risks, and it can undermine the development of self-confidence.
We all fail. In an overly protective society, however, kids have fewer chances to fail. When they do, they are less equipped to deal with it because they haven’t failed often enough to learn how to manage it. The Performance and Sport Psychology students and I had the opportunity to engage in a mental toughness exercise led by active duty Navy SEALs. One of the key takeaways from that experience was this: Successful people are the best at failing.
If parents constantly come to the rescue when kids lose their jacket, forget their homework, or leave their lunch on the counter, their kids will never develop the resourcefulness and creativity necessary to handle future challenges. As difficult as it may seem, let your kids fail . . . and let them own it. It is in failure, not success, that we often learn our greatest lessons. As Thomas J. Watson, CEO of IBM said, “You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it so go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember that’s where you will find success.”
When it comes to building resilience in kids, the research is quite clear. The strongest factor in resilient people is the quality of their relationship with their parents. Parents who are supportive and consistent help their kids build optimism and self-efficacy. Fathers, in particular, are key to doing this. When a strong relationship exists, it is actually easier to give kids more freedom, and that is exactly what they need. The only way kids learn to manage risk is to take risks. Knowing that they will be supported allows kids to take risks and fail. Risk taking requires stepping outside one’s comfort zone, and activities that push us out of our comfort zone stimulate growth. The process forms a virtuous cycle. Every act of resilience creates a greater willingness to take on risk with the concurrent opportunity for growth. Like a muscle, resilience grows stronger with exercise.
At the linchpin of resilience, failure, and independence lies the need for self-awareness. Building self-awareness begins with being mindful of one’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings. From awareness comes the ability to recognize and respond to the situation. Holocaust survivor, psychologist, and author Viktor Frankl wrote in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It is not the event but our response to the event that determines the outcome. It is not failure or adversity that determines the future but how we learn and grow from them.
These suggestions might seem unorthodox or outside the norm of modern parenting, but normal is merely average. If we do what is average, we will get average results. If we want to raise exceptional kids, then we must take uncommon action. Sometimes, that might even mean no action at all. By focusing on research-based approaches that promote strength, independence, and resilience, we will raise adolescents who grow into well-adjusted adults.
Once more for good measure! You Failed! Awesome! Exceptional! Outstanding!
Articles and Resources from blog:
Tim Elmore's Growing Leaders website
There's Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Kid in America article from The Washington Post
US Club Soccer-Stay or Go blog post
Self-Efficacy by Albert Bandara
'You Failed!' Clip from Disney's Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Maximizing Children's Resilience article by the American Psychological Association