A recent parenting piece in the Washington Post detailed how schoolchildren are challenged in Japan, and how learning to handle difficulties pays off later when these kids reach adulthood. One paragraph in particular caught my eye and made my mother’s heart skip a beat:
All Japanese children go to school on their own. My son attended a private school 90 minutes from our home. At age 6, he took two trains and a bus, transferring at the world’s biggest rail station. Parents were not allowed to accompany their children after the first three weeks of first grade. Sometimes he fell asleep and missed his stop, and sometimes trains were delayed. But each diversion became an adventure, such as the chance to seek out a conductor or try a pay phone.
Buses and trains alone at six? My kids didn’t even cross the street at that age without my holding their hand.
Though I would be hard pressed to imagine letting a six-year-old loose on an urban public transportation system, as a therapist who works with many parents of teens, I share the author’s sense that many American young adults are not well prepared to handle some of the new experiences they will encounter at college. In many families these days, the necessary process teens need to go through of separating from their parents seems significantly behind schedule. This can be a problem, because when kids don’t have a positive, healthy way to separate from parents, they may look for other, less healthy ways to do so. For this reason, I often encourage families to find exciting, developmentally appropriate challenges to offer their children. I am surprised by how often the family will tell me that they are so certain their child will find the new challenge too threatening and turn it down, that they don’t even want to ask their child to try. Not only don’t they expect their kids to handle much challenge, they rarely even ask them to attempt it.
I would like to make a case for asking our kids to do difficult things, even when we expect them to decline. Offering our children the opportunity to undertake new challenges communicates to them that we believe it is possible that they could master such efforts. It signals that we think it quite ordinary that people attempt such things, and telegraphs that we imagine they might one day be open to doing so themselves.
Consider the analogy of the picky eater – an area in which I have much personal experience. I always dreaded the part of the annual check up wherein the pediatrician would ask about my children’s nutrition, and I would have to admit that, despite all of my efforts and entreaties, my children’s diet still consisted mostly of bread, pasta, and ice cream. My saintly pediatrician reassured me that one day, things would get better. “Just keep on preparing healthy food and offering it to them,” he would say. “Eventually, they will eat.”
By inviting my children to enjoy roasted brussel sprouts as a matter of routine course, I was communicating to them an expectation – that one day, they would love green vegetables as much as I. Likewise, when we ask our kids whether they would like to audition for a solo, try out rock climbing, or venture a sleep away summer camp, we are helping them imagine new possibilities for themselves. If they say “no,” – or even recoil in horror or dread – they will still have gotten the message that this new experience is something they could consider. They will have learned that trying new challenges is a normal, expected part of life.
Most traditional cultures formalize a child’s entry into adulthood via collective initiation rituals. Whether it’s a bar mitzvah in Queens, or a walkabout in Aboriginal Australia, one common element among rites of passage is that they require the initiate to do something that is genuinely quite frightening. Such initiations ask young people to face their fears, and in doing so, they prepare the young person to address himself to adult life courageously, with the knowledge that he has overcome a significant anxiety.
If we find it difficult to ask our children to do things we know frighten them – whether that’s sleeping over at a friend’s house when they are little, or taking the train downtown by themselves as they get older – we may want to ask ourselves, are we afraid they might say yes? Will it be hard for us to pack them off for sleepaway camp? I suspect for many of us, it’s at least in part our fear that stops us from offering exciting new challenges as possibilities for our kids. If we find that we are the one reluctant to let our kids try new, scary things, we might need to do some of our own work. That way, our children will be free to venture into the adult world with confidence and courage.