We want them to be successful, to make good grades, get into the top colleges, land great jobs, and of course, be happy. Parents today face a lot of challenges. Yet for all of this worrying, planning, preparing, and structuring of kids lives, are we really preparing our kids for the future?
Possibly not. As the dean of one top college put it, “Kids today are over-parented and under-constructed.”
If you really want your kid to be prepared for the future, you have to let him experience more, and you have to shield him from a lot less. And if you want him to learn how to handle the challenges he will inevitably face — as we all do — you have to protect him a lot less too.
Here is a list of five things you should stop protecting your kid from.
Adversity. What do we ultimately want our kids to do in the face of setbacks? Do we want them to start looking around for someone to save them? Do we want them to blame others for the setback? Do we want them to cheat? As the saying goes, if the olive is at the top of the tree, and your kid says, “It’s too high,” don’t make the tree shorter. Instead, teach your kid to climb. Because guess what? As an adult, no one is going to make that tree shorter for you. Yet when kids are shielded from struggle, not only do they have no idea what to do when times get tough, but they also don’t learn to take responsibility. Why? Because they never had to. And while no parent wants to see their kid struggle unfairly, we can so easily miss the opportunity that adversity offers — and that is the opportunity for growth. Adversity is the fuel that strength thrives on. And when kids are given the opportunity to face it head on, and taught that adversity is not just a part of life, but a pathway to getting stronger, they do get stronger.
Criticism. We all want to see our kids as great. And we all want them to be happy. And don’t forget, have high self esteem. But kids who are shielded from criticism don’t have high self esteem. Instead, they have very fragile egos. They develop a need to be praised — and their identity depends on it. Instead of discovering what they really like, they learn to do what every else likes. And kids who are over-praised, can also learn that what they do doesn’t matter, because everything they do is “great” so there is nothing to strive for and no point in trying to be better, because it’s always “great.” Unfortunately, this is not reality. Everything kids do is not great. While each kid has unique talents, the role of the parent should be to help them discover these talents, and discover them because they feel good when they do them, not because they are praised for them.
Hard Work. Not that long ago, kids had economic value. They had jobs — real jobs like plowing a field or working in a factory. Yet now, kids have emotional value. We have them because the promise is that we will be happier. And we want them to be happy so we can be happy. And certainly, they shouldn’t have to work like we do. Yet, the flip side is we are working for them. We are orchestrating their lives just right, taking them from piano lessons, to day camp, to baseball practice, and back to tutoring. You get the picture. And again, this is not reality. Kids will become adults who will have day jobs, other kids, and responsibility — a lot of it. Yet when you protect them from having to work hard to earn something, you also prevent them from learning to value things. Why? Because they didn’t have to work for it, and if it breaks, you will replace it. But a kid who grows up having to work for what he gets not only learns responsibility and the value of things, he learns patience, confidence, resourcefulness, and perseverance. Because, by definition, hard means not handed to you, and not easy to get. But it also instills values that are not easily taken away either.
Frustration. Frustration is at the root of a host of addictive behaviors and impulse control problems. Those who can’t tolerate the feeling of frustration will do anything to numb it out. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, binge eating — all of these things are ways to numb feelings — especially frustration. Yet frustration is a part of life. We don’t always get what we want. But probably every parent is guilty of buying their kid something to appease him and simply make the tantrum stop. Yet when you do this, what you teach your kid is that the way to stop feeling upset is to distract yourself with a material item. You teach him to simply numb the frustration. What you don’t teach your kid is that frustration is not the end of the world, it is just a feeling, and one he can learn to get through. And frustration, just like adversity, is an opportunity. Because what frustration offers is the ability to develop patience — to learn to wait, don’t react, take your time, be mindful, think things through, and don’t run from your feelings.
Experience. Kids always want to do a lot of things that we think they shouldn’t do. They want to play with tools, build things, blow things up, take things apart, and go on adventures. And unfortunately for most kids the answer is a big NO. But what we forget is that kids have an intrinsic need for mastery. It’s part of how they learn, develop skills, develop confidence. And experience is how kids learn to create. What they create is not just as set of skills, they create an identity, a sense of who they are, and what they enjoy. Kids who grow up knowing what they are good at and more importantly, what they enjoy, develop passion, virtue, and ingenuity. And ultimately, kids who are allowed to experience become creators and not consumers.
While there is no shortage of things to do as a parent — and certainly, we all want the best future we can provide for our kids — maybe we should consider the future we are preparing them for. And maybe we should protect them a little less.
This blog is adapted from my book, ALL KIDS ARE BORN THIN: A Parent’s Guide To The Understanding and Prevention of Childhood Obesity, available on Amazon.