Much as we may be tempted, we do our kids a disservice when we commit three big errors: we allow them to risk too little, we rescue them too quickly, and we rave too easily, says educator Dr. Tim Elmore, author of Habitudes for the Journey and president of Growing Leaders, an Atlanta-based non-profit organization created to develop emerging leaders.
“As a result, this generation of young adults is less risk-adverse and more depressed than any that have come before,” he says.
Numerous psychologists around the globe agree. Sarah Brown of the University of Sheffield in the UK reports that kids with overprotective parents have lower test scores and go to college less often than those with parents who allow their kids to take reasonable risks.
So what’s a parent to do?
Allow Positive Risk-Taking
According to a recent study by University College London, risk-taking behavior peeks during adolescence, suggesting that teens are "programmed" to take risks more often than other age groups. The same study also found that they liked the thrill as opposed to not being able to understand the consequences of their actions. They may consume alcohol, text while driving or even be tempted to try drugs.
“This is not what I am talking about,” says Elmore. “I am speaking of risks that are thoughtful and valuable. Encourage teens to become involved in something redemptive for their own growth or for the community like getting a part-time job, volunteering at a soup kitchen, raising money for a cause or organization they believe in or mentoring another kid.”
Taking positive risks also promotes healthy neurological development and growth. A certain amount is necessary for kids to grow into healthy, productive adults.
“Rescuing and over-indulging our children is one of the most insidious forms of child abuse. It’s parenting for the short term and misses the point of leadership – to equip our young people to succeed without help,” he says. Instead of rushing to their rescue, laugh together as you share stories of your fumbles in life, Elmore advises. “Teach your kids that failure is a chance to try again.”
A kid who never fails is like one who can’t react to the pain of a burn and do something about it before infection sets in. “The pain of their first failed relationship, a lost ballgame or an ‘F’ on a test is part of natural health and maturity,” says Elmore.
Take the Hands-Off Approach
Above all, don’t be a helicopter parent. Some of the most egregious include a mother who called the college president to remind her son to wear a sweater on a chilly day. Another texted her son the answers to questions while he was talking to an admissions counselor at Harvard.
But the ultimate helicopter parent may be a Vermont father who built a camera-mounted drone helicopter in order to follow his young son to the nearby school bus stop.
And while it’s a good thing that today’s parents are deeply engaged in their children’s lives, the bad news is psychologists are seeing more and more teens with what they call “High Arrogance, Low Self-Esteem.” Recently, Elmore met with staff members at four major universities who have all encountered multiple students who have never filled out an application on their own. Their parents have always done if for them. Instead of providing well-intended help, their efforts put young adults at a real disadvantage in a grown up world.
“It’s similar to the way muscles atrophy when they are in a cast and need exercise to build them up again,” says Elmore. “A kid’s social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual muscles can shrink if they are not exercised.”
Gone are the empty lot and back yard baseball games where kids learned to solve their own problems. Today’s kids must also learn conflict resolution without adult supervision by third or fourth grade. In life, they must be prepared to win—and to lose. Without problem solving skills, they are behind the eight ball from the get-go.
Give Praise When It's Due
Since the '80s, we’ve been so determined for every kid to have high self-esteem, we tell them they are ‘awesome,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘super,’ even though they have done very little to earn it. Coaches give ribbons and trophies just for participating on the team. Instead, psychologists recommend saving the shiny objects for championship games that have been earned through hard practices and teamwork.
Over praising affects the pre-fontal cortex, the reward center of the brain. “The brain center says: ‘Don’t give up. Don’t stop trying,’ says Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis. “But a person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence because they’ll quit when the reward disappears. The end result is that kids learn to cheat, exaggerate and lie in order to avoid difficult real life situations.”
“It’s like an inoculation,” says Elmore. “The vaccine exposes us to a dose of the disease our bodies must learn to overcome. Only then do we develop immunity. Kids must be inoculated with a dose of hardship, delay, challenges and inconvenience to build the strength to withstand them.”