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When it comes to leadership qualities, I’ve met loads of staff, who work with students, who’ve groaned about specific characteristics in kids that masquerade as maturity. Last year, I released a book called, Artificial Maturity. It’s about helping kids meet the challenge of becoming authentic adults. In other words, we can mistake a young person for being mature, when in reality, they’re not. It’s not always their fault either. Check this out.

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Six Leadership Qualities that Masquerade as Maturity

1.    We often mistake intelligence for maturity.

How often does a mother observe how smart her kid is, and assumed he must be mature for his age and ready for experiences or freedom—and it backfires on her. Scientists have proven that the reward centers of the brain are not fully developed until our mid-twenties. Many kids are emotionally immature but so knowledgeable they can look mature and do terribly “dumb” things.

2.    We mistake giftedness for maturity.

Frequently, we observe a kid on a stage singing or on a field performing, and they’re so good—we unwittingly assume that talent must pervade all areas of their life. We know better, but we mistake that huge talent for seasoned experience.  It’s been said many times—there is no correlation between giftedness and maturity. Just ask Lindsay Lohan or Macaulay Culkin.

3.    We mistake confidence for maturity.

This one happens a lot. Students today are frequently confident. Very confident. They’ve watched hundreds of YouTube videos, visited hundreds of websites, sent and received messages via text and Facebook. They’ve been exposed to lots of content, but it’s information without experience. It’s often content without context—and it is context that leads to authentic maturity.

4.    We mistake savvy-ness for maturity.

Have you ever had a conversation with a teen or twenty-something and been amazed at their savvy style of relating? They’re quick with sarcasm or a pun; we hear them tell of how they manipulated a teacher to do something and we assume they are mature beyond their years. These are posers for what matters—holistic maturity that includes EQ not just IQ.

5.    We mistake ambition or passion for maturity.

Because it’s rare in so many young people, we assume a young person who displays a little passion for a “cause” or ambition about starting a business must be mature. Passion looks like conviction and ambition looks like persistence. While we should celebrate both in our students, they can be fleeting qualities that have little to do with genuine maturity.

6.    We mistake influence for maturity.

This one is sinister. We often say that leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less. Perhaps it is, but I think young people (or seasoned veterans for that matter) can persuade others to do what they want, and lead people astray. Leaders can be terribly immature, but persuasive enough to push others toward a goal. It becomes the blind leading the blind.

This article may sound horribly negative. I don’t mean for it to. I’m simply sounding a warning to parents (or coaches, teachers) who get duped into a wrong impression, and assume a student or athlete has the “goods,” is completely objective, and is in control of their emotions. Speaking from a purely neurological standpoint, it just isn’t so. There are rare young people who display leadership qualities from an early age, but most need a caring adult to mentor them and see through their maturity masquerade.

My advice? Look closely. See what’s really happening. Love and believe in students, but be honest with them. Help them diagnose their own growth. Expose them to real experiences. Equip them to grow up authentically.

Have you seen any other leadership qualities you see that masquerade as maturity? Join the conversation.

 

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Recently, I read about a father, Paul Wallich, who built a camera-mounted drone helicopter to follow his grade-school-aged son to the bus stop. He wants to make sure his son arrives at the bus stop safe and sound. There’s no doubt the gizmo provides an awesome show-and-tell contribution. In my mind, Paul Wallich gives new meaning to the term “helicopter parent.”

While I applaud the engagement of this generation of parents and teachers, it’s important to recognize the unintended consequences of our engagement. We want the best for our students, but research now shows that our “over-protection, over-connection” style has damaged them. Let me suggest three huge mistakes we’ve made leading this generation of kids and how we must correct them.

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1. We Risk Too Little

We live in a world that warns us of danger at every turn. Toxic. High voltage. Flammable. Slippery when wet. Steep curve ahead. Don’t walk. Hazard. This “safety first” preoccupation emerged over thirty years ago with the Tylenol scare and with children’s faces appearing on milk cartons. We became fearful of losing our kids. So we put knee-pads, safety belts and helmets on them…at the dinner table. (Actually I’m just kidding on that one). But, it’s true. We’ve insulated our kids from risk.

Author Gever Tulley suggests, “If you’re over 30, you probably walked to school, played on the monkey bars, and learned to high-dive at the public pool. If you’re younger, it’s unlikely you did any of these things. Yet, has the world become that much more dangerous? Statistically, no. But our society has created pervasive fears about letting kids be independent—and the consequences for our kids are serious.”

Unfortunately, over-protecting our young people has had an adverse effect on them.

“Children of risk-averse parents have lower test scores and are slightly less likely to attend college than offspring of parents with more tolerant attitudes toward risk,” says a team led by Sarah Brown of the University of Sheffield in the UK. Aversion to risk may prevent parents from making inherently uncertain investments in their children’s human capital; it’s also possible that risk attitudes reflect cognitive ability, researchers say.” Sadly, this Scottish Journal of Political Economy report won’t help us unless we do something about it. Adults continue to vote to remove playground equipment from parks so kids won’t have accidents; to request teachers stop using red ink as they grade papers and even cease from using the word “no” in class. It’s all too negative. I’m sorry—but while I understand the intent to protect students, we are failing miserably at preparing them for a world that will not be risk-free.

Psychologists in Europe have discovered that if a child doesn’t play outside and is never allowed to experience a skinned knee or a broken bone, they frequently have phobias as adults. Interviews with young adults who never played on jungle gyms reveal they’re fearful of normal risks and commitment. The truth is, kids need to fall a few times to learn it is normal; teens likely need to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend to appreciate the emotional maturity that lasting relationships require. Pain is actually a necessary teacher. Consider your body for a moment. If you didn’t feel pain, you could burn yourself or step on a nail and never do something about the damage and infection until it was too late. Pain is a part of health and maturity.

Similarly, taking calculated risks is all a part of growing up. In fact, it plays a huge role. Childhood may be about safety and self-esteem, but as a student matures, risk and achievement are necessities in forming their identity and confidence. Because parents have removed “risk” from children’s lives, psychologists are discovering a syndrome as they counsel teens: High Arrogance, Low Self-Esteem. They’re cocky, but deep down their confidence is hollow, because it’s built off of watching YouTube videos, and perhaps not achieving something meaningful.

According to a study by University College London, risk-taking behavior peeks during adolescence. Teens are apt to take more risks than any other age group. Their brain programs them to do so. It’s part of growing up. They must test boundaries, values and find their identity during these years. This is when they must learn, via experience, the consequences of certain behaviors. Our failure to let them risk may explain why so many young adults, between the ages of 22 and 35 still live at home or haven’t started their careers, or had a serious relationship. Normal risk taking at fourteen or fifteen would have prepared them for such decisions and the risks of moving away from home, launching a career or getting married.

2. We Rescue Too Quickly

This generation of young people has not developed some of the life skills kids did thirty years ago because adults swoop in and take care of problems for them. We remove the need for them to navigate hardships. May I illustrate?

Staff from four universities recently told me they encountered students who had never filled out a form or an application in their life. Desiring to care for their kids, and not disadvantage them, parents or teachers had always done it for them.

One freshman received a C- on her project and immediately called her mother, right in the middle of her class. After interrupting the class discussion with her complaint about her poor grade, she handed the cell phone to her professor and said, “She wants to talk to you.” Evidently, mom wanted to negotiate the grade.

A Harvard Admissions Counselor reported a prospective student looked him in the eye and answered every question he was asked. The counselor felt the boy’s mother must have coached him on eye-contact because he tended to look down after each response. Later, the counselor learned the boy’s mom was texting him the answers every time a question came in.

A college president said a mother of one of his students called him, saying she’d seen that the weather would be cold that day and wondered if he would make sure her son was wearing his sweater as he went to class. She wasn’t joking.

This may sound harsh, but rescuing and over-indulging our children is one of the most insidious forms of child abuse. It’s “parenting for the short-term” and it sorely misses the point of leadership—to equip our young people to do it without help. Just like muscles atrophy inside of a cast due to disuse, their social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual muscles can shrink because they’re not exercised. For example, I remember when and where I learned the art of conflict resolution. I was eleven years old, and everyday about fifteen boys would gather after school to play baseball. We would choose sides and umpire our games. Through that consistent exercise, I learned to resolve conflict. I had to. Today, if the kids are outside at all, there are likely four mothers present doing the conflict resolution for them.

The fact is, as students experience adults doing so much for them, they like it at first. Who wouldn’t? They learn to play parents against each other, they learn to negotiate with faculty for more time, lenient rules, extra credit and easier grades. This actually confirms that these kids are not stupid. They learn to play the game. Sooner or later, they know “someone will rescue me.” If I fail or “act out,” an adult will smooth things over and remove any consequences for my misconduct. Once again, this isn’t even remotely close to how the world works. It actually disables our kids.

3. We Rave Too Easily

The self-esteem movement has been around since Baby Boomers were kids, but it took root in our school systems in the 1980s. We determined every kid would feel special, regardless of what they did, which meant they began hearing remarks like:

  • “You’re awesome!”
  • “You’re smart.”
  • “You’re gifted.”
  • “You’re super!”

Attend a little league awards ceremony and you soon learn: everyone’s a winner. Everyone gets a trophy. They all get ribbons. We meant well—but research is now indicating this method has unintended consequences. Dr. Carol Dweck wrote a landmark book called, Mindset. In it she reports findings about the adverse affects of praise. She tells of two groups of fifth grade students who took a test. Afterward, one group was told, “You must be smart.” The other group was told, “You must have worked hard.” When a second test was offered to the students, they were told that it would be harder and that they didn’t have to take it. Ninety percent of the kids who heard “you must be smart” opted not to take it. Why? They feared proving that the affirmation may be false. Of the second group, most of the kids chose to take the test, and while they didn’t do well, Dweck’s researchers heard them whispering under their breath, “This is my favorite test.” They loved the challenge. Finally, a third test was given, equally as hard as the first one. The result? The first group of students who were told they were smart, did worse. The second group did 30% better. Dweck concludes that our affirmation of kids must target factors in their control. When we say “you must have worked hard,” we are praising effort, which they have full control over. It tends to elicit more effort. When we praise smarts, it may provide a little confidence at first but ultimately causes a child to work less. They say to themselves, “If it doesn’t come easy, I don’t want to do it.”

What’s more, kids eventually observe that “mom” is the only one who thinks they’re “awesome.” No one else is saying it. They begin to doubt the objectivity of their own mother; it feels good in the moment, but it’s not connected to reality.

Further, Dr. Robert Cloninger, at Washington University in St. Louis has done brain research on the prefrontal cortex, which monitors the reward center of the brain. He says the brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. The reward center of our brains learns to say: Don’t give up. Don’t stop trying. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards,” Cloninger says, “will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

When we rave too easily, kids eventually learn to cheat, to exaggerate and lie and to avoid difficult reality. They have not been conditioned to face it. A helpful metaphor when considering this challenge is: inoculation. When you get inoculated, a nurse injects a vaccine, which actually exposes you to a dose of the very disease your body must learn to overcome. It’s a good thing. Only then do we develop an immunity to it. Similarly, our kids must be inoculated with doses of hardship, delay, challenges and inconvenience to build the strength to stand in them.

Eight Steps Toward Healthy Leadership

Obviously, negative risk taking should be discouraged, such as smoking, alcohol, illegal drugs, etc. In addition, there will be times our young people do need our help, or affirmation. But—healthy teens are going to want to spread their wings. They’ll need to try things on their own. And we, the adults, must let them. Here are some simple ideas you can employ as you navigate these waters:

  1. Help them take calculated risks. Talk it over with them, but let them do it. Your primary job is to prepare your child for how the world really works.
  2. Discuss how they must learn to make choices. They must prepare to both win and lose, not get all they want and to face the consequences of their decisions.
  3. Share your own “risky” experiences from your teen years. Interpret them. Because we’re not the only influence on these kids, we must be the best influence.
  4. Instead of tangible rewards, how about spending some time together? Be careful you aren’t teaching them that emotions can be healed by a trip to the mall.
  5. Choose a positive risk taking option and launch kids into it (i.e. sports, jobs, etc). It may take a push but get them used to trying out new opportunities.
  6. Don’t let your guilt get in the way of leading well. Your job is not to make yourself feel good by giving kids what makes them or you feel better when you give it.
  7. Don’t reward basics that life requires. If your relationship is based on material rewards, kids will experience neither intrinsic motivation nor unconditional love.
  8. Affirm smart risk-taking and hard work wisely. Help them see the advantage of both of these, and that stepping out a comfort zone usually pays off.

Bottom line? Your child does not have to love you every minute. He’ll get over the disappointment of failure but he won’t get over the effects of being spoiled. So let them fail, let them fall, and let them fight for what they really value. If we treat our kids as fragile, they will surely grow up to be fragile adults. We must prepare them for the world that awaits them. Our world needs resilient adults not fragile ones.

Want More? I am pleased to introduce a brand new book. It’s titled Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid, and it’s a collection of research and ideas to help you as a parent, teacher, coach, employer or youth worker to better equip your students to thrive in life.

Order Your Copy Here!

New launch price of $9.99.

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photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc

Recently I met with a group of college students to talk about their Facebook habits. Two big ideas surfaced, one positive and one negative. Some students said they feel “happier” when they’re on Facebook; others said it increased jealousy in them. The conversation drove me to dig up research to see what studies have been done on the effects of social media.

Now that Facebook has been around for almost a decade—first at Harvard University and now used by over a billion people around the world—studies have been conducted on how it affects our mental and emotional health. The results? Suffice it to say there are significant pros and cons to this social media platform.

On the upside, one poll of a hundred college students about their Facebook habits revealed that those who increased updates on their status each day actually experienced positive mood swings that a control group did not experience. Those who posted more frequently felt less lonely and more connected to friends. The reason? While sitting behind a computer screen may seem isolating, updating your status keeps friends on the brain when you can’t see them in person. Researchers actually call it “social snacking.”

The downside of Facebook is sobering and worth our attention. It appears that one in every three Facebook users experience feelings of jealousy and envy after spending time on the site. In fact, there is increasing evidence suggesting there are links between social media use and our mental health in general. One study showed that substantial emotional damage was experienced by users who were looking at positive posts of friends who were “smiling and looking happy.” In many ways, Facebook has become a place for people to flaunt their successes. (Think about it. How often do you see someone posting something bad about themselves?)

Researchers found that vacation photos actually sparked the highest level of resentment. A recent study out of Germany suggests that the more time college students spent on Facebook, the poorer they felt about their own lives. Some may argue that Facebook is efficient at igniting “virtual empathy” because the interaction is on a screen, where users can’t read body language or non-verbal communication, and can feel depressed even though they’re “wishing someone a happy vacation.” Facebook can even become a numbers game of “likes” where users keep score and actually become compulsive and even addicted to the site.

So What Do We Do?

If you have a teen or college student, I suggest the following:

1. Talk about this research. It’s an “elephant in the room” and many are afraid to admit to the negative feelings they have looking at other’s Facebook pages.

2. Decide on time limits for Facebook use, or even do a “Facebook Fast.” Simply stop using it and see how it affects moods. Wanna stay in touch? Try a phone call.

3. Decide to use the Facebook “forum” as a place to give, to serve, or to assist others, rather than compare stories. Get on it to give not to get. Focus on adding value.

4. Never, ever use it to whine about “you” or to compete with “them.” It’s not a game it’s a conversation. If more of us treat it that way, I believe attitudes will improve.

What would you add to this list? Leave a comment below.

OK, you may not believe this story, but I have to tell it. It’s still unfolding as I write it, but Florida high school running back, Alex Collins was all set to send his letter of intent to play football at the University of Arkansas, when suddenly it was missing. What happened?  ESPN reported that Alex’s mother stole the letter, ran away with it and went into hiding. Yep—you read that right.

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via Alex Collins onTtwitter

Collins is a Rivals.com four-star running back who wanted to attend Arkansas. His mother, like so many parents these days, wanted her son to attend a school closer to home, and went to extreme measures to prevent her son from opposing her wishes.

On signing day, “His mother has confiscated the papers, she took them and she ran,” ESPNU reported. “They’re looking for her currently. From what I understand Alex is not at the school right now, he’s looking for his mom. She was quite torn up about him leaving so far from home.”

If the ESPNU report is true, it will go down in national signing day lore as one of the zaniest tales ever. Even Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who was interviewed on ESPNU after the report, chuckled a bit when asked if he’d ever heard anything like it. “I don’t know if I’ve heard of anyone running away with the papers,” Johnson said. “But certainly there are some funny stories with recruiting and it’s getting nuttier and nuttier as we go each year.”

What can we make of this?

Let me be blunt. We not only have a new generation of kids on our hands today, (ones from what I call Generation iY), but we have a new generation of parents. These people find it difficult to trust the process of their own child’s growth, to stop protecting and start preparing, to see that their number one job is to equip their child to live without them—and to finally, let go of them.

I totally understand Alex’s mother’s desire for her son to live closer to home. I would have liked that too…but my daughter and I looked at several colleges and she chose one thirteen hours from home. And she grew up because of it. By college time, it’s not about parents getting what they want. It’s not even about kids getting what they want. It’s about our sons and daughters growing into the best men and women they can be, which might just occur best in Arkansas not Florida. Especially with a hovering mother in Florida. Enabling a child to grow up is like teaching them to ride a bike. There’s a tender balance of support AND letting go.

I heard someone comment that if Alex cannot run his mother down and get that letter of intent back…he may not be fast enough for the SEC anyway.

I’m just sayin’…

What a question right? I mean, of course engaged parents produce better kids than parents who are busy or absent. Anyone would assume, for instance, the children of an engaged father would turn out less aggressive or angry than children of a disengaged dad.

But it isn’t always true.

Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan did a study of parenting styles and how they relate to a child’s aggressiveness and “acting out” in school. The fathers in her study fell into three basic camps:

  1. Progressive Dads: very involved, equal co-parent; not tied to gender role.
  2. Traditional Dads: involvement usually dictated by wife’s direction.
  3. Disengaged Dads: uninvolved, too busy outside of the home.
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photo credit: Ali Elan via photopin cc

Schoppe-Sullivan was surprised to discover that the Progressive Dads had poorer marital quality and rated their family functioning lower than the fathers in couples who took on traditional roles. Their greater involvement may have led to increased conflict over parenting practices, which in turn affected the kids. Earlier research informed Schoppe-Sullivan that fathers often doubt their ability to effectively discipline a child, and that a Progressive Dad may know how NOT to discipline (i.e. hit the kid or scream) but he doesn’t know what to do instead. The whole idea that a kid would not merely respond to his wise guidance, modeling or compassion throws him. He finds punishing his kid acutely embarrassing. Therefore, he becomes inconsistent. One day he allows no dessert; the next day, the silent treatment; the third, no allowance if the infraction happens again. He always tries something new and caves at the wrong time. The inconsistency has a negative affect on the child, according to Schoppe-Sullivan’s study. The children of Progressive Dads were aggressive and acted out in school nearly as much as the kids with fathers who were distant or disengaged.

The Surprising Secret

My conclusion to the research is simply this. Engagement is always better, but we often miss a huge deciding factor when it comes to producing secure, happy kids:

Consistency. Pure, raw consistency.

Regardless of whether a parent is strict or permissive—the key is to be consistent. A child needs caring adults who lead them consistently, even predictably, along the way. Whatever the rules are, they must be clear and they must be enforced in a steady, reliable fashion. Parents should be unswerving, as much as possible with:

  • Meal times.
  • Rules and boundaries.
  • Allowances or money paid out.
  • Discipline for breaking the standards.

Consistency cultivates security, and security breeds better adults eventually. So, please be a more engaged parent, but don’t let that ruin your ability to be consistent with your children. Choose a standard and stick to it as you lead them.

Talk to me. Have you seen the impact of consistent or inconsistent parents? Leave a comment below.