Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids…and How to Correct Them

Several years ago, I spotted a pattern as I observed parents supervise their children. I posted an article on it that drew 1.2 million shares, which told me I must have hit a nerve. Today, I am updating it. It’s illustrated vividly in a story I read. Paul Wallich built a camera-mounted drone helicopter to follow his grade-school-aged son to the bus stop. He wants to make sure his kid arrives at the bus stop safe and sound. There’s no doubt the gizmo provides an interesting show-and-tell artifact. In my mind, Paul Wallich gives new meaning to “helicopter parent.”

Today, “helicopter” parents have become “snowplows” and “lawnmowers.”

While I applaud how engaged today’s parents and teachers are, 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 our mistakes. As I try to put my finger on why we’ve made these errors, one word comes to mind: fear. We are afraid for our kids today. This fear narrative is subtle and sinister, and it drives us to lead poorly.

Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids…and How to Correct Them

1. We Risk Too Little. Why? We fear for their safety. 

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 when John Walsh created a child resource center, in memory of his son. It advocates for legislative reform and eventually persuaded the government to launch a Center for Missing and Exploited Children. From his good work, parents began hearing about and seeing missing kids on milk cartons and television programs. Our fear naturally grew into a narrative that far outweighs the dangers today’s kids face. Some of us are paranoid. 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 Harvard Business Review 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 to stop using red ink as they grade papers and even cease from using the word “no” in class. Why? Because 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 from watching YouTube videos, and perhaps not achieving something meaningful.

Auckland University of Technology professor Grant Schofield reminds us: “The great paradox of sheltering is that it’s more dangerous in the long run. Society’s obsession with protecting kids ignores the benefits of risk taking. Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work through consequences. You can’t teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. IT doesn’t develop by watching TV. They have to take a risk.”

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 take risks 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. Sadly, the “safety first” message too many of us have sent our kids is—never take a risk. This has produced the most risk-averse population of kids we’ve measured to date.

2. We Rescue Too Quickly. Why? We fear for their status.

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. We rush forgotten gym shorts or permission slips to schools, so our kids never endure an embarrassing moment. These rescues help kids today, but harm them tomorrow.

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.

Parents have so pressured educators on behalf of their kids that many schools can no longer use red ink to grade papers—because it is too harsh. Some can no longer use the word “no” in class, because it’s too negative. In 2018, teacher Diane Tirado was fired because she gave a “zero” to students when they didn’t turn any work in. The school required her to give a 50 percent even when no assignment was handed in. Why would a school create such a rule? (Employers will not keep an employee who does not work.) I think I know. Parents want to rescue their kids. Why do we do this? Probably for many reasons, but among the top ones is: we fear for their status. If we don’t rescue them, they may not get into the right college, or make the team, or get the scholarship, or fail the test or lose a friendship…you name it. We have catastrophized our fears until we’ve made some students paranoid about making any mistakes. Teens even have a term now: FOMU—Fear Of Messing Up. I wonder if one of our biggest mistakes is that we’ve prevented them from making mistakes.

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 been 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.

Editor at Large of Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano writes, “Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don’t develop what psychologists call ‘mastery experiences.’ Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they’ve learned they are capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals.” Kids who have never tested their abilities grow into “emotionally brittle young adults who are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.”

One private school for boys in Little Rock, Arkansas chose to respond to this dilemma in the following clever manner. They posted a large sign in the lobby of the administration building for parents that read: “If you are dropping off your son’s forgotten lunch, books, homework, equipment, etc., please TURN AROUND and exit the building. Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence.”

3. We Rave Too Easily. Why? We fear for their self-esteem.

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 percent 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 it 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 endure various challenges.

While I love my kids and I love working with students in general, I recognized years ago that we live in a day of hyperbole. We exaggerate in order to be heard in a world of 10,000 messages a day. We overuse the word, “awesome” until everyone begins to question what awesome genuinely means. We add exclamation points to our text messages; we capitalize words, and we bold our phrases to make sure they stand out. When it comes to our praise for kids, we meant well, but it actually set them back.

It pains me most that, too often, our unrealistic raving and rewards actually backfire and create the opposite effect we intended. Author Daniel Pink summarizes it this way: “When kids are conditioned to expect rewards, their motivation begins to depend on the reward rather than the inward satisfaction of achieving.”

After hosting focus groups of students over the last two years, our team at Growing Leaders has discovered a number of unintended consequences to our exaggerated praise with kids. Among others, the most tangible consequences are:

  • Teens question our judgment compared to peers, and they stop responding to us.
  • Kids learn to manipulate and exaggerate to keep the hyperbolic praise going.
  • We actually stunt kids’ maturation and work ethic.
  • We diminish character development, as we praise what’s out of their control. Affirming what’s in their control fosters better character and conduct.
  • Students stop persevering whenever the praise or rewards aren’t present.

Dr. Aaron Sterns offers a profound statement in conclusion: “To attain emotional maturity each of us must learn to develop two critical capacities: the ability to live with uncertainty and the ability to delay gratification in favor of long-range goals. Adolescence is a time of maximum resistance to further growth.  It is a time characterized by the teenager’s ingenious efforts to maintain the privileges of childhood, while at the same time demanding the rights of adulthood. It’s a point beyond which most humans don’t pass emotionally. The more we do for our children, the less they can do for themselves. The dependent child of today is destined to become the dependent parent of tomorrow.”

Nine 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. 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, to 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. Help them learn to delay gratification. When they want something but don’t have the cash to pay for it now, buy it for them, but create your own lay-away plan.
  8. Don’t reward basics that life requires. If your relationship is based on material rewards, kids will experience neither intrinsic motivation nor unconditional love.
  9. Wisely affirm smart risk-taking and hard work. Help them see the advantage of both of these practices, 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 get them ready for the world that awaits them. We must stop preparing the path for the child and start preparing the child for the path. Our world needs resilient, not fragile, adults.

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Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids…and How to Correct Them