Are Kids Progressing or Regressing?

Today, I marvel at the changes I’ve seen over my career. Every decade introduced changes in the way we approached and perceived students. The self-esteem movement played a huge role in changing the way we interacted with children and students—quite frankly bringing both positive and negative results. Every change was well-intentioned, but many of them brought along some unintended consequences.

Today, I’m wondering if we should consider correcting one of them.

photo credit: francisco_osorio University Life 268 via photopin (license)

photo credit: francisco_osorio University Life 268 via photopin (license)

My colleague sent me a short summary of the shift we’ve experienced in expectations of our young. It went something like this:

1944: 18-year olds storm the beaches of Normandy into almost certain death.

2016: 18-year olds need a safe place on campus because words hurt their feelings.

We Live in Different Times

Please understand, I recognize we live in different times. Today, there is a need for civil discourse on college campuses and educators must find ways to facilitate safe places to interact, especially when people disagree.

I just wonder—are we going about this in the wrong way? Are we preparing the path for the child instead of the child for the path?

My uncle was a fighter pilot in WW2. He fought in both the Pacific and the European campaigns. Once his plane was shot and barely made it back to the Allied base, amassing bullet holes throughout the aircraft. He was barely 20. My dad turns 86 this month. He grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. During that period, he got an education both inside and outside the classroom. He learned to be frugal and grateful through his experiences in the 1930s and early 40s. He learned to be resourceful when resources were slim. He learned to be happy with fewer material possessions—because happiness was about a choice, not a purchase.

Today, we assume that when kids “go without” it’s child abuse. I believe over-indulging our kids is also a, admittedly, more-subtle form of child abuse.

A Nation of Wimps

Author and therapist Hara Estroff-Marano wrote a book a few years back called, A Nation of Wimps. While we may not see eye-to-eye on everything, she and I share a concern for how adults are failing kids today. Too often, we’ve conditioned them to be wimps. They frequently can’t navigate their way through struggles or difficulties because we either removed the challenge or solved it for them. For many students today, adolescent life has become unrealistically comfortable. What happens in this case? Young people can become wimps. We all can. A culture that provides quick service on-demand; devices where a simple tap give us exactly what we want; our parenting styles, which labor to make our kids comfortable and happy today, all serve this end. We’ve become a little wimpy.

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.

Check out this school playground from 1900.


The Playground was a Preparing Ground

These are kids playing on monkey bars that stood a full 30-feet high. Incredible. How did they do? Actually, quite well. Did some kids fall off or get hurt? Sure. But, what ultimately happened in these scenarios was that kids learned to navigate scary situations. They learned to manage consequences. They learned good decision-making.

No wonder they were ready to go into battle in World War I.

Did you know that, according to a 2012 report from Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, “today…75 percent of our youth don’t even qualify for the military due to obesity, criminal records or failure to graduate”?

I don’t blame the kids. We created wimps, by either not being present when they needed us or—by doing too much for them when they needed to do it themselves.

May I remind you that one hundred years ago, kids were able to do more than our kids today . . . because they had to and because we let them. We actually let them grow up. Four-year-olds were doing age-appropriate chores around the house. Nine-year-olds were working the farm. Fourteen-year-olds were driving cars. Seventeen-year-olds were leading armies in WWI and nineteen-year-olds were getting married and having children. I am not suggesting we return to these specific behaviors. I am simply saying they’re capable of so much more than getting lost on Instagram and Snapchat. It’s time to raise the standard again.

In the words of former President George Bush, “When it comes to our children, we’ve been guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

I say let’s change that.

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Are Kids Progressing or Regressing?