The latest example of the new way parents view their children just occurred. It illustrates our shift from equipping our youth to cope with adversity, to seeking ways to reduce the adversity. Instead of believing they’re strong enough to face tough times, we look outward for an answer.
It happened the week following Kobe Bryant’s tragic helicopter crash, killing all nine people on board. I was in disbelief over this horrible accident but had no idea how parents would react. One high school principal told me he received several phone calls the next day asking if he would have extra counselors on campus to manage the kids’ grief. Another parent assumed the students should get some time off.
Wow. I think that may just be a bit melodramatic.
The Subtle and Sinister Shift
Millions of parents see their children becoming more and more stressed over the grind of everyday life. These kids feel the pressure of scoring high on standardized tests, making the cut for the soccer team, keeping grades up and an overwhelming schedule filled with practices for travel ball, gymnastics, karate, piano — you name it. Often, compassionate mothers or fathers feel they must relieve stress by simply doing some of these things for their children. I’ve seen this take shape in several ways:
On several occasions, I’ve walked into a Starbucks to grab a coffee and seen parents doing homework for their children.
On other occasions, I’ve witnessed science projects created by parents who worked all night so their child could impress the judges at a science fair.
Still, other parents will simply offer money whenever their children ask for it, requiring no household chores or responsibility to the family.
This reaction to our kids assumes they are “maxed out” and do not have the grit or resilience to handle life’s pressures. So, we do the work for them.
Why Do We Do This?
We do this because we look with empathy at our children who appear so anxious over everything. We intervene in ways that make sense at the time, but over the long haul, they actually stunt the development of the child. In short, the best answer is rarely to do the work for them.
When we solve their problems this way we create a pattern that’s not sustainable and does not prepare them for the life that awaits them. Relieving stress and anxiety through being their substitute is not the answer, at least not long term.
There’s science behind my logic. Our brains contain neural pathways, connections formed by axons, that signal to us what we should do. They represent circuitry, not unlike a rut in a dirt road that governs the flow of water moving down the road. When we choose a pattern over several weeks or months, that circuitry signals a new norm. It’s often how new habits take shape in our life. We get an automatic signal for what to do.
When parents feel their kids are too stressed to fulfill their normal obligations, they may naturally begin to complete that stressful work for them, but this unwittingly forms a neural pathway that conditions the child to always need others to do tasks for them. Or at least it feels that way. Next, they begin to feel entitled to someone doing things for them all the time and can end up at an adult age, but without adult coping skills to handle hard work. One day, they’ll finish school, and they may be unready for work that a supervisor refuses to do for them. So—what can we do?
Steps We Can Take
- Begin with belief. Kids may naturally assume they can’t work harder when in reality they have far more potential than they see. Speak words of belief about their capabilities.
- Help them say “no.” Sometimes, kids become overwhelmed because they’ve said yes to too many options. They’re overcommitted. Creating margin offers peace of mind.
- Give them regular chores. “If kids aren’t doing the dishes, it means someone else is doing that for them,” Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims says. Work helps build grit.
- Maintain high expectations. The best parents don’t reduce expectations, knowing that relays a message of disbelief to kids. Encourage them and keep high standards.
- Model social skills. Parents who do this actually help kids maintain perspective on a busy schedule. Talk over the “to-do list,” and maintain level emotions. It will catch on.
- Value effort over avoiding failure. It’s huge to affirm effort over grades or scores. Effort is in their control; outcomes often aren’t. Foster a growth mindset vs. fixed mindset.
- Help them limit their social media use. I’ve said it before—less than two hours on social media means kids are less vulnerable to anxiety each day. Over two hours leads to anxiety.
- Ask them how you can support them. Find ways to support them without doing work for them. Encouragement, snacks, tutors, etc. can be ways to help in a healthy way.
- Remind them of the big picture. Kids can get lost and overwhelmed in the here and now. Grit goes up when you remind them of long-term goals and a larger perspective.
Tyler Yaken serves on our leadership team at Growing Leaders. He and his wife Anna have an 18-month-old son named Wilson. This little toddler is already doing age-appropriate chores around the house, like carrying his diaper to the Diaper Genie, wiping down his place setting after a meal and closing the dishwasher door and pressing the start button. They are wise parents who simply want Wilson to grow up knowing he’s part of a family, and each member plays a role in serving each other. They all have work to do to help each other out.
Let’s not do it for them.