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Three Parental Acts That Hinder Students From Becoming Leaders

I just finished meeting with a group of university students. My goal was to ask them how they had adapted to college life. I chose this group of students because every one of them served in leadership roles during high school. I wondered if they’d continued in college. The overwhelming message I received from them is they didn’t feel they were keeping up with expectations. Due to this reality, half of them had not even applied for a leadership position, and the other half had quit their positions.

This might be predictable, but it’s also a pattern.

Faculty on university campuses are reporting that needy, less resilient students have shaped the landscape for staff and teachers—in that educators are expected to do more handholding, lower academic standards, and not challenge students too much. Even the student leaders have switched into survival mode.

Dan Jones, former president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, is concerned for the mental and emotional health of ordinary students. In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, he reports:

“Students haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves, because parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.”

This Generation of Parents

I remember my parents raising me forty to fifty years ago. They were part of the “Silent Generation” who’d grown up during the Great Depression and World War II. Building resilience and learning to solve problems was part of their agenda for me. These skills had served them well. They wanted me to be ready for life.

My generation, however, grew up in the post-World War II era. Things were better, the economy was stronger, and television told us we “deserved a break today.” So as parents, we focused on our children’s happiness and self esteem. We wanted them to have a better life. Unfortunately, we now see the by-product of this parental philosophy. As kids grow into adulthood, they’re often neither happy nor ready.

What a sad irony for these emerging adults who could be leaders!

What Employers Say

Recently, a San Francisco-based nonprofit called YouthTruth conducted a multi-year survey on college and career readiness with a sample group of over 165,000 high school students. The results of their work were rather surprising: only 45% of the students felt positive about their college or career readiness. In short, fewer than half felt they’re ready for life after high school.

As we work with employers, they tell us their three greatest needs on teams are:

  • Resilience
  • Problem solving skills
  • Interpersonal skills

Executives continue to implore us to help students cultivate these skills sets—some are hard skills, and some are soft skills. Unfortunately, they are conspicuously absent, and if our young people are going to be leaders, we must make some changes.

Three Parent Mistakes

Let me suggest three unwitting parental actions that diminish a student’s ability to become a leader, both in and after school:

  1. Resilience If I never let them fail, they won’t develop resilience.

In my book 12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid, I share that most parents work to insure their child never fails. Ever. In a class, on a team, at work, you name it. Sadly, if we don’t allow them to experience failure, resilience is only a theory they’ve heard about in older generations. They crumble at the first sign of adversity. We must let them fail in the safe environment of homes so they cultivate resilience for the future.

  1. Problem Solving If I do things for them, they won’t build problem-solving skills.

Although employers value problem-solving skills most, somehow graduates come to the job afraid to even try. Why is this? I believe it’s because most of their lives, up to this point, have been virtual. What’s more, too many moms or dads have done the problem solving for them. Parents must encourage their kids to see problems clearly; imagine how to solve it, then develop the steps to reach it. They won’t learn to solve problems if someone does it for them.

  1. Soft skills If I don’t balance their screen time, they won’t cultivate soft skills.

Finally, supervisors are hunting for young employees with soft skills: the ability to work with others, to communicate well, to look someone in the eye and listen, and to resolve conflict. These are fundamentals—but they involve face-to-face interaction. Parents must balance the time their kids have on a screen with the time they spend in the presence of people of different ages.

A Case Study

Last year, I met a couple who told me about their teenage daughter. They confided that she was feeling entitled to a car, a smart phone, spending money, and all the perks her friends received. If she didn’t get them, she’d accuse mom and dad of being horrible parents and threaten to leave home. The couple was in a quandary.

I encouraged them to gently and lovingly take their daughter up on the threat. They had created a safe environment for her, but one that prevented her from realizing how life really worked. There’s nothing better than a dose of reality to give one perspective. The next time their teen daughter threatened to leave home, they said they didn’t want her to go—but maybe that would be the best way for her to learn the life skills she desperately needed.

They called her bluff. Reality stared her right in the face.

Their daughter left for only one day and soon returned. Her mood was different. There was a new Sheriff in town. They helped her solve her own problems and become resilient when life got tough. The good news is—this teen would learn the skills either way: by leaving home and doing it on her own, or via loving parents who equipped their little girl with the skills she’d need for life. Now, she’s becoming a leader at her school because her parents stopped enabling her.

Let’s make this our story, too.


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  1. Michelle Weidenbenner on January 20, 2016 at 7:24 am

    I’m guilty of helping my daughter too much. I tell myself that it’s because her situation is different. She lived in a Russia orphanage for two years before we adopted her and suffered developmental delays. When she was in second grade she was diagnosed with a receptive and expressive language disorder. She’s an introvert. She doesn’t ask for help. She doesn’t fit in. Communication is tough, but she’s the nicest girl. (Her life goal: to own a farm, grow veggies and feed the homeless.). I would often swoop down and manage her life, speak for her. Now she’s in college and I’m miles away. She is forced to handle her own problems. I know it’s tough for her, but it’s really tough for me too. Ha! I tell myself that this is healthy. I know that even if she doesn’t get straight A’s that she’s learning life lessons that matter far more than her grades.

  2. Steve Safigan on January 26, 2016 at 11:35 am

    Hi Tim, I’m a personal coach based in Rome, GA and I’m also involved in a business that tries to teach parents these exact same concepts. How do you get your points across without parents getting defensive?

  3. MyMindyGirl on February 28, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with the conclusions and advise in this article.

  4. DCloonan on December 15, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    Is the only option to respond to her careless threat with ‘go ahead and do it?” In this story, the girl returned home – but sometimes they don’t. In the manner of resolving conflict, perhaps the parents could demonstrate listening skills – really hearing what needs were up for her around wanting these things, probing, and hearing what her experience and life was from her perspective. Did she have needs for acceptance and mattering? Is that what was up for her? And then after fully listening to the teen, could the parents ask if the teen would be willing what was up for them around these aspects. The values the parents hold and the needs they have for their teen- needs for financial security by not overspending, needs for safety by limiting a great amount of time on these devices, a desire to contribute to their daughters thriving by helping her to develop certain skills at important times. It is surprising that exactly what is desired by school sad employers was not provided in the example, only a non-resilient, non-communicative effort to power over their daughter to achieve what they perceived is a goal that would achieve resilience and communication. This article fails to meet its own standards for achieving the goals it says are lacking in students and early candidates. And it also does not provide detailed data as to exactly how the resilience quota and communication quota is greater or less than previous generations. Im not sure how this would be measured.

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Three Parental Acts That Hinder Students From Becoming Leaders