Risk and Rescue: What’s Harming Our Students Today

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Recently, I was asked at a parent conference why more parents today are stepping in and rescuing their children—sometimes adult-children—than in past generations. My reply was short and sweet: because more children are asking.

photo credit: connerdowney via photopin cc

photo credit: connerdowney via photopin cc

Let’s be honest: we’ve seen a shift in both parents and kids’ expectations today. Adults seem to believe they are supposed to step in and “bail kids out” of messes. This may be true of any generation of adults, but bailing out today looks different than it did when I was a kid. Today, we’re lost in the moment, and unfortunately, neither the child nor the grownup sees how a “bail out” effects their long-term future.

The Evolution of Rescuing

Rescuing can be a slippery slope. The evolution of rescuing children looks like this:

  • Early on, it’s taking a forgotten backpack or a permission slip to school.
  • In middle school, it’s helping complete a class project at the last minute.
  • In high school, it’s calling a teacher and making an excuse for your kid.
  • In college, it takes the form of negotiating a grade with a dean.
  • As young adults, it’s sending money when they’ve made poor choices.

Helping young people is a good thing. In fact, it’s often necessary for them to launch into adulthood. If helping, however, creates a dependent adult-child, we’ve done a disservice to them. According to journalist Ruth Mentall, “rescuing might not do the child any lasting good. And it might make matters worse, maybe dramatically so, for parents and child. To avoid disaster, experts say, parents first need to be sure that helping their children won’t jeopardize their own financial health and that it won’t finance continued self-destructive behavior. And if they do give money, they need to establish clear conditions for that assistance and be willing to cut off the assistance if conditions aren’t met.”

Seeing How Our Actions Create Reactions

If you are leading, teaching or parenting an adolescent, let’s step back and see the bigger picture. If helping creates unhealthy dependency, then helping may actually be harming them. If kids learn dependency, if they can’t navigate hardship, if they don’t own their own problems, and if they aren’t responsible for their life, then we haven’t led them well. Helping and rescuing must take into consideration the long- term impact on both the child and the adult. When we create a lifestyle that doesn’t include some risk on the part of the child, we do not actually help the child.

My Hypothesis:

A Low Risk, High Rescue Youth Experience Creates At-Risk, Low Rescue Adults.

Great Britain recently released statistics on the emotional health of their youth. Like teens in most industrialized nations, they are full of angst. This anxiety stems from a variety of sources:

  • 68 percent stems from studies.
  • 56 percent stems from parents.
  • 53 percent stems from problems with friends/peers (bullying)
  • 48 percent stems from romantic relationships
  • 48 percent stems from addictions and bad neighborhoods.

It’s interesting to me that the top two sources were not even on the radar screen for adolescents fifty years ago. The source of angst then was nuclear holocaust and illegal drugs. Pardon me, but studies and parents should not be sources of angst. Yet when we create lives with few opportunities to navigate hardships, they become adults who can’t navigate true challenges. They become “at risk” grown-ups who are unable to rescue or help others in time of need. They’re in survival mode.

What Do We Do?

So what am I saying? First, stop all the rescuing and let kids know you love them by showing you believe they can navigate their way through the day without help. When they forget their backpack or a release form, let them know you’re sorry, but the best way they’ll remember it next time is to face the consequences this time.

Second, increase the risks you let them take. Obviously, I am not speaking of careless or reckless risk taking. Parents and teachers should still lead the students. I am speaking, however, of enabling them to navigate how high to climb, how much time to allow for a task, how much money they’ll need to earn for a trip, and how far they can ride their bike… and simply communicate along the way. Why? Because we prepared them, and we believe in them.

Years ago, President George Bush spoke at an NAACP convention and mentioned we’ve been guilty of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” That’s exactly what we’ve done. We need to let our students know we believe in them and have high expectations of their ability to do life on their own when it’s time.

I am pleased to introduce a brand new book. It’s entitled 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.

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Risk and Rescue: What’s Harming Our Students Today