Separating “Feel” from “Real” When Leading Today’s Students

Today, we hear from Andrew McPeak. Andrew is a next gen researcher, speaker, and author for Growing Leaders.

My wife and I finished watching “Stranger Things 2” last weekend. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a show about a group of middle school students in the mid 1980’s who are battling forces of evil from a parallel universe. As I’ve watched through two seasons of this 1980s-sci-fi drama, one reality of the show always makes me laugh: watching these kids spend hours, sometimes late into the evening, outside all by themselves. No adults in sight. I laugh because it’s something that probably never happens today. When was the last time your kids grabbed their bikes and took off for a few hours after school without a cell phone?

Hilariously, when I was reading about the show I learned that when the set designers were creating the show, they were unable to find 1980s-era children’s bikes for the actors to ride. Want to guess why? Most kid’s bikes from that era are considered unsafe and have been discarded in the years since. They ended up having to build replicas from scratch.

If you ask parents today why they were allowed to go out alone as kids, but they don’t allow their kids to do the same, you will probably get an answer like this: “When I was a kid, the world was a lot different. It wasn’t as dangerous as it is now.” Today’s parents so fear the possibilities of what could happen to their children—if left on their own—that those parents who do choose to let their kids “roam free” have their decisions called into question. One couple even had to answer to Child Protective Services a few years ago when their kids were picked up by police because they were alone, headed to a neighborhood park one-third of a mile from their home. It’s clear to me that the reigning emotion of adults toward students today is fear. We are afraid of what could happen. But is our fear unfounded?

As I have been doing research, I’ve been startled to find out just how safe our world is for kids today—compared to the 1980s. Did you know that global trends in war, homicide, death, rape and sexual assault have all been on the decline for more than twenty years? What about for our students? Studies show that since the 1990s, child mortality rates have fallen by nearly half and reports of missing children are down by 40 percent. Despite these positive trends, adults tend to ignore reality and worry more than ever.

So, let me put it simply. There is a good chance that your students are safer than perhaps any other kids in history. There is also probably a good chance that you worry about their safety more than any generation of adults in history. Do you see the same disconnect I do?

Feel vs. Real

The reality is that most of us are unable to separate how we feel from what is real. We feel fear because of reports on the news, horror stories that spread on Facebook, and the pressure from other parents and leaders to raise our kids “the right way.” Bad news spreads faster and further than good news. In 2001, a group of psychologists published an important and seminal paper entitled, “Bad Is Stronger than Good.” They summed up their findings in one easy example: “You are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.”

Isn’t this exactly what we do with our students? We fear what might happen to them more than we hope in what they might be able to accomplish on their own. All this protecting and worrying is starting to hurt our kids.

In October 2017, the New York Times published an exposé on the startling trend of anxiety and depression among today’s high school and college students. One section, discussing this exact issue, caught my eye:

“Lyons […] worries [about] a generation of young people increasingly insistent on safe spaces—and who believe their feelings should be protected at all costs. ‘Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs.”

Did you catch that? An entire generation, constantly anxious, in search of safe spaces and the protection of adults. You won’t catch any of these kids wandering alone in the woods. And in this example, lies a truth that we must engage with: Your students need to be safe, but they also need to mature into self-sustaining adults.

While trends in safety are on the uptick, other statistics regarding students today are headed in a decidedly negative direction. These kids that stay home, “safe” from the world, are more likely to have less empathy, changing attention spans, less sleep, and are prone to develop artificial relationships. We protect their physical body, but what about their emotions, social skills, and drive to succeed? When it comes to ensuring the success of the students we lead, it seems that we are protecting our kids in only one-half of the equation.

Two Ways to Balance the Equation

There are two essential human needs that many leaders often lack when they lead today’s students: hope and connection. So many of us hear statistics and react out of fear to protect what we believe is inevitable. But how many of us are able to step back and consider these two essential components of leadership?


What if instead of fear, we led out of hope? How would your conversations with your students change if you spoke from a place of hope? Consider what you hope they become, what you know they are capable of, and the strengths and talents that you know they have to offer the world. Protecting them from the world could mean that they never get to give those gifts away. What is one way that you could lead your students into “hope” this week?


What if instead of making decisions for them, we seek to “connect” with them? Instead of just telling kids what to do, we could ask them what they’d like to try. What they want to attempt and what they think they can handle should be deciding factors in taking the next steps. Students support what they help create. When adults make decisions about what their students can handle—without involving them—could mean that we miss opportunities and stunt their emotional development. When you have to make a decision about a student this week, what if you first seek their point of view on the issue, and then make your decision?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wisely said, “Cowardice asks the question: Is it safe? Consensus asks the question: Is it popular? Conscience asks the question: Is it right?” My hope is that we all ask the right question and do what is right on behalf of our students.

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Separating “Feel” from “Real” When Leading Today’s Students