Are we seeing a generation of increasingly fragile kids in need of toughening up?
Media commentators today often talk about “cotton wool” kids who aren’t allowed to take risks, make mistakes or problem solve in the face of challenging situations. We also hear about the sense of entitlement of children, used to having everything done for them, and kids who spend more time on screens than playing freely and unsupervised outside. Frequently, articles introduce us to labels such as “helicopter parents” who overprotect their children or “lawnmower parents” who remove all obstacles to ensure their children’s success.
Yet, despite efforts to protect our kids, statistics suggest we may be moving backwards. More adolescents and young adults than ever before are experiencing mental illness, part of the epidemic spreading across the developed world. According to beyondblue.org.au, 14 per cent of Australian children and adolescents aged four to 17 have mental health or behavioural problems, and the trend is increasing.
What are the underlying causes of this fragility? This has been caused in part by our risk-averse culture and the media, which gives us constant reminders of the many dangers our children face. Bad news travels fast, even more so when children are involved, causing some of us to go overboard to keep them safe. Parents are also under a lot of pressure, including relationship, job, financial and time, and we, too, are experiencing unprecedented levels of mental illness.
Kids are also busier in a more structured way than they have been in the past. Many participate in multiple extra-curricular activities and are pushed to achieve more than their parents ever did. This is driven in part by social media and the competitive nature of modern culture, which leads to many of us feeling pressured to have the perfect Instagram or Facebook family.
Because of all of this, kids have much less unstructured free play than in the past. This can prevent them from learning how to be creative, problem solve, make decisions, build relationships and negotiate, leading to what appears to be their overall fragility and inability to function independently.
The two styles of parenting—helicopter and lawnmower—come from a place of good intent: wanting to keep our children safe and to help them be the best they can be. But unfortunately the methods used to achieve this are often counter-productive and add to the problems kids face today. Helicopter parents can prevent kids from taking their own risks and working out for themselves what is safe and what they are capable of. They can also prevent children from learning how to problem solve, make decisions and experience the sense of mastery and self-worth that comes from being given greater levels of independence and responsibility. Lawnmower parents can prevent their kids from experiencing and learning from failure and from learning that they can get better at things through hard work and effort.
At the same time, the social and emotional skills kids need to draw upon to help them become less fragile are not consistently taught in all schools and preschools. Many parents are also not well-versed in what these skills are and how to teach them, nor do they necessarily have the capacity to add this to their own busy schedules. Children are also wired differently, with some being more inherently able to deal with tough times than others.
Parents should [be] preparing the child for the road, not preparing the road for the child.
It is generally believed things are harder for kids now than they have ever been before. We often hear about the unprecedented rate of technological change, the increasingly volatile, complex and ambiguous world they inhabit, and the breakdown of communities meaning a village no longer raises a child.
But do kids really face a more difficult life today? While they are undoubtedly facing new challenges, it is normal to feel that today’s challenges are more threatening than any before us. We should also remember that this is typically felt every time there is a significant cultural shift, as we are experiencing right now. Societies have experienced far greater challenges in the past and have mostly come through these stronger than before.
Does all this mean kids today are simply too fragile and need to toughen up?
The word tough is often defined as: “strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough handling” or “able to endure hardship or pain” (adjective) and “endure a period of hardship or difficulty” (verb). If we go with these definitions, then yes, toughening up would be good for kids’ development.
That said, the definition goes on to indicate that tough is also about “demonstrating a strict or uncompromising approach” or being “strong and prone to violence” (adjective) and being “rough and violent” (noun). When applied to people, we can imagine them as being Teflon-coated, unwavering, hard, physically strong and emotionally aggressive. This is not what we want our kids, nor their parents, to be!
Tough can also conjure up images of common Aussie sayings such as “Toughen up princess!”, which can shut our kids down when they are trying to express how they are feeling. It can also give the illusion that being less fragile means not crying. Again, this isn’t what we want for our kids, as being in touch with their emotions is important for their mental wellbeing.
There is talk these days of “mental toughness” and while this may sound like something that would benefit today’s kids, the term has short-term connotations and feels more appropriate when applied to a one-off event: “Do you have the mental toughness to run a marathon?”
I believe a better solution is for kids to become more resilient, rather than tougher (although the word resilient is in this case synonymous with the word tough). Resilience is about responding with confidence to challenges. The process of building resilience is long-term, one we follow right through our lives.
We can’t blame children for being too fragile—they are growing and developing and are doing their best to ensure their needs are met in whatever environmental context they end up in. The real opportunity to help them become more resilient sits with parents. Parents need to be taught how to be resilient themselves, so they can model this to their kids. They also need to be taught the skills of a resilient child, so they can help teach these. There is also an opportunity for parents to challenge modern culture and buy in less to today’s concerns: the kids will be alright!
Instead of spending their energy hovering over their kids and removing all obstacles from their path, parents should redirect their efforts to preparing the child for the road, not preparing the road for the child.
Parents are not alone in needing to provide resilience coaching to kids; an opportunity also sits with schools. All kids should have the opportunity to learn these skills at school. They should also have access to more therapeutic-based solutions where they can explore these critical social and emotional skills in a safe environment.