Stories passed down from generation to generation in our families, cultures, and communities create the binding fabric of our societies. Triumph over adversity, struggles to adapt, and the lessons learned, enable each generation to add to this fabric. Are we allowing our children to contribute to these stories?
I was working with a group of high school students recently when the discussion turned to what they found most helpful from the adults in their lives. It was these stories that they cited as most beneficial, but they didn’t feel they had the same freedom to make mistakes and struggle. One student made an insightful statement, “We want to make our own stories to tell someday.”
We guide, tutor and coach them to ensure success in academics, sports and extracurricular activities.* With the best of intentions, we show them the way to prosperity through the lenses of our own experiences. This takes away their ability to independently craft a unique narrative about themselves. More importantly, the world in which we grew up is not the world they are poised to enter.
A seismic shift in our economy has occurred over the past two decades, which has propelled us into a new age. Traditional institutional structures are giving way to new types of working relationships fostered by virtual connectivity. Unlike us, our children are digital natives who grew up navigating and mastering each technological advancement. They already have essential knowledge about how to operate in this ever-changing, connected world. As parents, our role is to empower them through these changing times. By doing so, we allow our children to become the authors of their own meaningful stories.
Advocating for change in our outmoded education system and reflecting on the role that we play in perpetuating it can help empower them. Our schools are still predicated on the training of factory workers when a new set of skills is required. These essential new skills include:
- adaptability rather than conformity;
- collaboration rather than competition;
- teamwork rather than individual achievement; and,
- problem-solving rather than standardized answers.
Our role also involves helping our children develop the strength of character needed to gain these new skills. Changing to a new way of being involves struggle and is a part of the human experience of adaptation. We cannot program them like robots to ensure success in our image. They will internalize information in their own way based on their own experience, just as toddlers learn to self-regulate when they run and fall down. If we don’t let them run, they will not develop this essential understanding. This deeply personal struggle will help them to grow and find their unique place in the world.
According to Stanford Professor Jo Boaler, “The brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged and the challenge results in growth” (“Mistakes Grow Your Brain” in Mindset Neuroscience). Struggle and challenge also create resilience. By trying to ensure success without failure, we deprive our children of important developmental steps that are needed for a strong, independent adulthood.
Rather than focusing on being teachers to our children, perhaps we can better support them by being learners with them and about them. Let’s let them know that they are worthy and valued as the unique individuals they are. Their struggles are an important part of their lifelong journey and critical to creating the stories they will someday tell to the next generation.
*This does not hold true for children living in poverty or at risk/foster youth. These children have issues related to lack of attention and opportunity, not overparenting. I plan to elaborate more on these children in future posts.