Do you want your children to be safe, or to you want them to be strong?
Do you want your children to be safe, or to you want them to be strong? This is an impossible question, because parents want their children to be safe AND strong. But if you had to choose, which would it be? Because in reality, parents do have to choose. In reality, the only way for living organisms (including humans) to develop strength is to face adversity. The trees that have the strongest roots are the ones that grow on the windy ridges, not the calm valleys. Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life” brings this question up in his discussions on parenting. He challenges parents to recognize the dilemma inherent in choosing safety over letting kids experience discomfort.
There are two ways that I see this issue play out: Parents can let their children get away with avoiding challenges, and parents can purposefully shield their children from challenges. In the first case, I want to explore how teens’ use of social media is creating a generation of emotional weaklings. In the second case, I want to explore how parents are unintentionally creating a generation of little narcissists.
Anxiety is increasing in the developed world, and I believe that we can blame this on our ever-growing dependency on technology. The more technologically connected we are, the more alone we feel in reality. The American Psychiatric Association ran a poll in 2017 and discovered that millennials are the most anxious population in the U.S. I wonder how much of this anxiety is due to kids being too plugged in without limits, and how much is due to parents’ efforts to create the perfect childhood for their kids? Its an indicator that “safe” has been given preference over “strong.”
Social media is the natural environment of the adolescent and young adult. They are “internet natives” and operate quite well in this virtual world. The problem this creates, however, is that in real social interactions they feel like fish out of water. Picture a fish out of water, and it’s a pretty accurate resemblance of the anxiety many young people experience now in real-life social settings. The only way they cope is by holding their life-line in front of their face – their phone. Face to face or phone conversations are considered “awkward” or too intense, so they avoid them and prefer texting and snap chatting each other instead. This avoidance of the awkwardness of real (not virtual) social interactions results in less opportunity to practice managing emotions in the face of real people. Therefore, anxiety increases and real emotional work is avoided. This creates emotional vulnerability instead of emotionally resilient people. Social anxiety is often the result of this situation.
Most parents love and cherish their children, yet their best efforts to give love and security can be misguided and result in unintended harm. We parents work hard to create the best learning environments, provide tutoring and music lessons, and encourage athletic pursuits to the point that we are traveling hundreds of miles for their travel ball teams. So much time, energy, and money is given for their best interests! These things aren’t bad. There are benefits to these things. However, there is a danger in making a child’s schedule all about them. The danger is that they will grow up assuming that its all about them! Other dangers associated with this way of parenting are that they will believe that they have to be perfect and that things should come easy.
What can we do to strike a balance between “safe” and “strong” for our kids? One thing is to structure their social life so that it’s more real than virtual. If you don’t completely eliminate social media, at least put some strong limits on it until your kids are showing they are socially strong and emotionally resilient. Another strategy is to get your kids out of their own bubbles. Get them involved in service. Give your children a sense of purpose that is beyond themselves. Teach them to be good citizens – to look out for the interests of others as well as themselves. Some simple changes to your parenting routines can have big results. For instance, instead of giving your kids screens to occupy them at the dinner table, purposefully engage them in conversation. Ask them what their high and low of the day is, or what interesting or funny thing happened today. And then, make sure you are listening. Don’t allow a screen to get between your kids and awesome, meaningful experiences. Think about it. Do you want your kids to be safe or do you want them to be strong?