To Hover or Hope – Tough Calls in a World of Risk

Are we raising “soft kids”?

Published on January 14, 2013 by Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. in Our Gender, Ourselves

By today’s standards, social services should have taken most us baby boomers away from our parents.

We were raised in a world of lawn darts, BB guns and second-hand smoke; without car seats, airbags or bicycle helmets. We gobbled sugar, swilled fats and consumed mushy white bread with the nutrients pounded out in processing.  We roamed our world freely, gone for hours, told only to be home when the streetlights come on. As a friend said: “I’m pretty sure my parents were trying to kill me.”

Yet: here we are. Aside from a few mended bones and some fading scars from stitches, most of us are little the worse for wear from growing up in a world before dodge ball became organized bullying.

Helmets, car seats and smoke-free homes are the logical outcomes of a smarter society. But for parents today: has common-sense protection crossed a divide to irrational obsession with driving risk from young lives?

That question, of course, must be asked in the chilling context of a very different world.  In the most normal of places on the most normal of days, 20 children went happily off to school in Newtown, Connecticut. They did not come home.

Threats are real. Fears are justified. And the instinct to protect our children is one of the crossbeams in our human architecture. But are those realities combining  to cause us to raise kids so emotionally and physically bubble-wrapped that they are paying a cost in confidence and, ironically, the well-being that we are working so hard to create? Have we lost our sense of the difference between risk’s reality and its mere possibility?

They are questions without easy answers.

A recent study from Norway concluded that playgrounds have become so low, slow and bouncy that kids have lost interest – to the point that there is a causal connection to childhood obesity. Is a slide still a slide if you don’t go flying off the end?

It’s yet another easy addition to the catalog of evidence that “we’re raising soft kids.”

It becomes less easy when you also consider CDC reports that, every year, 200,000 kids under age 14 suffer playground injuries serious enough to send them to the emergency room. A third of them are severe – fractures, concussions, internal injuries and dislocations. Approximately 15 of these injured children die.

How many of those casualties are worth a trade-off in a more formative playground experience?

Reaction to risk plays out everywhere parents gather with children to play. When a child falls, some will race to them like a lifeguard to a drowning swimmer. Others will watch, allowing the drama to play out, allowing the child to find his or her own resolution.

I’ve seen that choice – especially in emotional risk — from an interesting perspective in my work with single and two-mother families; where mothers know that their children start the day outside the norm.

As one lesbian mother told me: “At first, I would charge in to school to do battle every time there was a hint that my child was being taunted or bullied because of the makeup of our family. But I realized, I can’t be doing this when he’s 20 years old. So I started to think more about how to help him deal with it himself. I tried to give him the confidence and perspective to make the decision about when to walk away, when to laugh, and when to push back. He’s very funny, so that was his way in. The fact that he had two mothers became a non-issue. It would have taken a lot longer for kids to get him if they always had to get past me.”

So what’s a parent to do: try to banish risk, or learn to accept it?  Most of us in the mental health field suggest a mix of both. The question is whether a given situation carries a high risk of physical or emotional harm; or whether it is a bump – figuratively or literally – that is part of the invaluable life lessons that come from the  pain of hitting the ground hard, and the thrill of getting back up.

Like anything else in the complex and situational world of protecting the most precious thing the universe has ever created, distinguishing between the two may take a little practice.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy


The Key to Raising Confident Kids? Stop Complimenting Them!

by Peggy Drexler, Ph.D.

The Key to Raising Confident Kids? Stop Complimenting Them!

Self-esteem comes as the result of achievement
Published on August 17, 2012 by Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. in Our Gender, Ourselves

In Maria Semple’s hilarious new novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the title character’s daughter, Bee, attends an elite, and progressive, private school. Here, grades are doled out in three tiers: S for “Surpasses Excellence,” A for “Achieves Excellence,” and W for “Working Towards Excellence.” That is, there is no child who is not excellent in some way. It’s a parody that is, unfortunately, not far from reality.

As parents, we believe we’re meant to instill confidence in our children. That building self-esteem is the number one priority of raising, and educating, children, and that regular praising will encourage them to believe in themselves. And if kids believe in themselves, the thinking goes, they will take risks, meet goals, and generally achieve great things. Except it turns out that confidence doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance. In fact, praise might actually undermine kids’ success.

First thing’s first: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be supportive or encouraging, or help kids feel loved. But how often do we find ourselves saying “great job!” to the 4-year-old who cleans up her crayons after a coloring session? Or to the 8-year-old who finishes his broccoli? By dishing out praise to a child for doing things she should be doing anyway, we teach her that she gets rewarded just for being. Later, we tell them they’re smart and beautiful and awesome baseball players before they’ve had a chance to earn it—or know what those words really mean. They grow up placing their self-worth in that praise: If I’m not told I’m beautiful, she’ll start to think, then I must not be.

Research with children and families has indeed told us that praise has the opposite intended effect. It does not make children work harder, or do better. In fact, kids who are told they’re bright and talented are easily discouraged when something is “too difficult;” those who are not praised in such a manner are more motivated to work harder and take on greater challenges. The unpraised, in turn, show higher levels of confidence, while overpraised are more likely to lie to make their performances sound better. Praise becomes like a drug: once they get it, they need it, want it, are unable to function without it.

Let’s look at 6-year-old Matthew. A natural athlete, Matthew was widely praised at an early age for his throwing and catching abilities. Once he became old enough to play with other children, he realized, for the first time, that he was good—but perhaps not the best. What happened then? In Little League games, he’d choke up, constantly looking back to his parents for encouragement and forgetting to keep his eye on the ball. He’d get upset if his every effort wasn’t met with accolades from his coach—but such accolades wouldn’t help him perform any better. Safe in the envelope of constant praise that happened in his backyard with his dad, Matthew was a bundle of nerves out in the real world.

Here’s where we also see how praising kids sets them up for a world that’s almost never as generous. For kids who’ve spent their lives being celebrated for, say, tying their own shoes, failure can be devastating. In a recent New York magazine article, 27-year-old Lael Goodman said, “The worst thing is that I’ve always gotten self-worth from performance, especially good grades. But now that I can’t get a job, I feel worthless.” And this guy’s an adult; it’s even worse for an actual child. What’s more, by focusing too much on how we can build our kids’ self-esteem and confidence, we’re overlooking teaching them what real achievement means—and depriving them of knowing what it’s like to feel the satisfaction of setting a high goal, working hard, and achieving it. When we place more emphasis on the reward than the process of learning or doing—whether it’s an algebra problem or hitting a fly ball—kids inevitably focus more on the reward. They stop learning how to spell because it’s a benchmark for learning (and necessary); they learn it for the trophy and ice cream party that follows.

The point isn’t to criticize children. But it’s to recognize that self-esteem really, truly comes as the result of achievement—in the classroom, on the field, at home—rather than false accomplishments. Instead of praising your child with “you’re so smart!” be specific. Tell him, “You did a great job on your spelling quiz,” or simply, “You tied your own shoes!” Instead of telling him he’s he best on the team when you really don’t mean it, tell him you could tell he tried hard. Next time, he’ll try even harder—guaranteed.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011).


Original article

Why It’s Important to Let Your Child Make Mistakes


Author, research psychologist, and gender expert

Why It’s Important To Let Your Child Make Mistakes

Posted: 09/01/2012 8:58 am

 At the end of a long, fun day at the water park with her dad, 9-year-old Nora decided she wanted to tackle one last slide before going home. It was the “big kid’s slide,” and she’d avoided it for years. With her father’s okay, Nora climbed the stairs, took a deep breath, and hurled herself down the plunging free-fall. Then she ran to the bathroom and threw up.

Her dad, Jeremy, had not pressured Nora into going on the slide, but he’d had no qualms about letting her go. By the park’s rules, Nora was more than tall enough for that slide. There were lifeguards. What’s more, she was typically a skittish child, often afraid to take risks or try new things. Though Jeremy was surprised by Nora’s interest in the slide, he thought it was a step in the right direction. As Nora cried over being sick — and repeating over and over again she never should have gone on the slide, and how could he have let her do that? — Jeremy told her that he was proud of her for trying something new, that she learned something important, and that everyone gets sick sometimes.

As parents, of course we want to protect our children — from danger, from upset, from things not turning out how they hoped. But we also need to realize that it’s not just okay, but essential, to let our children make mistakes. Jeremy had been right to let Nora go on the slide: By deciding to try something that was a little beyond her comfort zone, Nora was testing her independence and summoning up her courage — and growing. The outcome might not have been entirely pleasant, but she was safe. And a week later, she’d all but forgotten the unpleasant aspect of the experience; instead, the memory she shared with others was a gleeful, and unmistakably proud, “I went on Geronimo!”

As parents, our responsibility is to keep kids unharmed. That doesn’t mean shielding them from all possibility of defeat. It means letting them fail safely. That’s difficult, especially when it results in sadness, anxiety, or regret. But as psychologist Madeline Levine recently wrote in the New York Times, “if you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business.” What’s key in Nora’s story was that she felt safe enough with Jeremy and with her own abilities to try something new. That’s the feeling that must be fostered in order to help our children grow into confident, autonomous adults. Here’s how to help your child take risks — and make mistakes, inevitably — safely.

Aim to be reliable, but non-interfering. Ask yourself: Can my child handle this situation safely? Most children are not naturally reckless. But they don’t have the ability, as you do, to pay attention to details and be aware of all dangers. A child who desires doing so should be allowed to climb a tree — unless the tree is full of swarming bees and the child is allergic. What’s not okay is preventing your child from doing something to save yourself exclusively from your own worry.

Involve him in the decision-making. Explain the differences between two hikes — this one’s harder, this one will be longer — and then let your child choose. Or pick out his outfits. So what if he goes to school wearing mismatched socks (or worse?) So long as he’s decent, and comfortable, he’ll learn what works for him — and what doesn’t. An adult friend of mine still vividly remembers that moment in kindergarten when some other kids made fun of the striped knee socks she’d chosen to wear. At first, she was angry at her mother for letting her out of the house “like that,” but the eventual decision to continue wearing the socks anyway was one she made on her own, and proudly.

Let her solve her own problems. Too often, either because it’s easier or because we hate to see them struggle, we rush in quickly to help our child figure something out, whether it’s zipping her own coat or pouring her own glass of juice. Sure, it may take a few (or more) attempts; maybe there will be some spills. But children develop self-confidence when they figure out how to do things on their own. Letting your child try and try again — and eventually get it right on her own — teaches her more about herself, and about life, than rushing in to save the day. You can still be her hero, but let her be her own hero, too.

This first appeared on Psychology Today

Original article