THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Their fragile future
Rather than over-protecting, parents need to instil a bit of grit in their children, writes Linda McSweeny.
By Linda McSweeny
Red wash cloths are being stashed in preschool first-aid kits around the US to ensure that when children are hurt, they don’t see the blood in the clean-up. Psychologists say it won’t be long before we see the same thing in Australia, if it’s not already happening.
The fragility of modern kids is being challenged by psychologists who say parents are overprotecting, overindulging and overscheduling their children to the point where they expect perfection in every area other than hardiness, leaving kids floundering.
Everyone knows kids suffer in playground scraps that turn nasty or online bullying that makes parents feel helpless. But experts say parents need to instil grit in their children by backing off a bit. Plus they must shoulder some blame for leaving their children bereft of the ability to cope with adversity.
The collective lack of resilience has become so prevalent that schools worldwide are implementing social and emotional learning tools to deliver well-rounded, emotionally tuned graduates instead of high academic achievers only.
Mindfulness - a self-awareness practice that encourages people to accept their thoughts in a non-judgmental way - is also increasingly popular outside of psychologists’ rooms as a more constructive tool to promote emotional intelligence and resilience.
Californian-based clinical psychologist Dr Wendy Mogel says children are hard-wired for competence but need to be given the chance and resources to be resilient.
Mogel, the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, runs Overparenting Anonymous, an 18-step guide for parents to better equip their kids for a sturdy life.
“What I thought when I heard that [red wash cloths are being used in preschools to block the sight of blood] is ‘kids love blood, it’s the brightest colour and substance that comes out of the human body. How else will they learn about clotting’?’’ Mogel says.
“I want them out in nature. I want them climbing trees. I want them learning how to use sharp knives and how to light a match. All these life skills are much more important. Learn how to deal with disappointment and frustration. Learn what to do if you get a disappointing grade in school instead of having your parent call the teacher and ask to have it changed.”
Parents who choose a different path to overprotection can sometimes feel as though they are neglecting their children because they are “salmon swimming against the tide” in society, Mogel says.
“But unless you do it, what happens - and I see this pattern so much now - is the kids are not prepared to go off to college or university because the parents have been at their side, the combination of a Sherpa, a butler, a concierge, the secret police, an ATM and a talent agent.
“The role I encourage parents to take is witness rather than the person who takes on the whole burden of the problem and solves it.’‘
The Black Dog Institute’s psychology clinic director, UNSW associate professor Vijaya Manicavasagar, says modern children are subject to many more stresses than those of previous generations - swamped in technology, experiencing cyber-bullying and pressure to try drugs and alcohol at an earlier age.
“They don’t actually just chill out. There’s no down time. It’s constant,” Manicavasagar says.
Many children don’t always learn coping skills from their parents, who sometimes want to be friends with their kids rather than showing them how to handle stress, she says. “Overprotective parenting is a phenomena that people have documented. It seems to be more prevalent than it was in the past. Many kids are mollycoddled quite a bit, so they’re protected by their parents from encountering stress. The child never actually really exposes themselves to the realities of life, basically.”
The Black Dog Institute uses mindfulness across various platforms including ‘‘Snap That’‘, an online program that invites teenagers to take photographs of things that spark their interest and upload them to the website.
“That’s a very simple exercise that doesn’t actually involve formal meditating and focusing on specific thoughts and things like that,” Manicavasagar says.
“So practicing mindfulness can also involve basically focusing on images or appreciating sounds, it can be anything really - even focusing on particular tastes.”
Mindfulness is also a component of the Institute’s HeadStrong program, which is used to build resilience in children and helps school communities find creative ways of learning about mood disorders.
“We advocate the use of mindfulness in schools. There is a great benefit in practicing mindfulness. The thing about building resilience is that if you can be a little bit more centred within yourself and more purpose driven in what you’re trying to do, rather than reactive, then you’re probably going to be achieving your goals and be a little bit calmer and, as a result, you’re probably going to be more resilient.”
Ten days before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, educator Linda Lantieri’s book Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers was published. After the attacks, the-then former New York City principal was immersed in helping the schools in and around Ground Zero cope. She has since spent time introducing children, teachers and families to contemplative self-care practices to alleviate distress and build resilience, and has written another book about cultivating inner strength in children.
“Young people are taught, as they would be taught maths or language skills, that there’s a special time for learning social and emotional skills,” Lantieri says. “If the contemplative portion is also included with the mindfulness aspect as well, it helps enhance the teaching of the social and emotional learning skills.
“When you’re teaching how to help, children become more self-aware and regulate their emotions; you can also teach them how to be able to calm down and take deep breaths and take what we call quiet time by going to a peace corner that may be in a classroom or home where they are able to centre themselves and choose to have reflection time to respond in a way that is more helpful.”
A meta-analysis conducted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning and Loyola University Chicago into 213 positive youth development intervention programs showed school-based social and emotional learning programs delivered to five to 18-year-olds improved academic achievement by 11 percentile points, on top of reducing emotional distress and improving attitudes to self.
“The world has changed for our children but we still haven’t changed what we are providing them in terms of the life skills they need to deal with it,” Lantieri, who spoke at the Happiness and its Causes conference in Melbourne last week, says.
She is helping to implement school curriculum changes to bring social and emotional learning and mindfulness to children. After more than 40 years of teaching such skills, she is seeing results in adults she once taught. “They’re kinder and more compassionate,’’ she says. ‘‘They’re less likely to be in jail, for example, or to have committed a crime. They did better in school… They are successful in life and work.”
June 27, 2013