There are few parenting concepts more ubiquitous than the desire to “give my kids the life I didn’t have.” We hear this statement and remark, “what a great dad he must be!” This sentiment is an automatic rapport-builder between parents. It has become the assumed goal of parenting: to provide abundance and protect from pain.
Despite this, we have managed to create the most mentally and physically unhealthy generation in human history. One in five has a mental disorder. There’s been a 37% increase in teen depression and a 200% increase in suicides for 10-14 year olds. Physical health is on a similar decline. One study found that American teens averaged the same activity level as 60-year-olds. Since 1970, we’ve seen obesity triple in youth ages 6-19.
The same parenting paradigm that places the comfort and happiness of the children at the center of the universe is a fundamental, underlying cause of all of these issues. The parenting pendulum has shifted drastically from an emphasis on teaching values, skills, and work ethic to create and capable citizens, to an obsession with providing to excess and protecting from any pain.
Technology and Affluence as Disablers
It’s not enough that we all enjoy the highest standard of living in human history. We still feel inclined to engaged in an arms race of affluence with our kids at the forefront. So we pay for elite summer ball leagues, pitching coaches, Apple watches, and a brand new car as soon as they can drive, complete with gas and insurance. I mean, you wouldn’t want your kid to feel like you don’t love him.
The pace of technological advances has only accelerated the issues our kids face. Mobile devices make their way into children’s hands at increasingly early ages, and natural human movement decreases accordingly. Our children never experience boredom, thereby suppressing creativity and the development of patience and delayed gratification.
All the while, rather than directing better youth development strategies, schools have made technology their sacred cow, and convinced themselves that any lesson is archaic and ineffective without it. This approach makes the critical error of assuming inherent value and correlating newness with progress. They would rather accept continuous partial attention as the new norm, instead of working to correct this unhealthy trend.
The brain is malleable. It’s constantly being rewired, and our society is engineering kids to forget the joy of movement. Instead, they become dependent on distraction and instant gratification like all the rest of us, but with more severe consequences due to their still-developing minds.
The Kids Aren’t the Problem
The current parenting model deprives kids of what they need for healthy growth. They are missing clearly defined limits and responsibilities, balanced nutrition and sleep, movement and time outdoors, unstructured creative play, and boredom (yes, it’s healthy for them). It is ultimately up to the parent to set boundaries that protect their child’s development.
We can’t expect kids to volunteer for any of these practices on their own. Parents and schools will need to structure limits to technology, take kids out in nature, and intentionally impose boundaries. Parents will have to make kids go outside and play, read, eat as a family, turn off technology after limits are hit, and get to bed on time. All this may sound like common sense, but these steps are not normal anymore.
Kids aren’t going to like these change at first, if at all. The good news is, they aren’t required to like it, they’re required to comply. Some parents tell me that their kid only likes sweets and fast food, is if they are incapable of eating foods that have formed the backbone of our diet for most of human history.
The problem is not Bobby. The problem is Bobby’s parents, who won’t wait him out. He won’t starve himself. Sure, everybody’s palate is different, and there are things he will just hate, but “all vegetables” is not an option. If parents don’t insist on growing their child’s tolerance for nutritious foods, the child is doomed to struggle with health. You’re instilling patterns that virtually ensure physical and mental pains.
Make Your Kid Mow the Lawn
Here is a common scenario I see in the schools where I work:
Stevie is 12. His parents feel bad for him because he is overweight and doesn’t play well with others. He eats whatever he likes, and generally does whatever he likes. There is no expectation for him to contribute to the operation of the household. Concerned for his health and wellbeing, his parents want to set him up to work out with a trainer.
Stop! Make him mow the lawn! Adolescents are physically and mentally capable of performing a huge variety of tasks that will induce a good bit of moving. They aren’t going to want to mow the lawn, do the dishes, or learn to do their own laundry. But here’s the thing: if your children have no chores and aren’t expected to contribute, they are being set up for failure. It is essential for them to learn that living a fulfilled life requires contribution.
Have a big lawn? No problem. Have a sibling split the work. Or a buddy. Or you. Already paying for lawncare, because you want the lawn to look good? No problem. Your kid is bright enough to learn to do it right, so get outside and teach them. When they mess up something small, use it as teaching opportunity where lessons are conveyed. Your pride can stomach a few months of less-than-immaculate lawn maintenance.
And no, riding mowers don’t count.
Your Kids Are Not Above Hard Work
Our kids need to be outside more, moving more, and I think physical labor is a great way to accomplish both. It requires a small degree of toughness, a quality we should want to develop in our youth. When we allow our kids to avoid physical exertion of any kind, we deprive them of exposure to the stimuli their bodies expect to adapt and grow.
More than that, life throws physical challenges everyone’s way, and if this has become a foreign concept, we’ll be overwhelmed and consumed by it. Any dream worth chasing comes with suffering, and we must make kids ready for that.
My superintendent talks about a summer he and his brother dug a ditch six feet deep for a building foundation. He expresses how he learned to work through discomfort, persist, and even find joy in struggle. Through college, I worked summers at a construction job in Florida. At the end of every day, I was soaked in sweat, covered in dirt, and beat. But it was an invaluable experience for my physical, mental, and social development.
Our parenting model would have us do everything possible to prevent our kids from having experiences like these. We have become convinced that manual labor is something beneath our children. But when we teach them that hard physical work is something to be avoided, we create the mentality that ensures they will fight obesity and chronic disease for the rest of their life.
The costs of our overprotection are not limited to soft hands and physical frailty. We create mental instability in our kids when their experiences tell them that the world should be made easy, fair, and interesting for them. The cost of never letting them fail is never letting them overcome obstacles that create growth, self-worth, and willingness to chase scary goals.
The costs of giving a 16-year-old a $30,000 car is an inflated sense of importance, and a warped worldview that expects extreme luxury at all times. They’ll be more inclined to spend exorbitantly and expect that people take care of them. When the normal challenges of the real world come along, they’ll be stuck with no experience of how to deal with them. Even if they figure it out, there will still be the perception that they deserve more, that this isn’t fair and that they are a victim of bad luck.
The Kids Won’t Raise Themselves
As much as we want to give our children everything that makes them happy, things don’t matter for your kid’s development. Other than your time and love, what they need are skills, lessons, and understanding. They need to understand the value of work, find joy in learning, and experience the lessons of hard physical labor. They need to appreciate that nobody is entitled to anything.
Kids aren’t dumb, either. If you tell them that you are treating them like an adult, they’ll come to appreciate that. But you cannot expect them to find the best developmental practices on their own. Most kids will always choose flickering screens and happy meals over mowing the grass and eating vegetables. They do not yet have the capacity for self-imposed restrictions that build willpower or the mental space to grow creativity. Children will not set their own sleep schedule to ensure they are growing and developing properly. They will not understand any of these things unless you teach them these lessons.
Let’s create what we wish to see. If we complain that “kids today are so entitled,” it is we, the adults, that will have to make changes to stop that.