Back in the 70s & 80s children and teenagers seemed to be more resilient than the current generation of future adults. Is it my imagination because I’m now older, a product of being a teenager in the 70s? Or are the current youngsters too cocooned in a world of instant gratification, protected by parental fears and restricted by safety regulations that they don’t know how to build resilience?
We’re living in an era of immediacy where we can order something online today and have it delivered by tomorrow; we can download music, films and TV programmes in an instant and pop a hot meal on a plate in minutes. We have access to a catalogue of social media friends, most of whom we’ve never met. We can swipe right or swipe left to accept or reject a person based on their looks.
When a child is bored we (parent/adult) pop them in front of the TV or give them a phone/tablet to play a game or watch YouTube clips. And if they squabble with a sibling or playmate, we charge in to sort out the problem to avoid escalation or further conflict.
Children today grow up with an expectation of instant gratification
A child in the 70s would go out to play with the neighbourhood kids after school, at weekends and in the holidays, and told to be home for dinner. They made their own entertainment from what was available in the landscape they called playground – woods, disused land, fields, etc. They’d ride their bikes or use their creativity and make-belief to conquer their battles either in cops and robbers or quarrels with friends.
Unfortunately there’s less freedom in today’s society – is it because we’ve become more fearful, are there more potential dangers looming in every street corner or have we lost the sense of free-play?
The fear that children may fall and hurt themselves stops us from letting them explore their natural curiosity and sense of adventure. By not letting them fight their own battles or climb trees in case they get hurt, we’re taking away an opportunity for them to learn strategies to cope with challenges, test their limits, overcome obstacles and realise they can survive if they fail.
We place our children in day nurseries, after school care or holiday clubs where they follow organised play. As parents we know they will be safe and kept entertained. However, by following structured play set by adults, children loose the opportunity to learn how to problem solve – how to choose what games to play, how to select balanced teams, how to decide on the rules of the game, and if arguments rise, how to resolve them by themselves.
Children will always find a way to come up with a solution and organise themselves because they are eager to play and have fun. The more adults, parents and teachers intervene, the more we’re robbing our children of key learning skills to the point they give up trying; they hand themselves over to be provided with entertainment and kept occupied, they lose the art of patience and start to expect instant gratification.
How to Engage Curiosity
Find something broken that no longer works, for example an old clock or camera (not digital), and invite your child to be curious about how it’s made and why it’s broken; invite him/her to dismantle it, letting them work out what tools he/she needs (ie. screwdriver, spanner, hammer). Encourage them to explore each of the components separately, and work out if they can spot what’s wrong with it, and then invite them to put it back together.
How to Engage Problem Solving
When your child complains of boredom, instead of providing them with a solution, try out this selection of questions:
- What’s making you bored?
- What else could you do?
- I wonder what would happen if you tried that out?
The purpose of the questions is to help your child learn to find their own solutions to boredom, learn patience and develop their creativity. Once they learn to make their own entertainment the number of times they complain of boredom will reduce.
How to Engage Conflict Resolution
The same principle applies when your children squabble or fight with siblings or friends. If you’re stepping in to break up the conflict and end the argument, they’ll become used to you fixing their problems and won’t learn how to resolve their differences. Instead of going to the rescue try out the following:
- What do you need to resolve this argument/conflict?
- I wonder what would happen if you talk about what you each want and find a compromise?
As a parent/adult, take a step back and stop being the director of their entertainment or a referee in their battles. Notice any irritation that pops up for you or the temptation to step in to resolve the situation before they kill each other. You may need to tap into your own patience to begin with whilst you give them time to work through their frustrations.
Problem solving and negotiation skills are best learned through play
Children who miss out on learning key life skills through play in early childhood are less resilient and unable to overcome obstacles or handle conflict easily. Many become overwhelmed at secondary school in a sea of ever-increasing academic pressure, even the high achievers. They dread failure, struggle to focus and prioritise their work, and end up stressed, anxious and depressed.
Doubt creeps in and the fear of not being good enough takes hold – fear of not being smart enough, not grasping school work and getting it wrong, not being a nice son/daughter or friend, worrying about their appearance (too fat, too thin, too spotty, too awkward), not being liked by peers, and so it goes on.
I work with years 11-13 as a school counsellor. The list of self-loathing is endless. Some children live in a toxic home environment in a pool of constant arguments, sarcasm, bullying and lack of adult support they can turn to; many are parenting their own parent(s) or taking care of younger siblings.
I’ve noticed they all have one thing in common – the need to feel accepted for who they are, to feel they are good enough as people and to be loved and supported through the labyrinth of fear and expectations, both emotional and academic. This leads to stress, anxiety and depression.
Growing up without learning how to overcome obstacles, taking risks or handle failure, conflict and emotional upsets, leaves youngsters ill equipped to face life beyond school, college or university.
In our quest to protect our children, we’ve taken away their ability to learn key life skills through free play.
During this time of crisis, I will continue to offer sessions via FaceTime & Zoom