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Why do our children need so much help?

Why do we have to do so much these days to help our children? Why can’t we just leave it to them? In our day, we didn’t need this amount of help, we just got on with it!

In fairness, this question has been asked of me only twice (once when I was ‘out and about’ delivering a school talk, and again, just last week. However, it strikes me as a good one. The first time it was asked, I was taken aback. When it was asked a second time, I had reflected heavily on it and was able to articulate what I really wanted to say. In answering this question, I refer readers back to my logo; the image of a triangular shape that refers to a mountain. All my talks begin with this metaphor of the educational and life journey that our children are embarking on. What loving parent, I ask, would send their children on such a vast, unpredictable and (sometimes perilous) journey without the right psychological tools, mindset or attitude to both cope and thrive on that mountain? We need them to reach their destinations safely and successfully. We won’t be able to accompany them for the majority of that journey, so we need to make sure they are ‘tooled up’.

Why should we need to do that? The parent who asked the original question is right; things have certainly changed. Innovations in digital technology mark the most drastic changes to impact on contemporary childhoods. In the late 70s, when I was growing up, there was no internet, smartphone technology, email or Netflix. You had to wait another whole week to see what happened next in your favourite programme. You had to wait a whole day to see the boy that you fancied from the other school who got off the bus at the same time as you. If you fell out with a school friend, you had time to reflect on it overnight and perhaps resolve things the next day.

Nowadays, the pace couldn’t be quicker. Our children are growing up in a world steeped in tech where social interactions happen largely online and adolescent experimentation plays out rapidly across social media. Parents find it hard to say no; tech is cheap and peer pressure strong. The news media is much more graphic than it ever used to be and global problems (about which we can often do so little) make us feel out of control and helpless. The global pandemic has stripped children and young people of their light and energy sources: play, social interaction, education and even physical contact with those that they love. Not easy.

The great challenges in parenting now lie in being able to work out how our children are doing. Can we get them to open up and connect with us? Can we motivate them to try hard in circumstances when they feel like giving up? Our teens are behaving better than they ever have (they are not taking as many drugs or having as much risky sex as former generations), but there is evidence to suggest many of them are deeply unhappy. Nobody can really say conclusively why this is now the case, but parents need to be sensitive to the unique challenges of raising a child in the present age. By being aware of emerging difficulties that lie ahead, keeping an eye on the bigger picture in terms of mental health and knowing the early signs of distress in children, we remain in the watchtower by the coast. Great and effective parenting in 2021 involves having some telescopic sense of what is going on for children and young people more generally, continuing to invest in the quality of relationship we enjoy with our children, and giving them the skills, the agency and self-esteem that will mean they will be able to both enjoy and navigate through the journey that lies ahead. In doing nothing, sitting back and hoping for the best (as the original questioner suggested), everything might work out for your child, but the stakes are high. In a fast-paced world, replete with so many social and emotional challenges, who would take that chance?

So much of what makes an effective parent these days is counter-intuitive. Read my “Common mistakes that loving parents make” resource in the Tooled Up library to find out why.