I have recently watched an episode of Judge Judy (don’t judge me, I think she is brilliant) who had to solve pretty simple case of property theft. The plaintiff was a guy who left his quad in an unsupervised area for a week. On the opposite side there were two teenage boys with their mothers, who took (stole?) the quad bike, because they were bored, and decided to play mechanics and “fix” it. They took someone else’s property without checking with the police whether the quad was abandoned or whether in fact it had an owner. What surprised me, however, were the two mothers, who stood up for their sons, protecting them by saying that “the quad hasn’t been chained, so how would they know if belongs to someone?”

Judge Judy compared the situation to parked cars, and rightly so pointed out, that cars are never chained, yet we do not walk around taking random cars for a joy ride. The mothers kept persisting that their sons did nothing wrong.

While it is great to have such loving parents, it is important to recognise the unintended consequences of our engagement. We mean no harm and only want the best for our kids but research now shows that the “over-protection” parenting style just isn’t working and in many cases has damaged our children.

1. RISK IT FOR A BISCUIT.

What makes great leaders and great people in general is facing difficulties and overcoming them unaided. Of course it is great to learn from the mistakes of others, but the lessons we remember the most are the ones we have experienced in our own skin. When we have parents just one step away, ready to catch us every time we fall, those lessons are beyond our reach therefore we cannot learn from the consequences.

As hard as it may be for parents to hear, especially first time parents, you need to let your kids take the risk. We live in a world that warns us of dangers at every turn. From slippery floors, hazardous substances to flammable textiles; it’s hard to believe we can get through each day unharmed. We become so fearful of losing our kids that we are trying to insulate them from any risk. We put knee pads and helmets on them pretty much all the time, and it’s not only in a metaphoric way.

I personally know a family where the mum paranoid about viruses and bacteria, spends hours every day sterilising her house. There would be nothing wrong with this, except she takes this behaviour to the next level by making sure personal hygiene of all the family members is at the same level as her plates and floors. She is widely known for joining her twelve-year-old daughter in the toilet post fecal, to clean her anus with the wet wipes. She doesn’t trust the girl to do it properly herself.

Author  Gever Tulley  suggests, “If you’re over 30, you probably walked to school, played on the monkey bars, and learned to high-dive at the public pool. If you’re younger, it’s unlikely you did any of these things. Yet, has the world become that much more dangerous? Statistically no, but our society has created pervasive fears about letting kids be independent—and the consequences for our kids are serious.”

take-a-risk

In her book “Lean In”, Sheryl Sandberg lets us gives us a glimpse of her childhood: “My memory of being a kid is that my mother was available but rarely hovering or directing my activities. My siblings and I did not have organised play dates. We rode our bikes around the neighbourhood without adult supervision. Our parents might have checked on our homework once in a while, but they rarely sat with us while we completed it. Today, a “good mother” is always around and always devoted to the needs of her children. Sociologists call this relatively new phenomenon “intensive mothering.”

Even though the good intentions are there, the over-protecting of kids today has had an adverse effect on them. “Children of risk-adverse parents have lower test scores and are slightly less likely to attend college than offspring of parents with more tolerant attitude towards risk.” says a team led by Sarah Brown of the University of Sheffield in the UK.

There is a huge gap between two technical terms: “protection” and “overprotection”.  Protection is what caring parents do to help kids develop at their own pace, helping them if necessary. It’s a natural instinct to protect your offspring. Overprotecting parents are hindering the normal development of their children. They will be snatching children’s ability to think independently and act individually. In those cases, parent’s initial reaction is to protect the children instead of training them to face the adverse situations.

What are the side effects of never allowing your kids to handle potentially “hazardous” situations all by themselves?

-       Overprotected kids are negative, fearful and come across as scared and hesitant.

-       When faced with a challenging situation, they don’t know how to act and what to do.

-       They rely on their parents for everything from opinion to help with basic things.

-       They expect parents to help them and when parents are not around, or they refuse to  help, kids are hysterical.

-       They are afraid to make even simple decisions.

-       In crisis, they may not be able to take even the life saving decisions.

-       They have low self-esteem and self-confidence, but high level of arrogance. They are cocky, but deep inside their confidence is hollow, because they haven’t achieved anything meaningful and in comparison to their peers they haven’t got that many experiences and memories under their belt. We are not talking about world travel or curing AIDS here. Being a kid, even a trip to an ice skating ring or afternoon bowling is important.

-       They display lack of leadership skills because they don’t know how to handle people around them, they lack personal and people management skills critical to being a good leader.

-       When a child doesn’t play outside and is not allowed to experience a skinned knee or a broken bone, they tend to have phobias as adults.

Another side effect that starts developing in kids with overprotecting parents is an illness called “Peter Pan Syndrome”. You may find that some of your friends may fit this description, but this is more serious than it appears. People who display this syndrome do not want or feel unable to grow up. They have a body of an adult but the mind of a child. They don’t know how to or don’t want to stop being children and start being mothers and fathers. It usually affects dependent people who have been overprotected by their families and haven’t developed the necessary skills to control their life. They see the adult world as a very problematic and glorify adolescence, which is why they want to stay in that state as long as they can. Peter Pan Syndrome can affect both girls and boys. However it’s more pronounced amongst boys.

Peter Pan Syndrom

Sadly nothing will change unless we do something about it. The line between protecting and overprotecting is very thin. Most parents don’t realize they are overprotecting their children. The fact that schools don’t help the matter is a subject for another blog. I recently participated in a parental meeting, which was conducted with my fourteen-year-old stepdaughter present. The teacher was doing his best to focus only on her achievements, but knowing she struggles with English, I wanted to get to the bottom of this so I kept asking, what should we do to improve her writing skills, but he kept bringing the conversation back to the easy subject. If teachers avoid uncomfortable situations, how can we expect our kids to embrace them?

Several years ago, the education system in Great Britain undergone major overhaul and the results of it and the direction taken are clearly visible today. Without sounding cliché and saying: “when I was younger, world was a better place”, we have to see the effects of those changes. Where there were competitive sports during PE lessons, and kids participated in various competitions, we now have sports without winners or losers.

Our kids play football or basketball, but to avoid disappointment, there are no better or worse teams, it sounds great doesn’t it? No, it doesn’t. Does sport even exist without competition? It gives kids nothing to aspire to, nothing to aim for, and no rewards for trying or a need to improve.

The world is now more competitive than ever, and the gap between the non-competitive and “vanilla” upbringing and the rat race that follows is immense. When will they have time to prepare for all that’s ahead of them if not at school?

Some psychologists say it’s good if our kids even have someone to play with. Adults continue to vote to remove playground equipment from parks so kids won’t have accidents; to request schools stop using red ink when grading papers and using the word “no” in classes. It’s all deemed too negative for today’s kids. This situation is the equivalent of what overprotective parents are doing at home and although it’s intended to protect students, we are failing miserably at preparing them for the world that will certainly not be that accommodating and risk-free.

The truth is, we all need to fall once or twice to learn it is normal. No one achieved anything without a few hiccups along the way. As teenagers it’s good if we go through a few breakups, because as painful and “end-of-the-worldly” as they seem then, all those situations and experiences allow us to appreciate the emotional maturity that lasting relationships require.

Taking calculated risks forms our identity and is integral part of growing up. According to a study by University College London, risk-taking behaviour peeks during adolescence.

Teens are pre-programmed to take more risks than any other age group. Testing the boundaries, values, finding their identity are all parts of growing up. Teenage years are the time they must learn and experience the consequences of certain behaviours. As a result of overprotective parents minimizing the risk every step of the way, we now have their kids in their twenties and thirties still living at home, with no careers and stable relationships. Normal risk taking during the adolescent years would have prepared them for all the decisions and risks of moving away from home, starting a career or getting married. Is your partner avoiding the subject of marriage, even though you have been together almost a decade? It may be time to dig deeper into his childhood memories and experiences in decision making. “We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.” we read in The New York Times.

2. STOP RESCUING YOUR KIDS.

This generation of young people has not developed half of the life skills kids did thirty years ago because adults take care of problems for them. We remove the need for them to deal with complex or even mildly unpleasant situations.

Whilst leaving in Poland, I had a pleasure to join one of the country’s top solicitors and his family for dinner. They had one son, ten-year-old Victor. Being an affluent family, they could afford to send their offspring to the best school in the country. During dinner, Victor felt dizzy, and I volunteered to take him out for a short walk outside the restaurant, to get some fresh air. We talked about his school, and he told me a story about his friends keying the car of one of the teachers, after a disagreement in the classroom. I couldn’t believe it. This well spoken young boy, who can write in Latin, knows the difference between all the Ohms Laws and difference between Kant and Freud (it truly is the best school in the country, boys only, with strict entry requirements, I wouldn’t expect anything less).. he is telling me his friend’s destroyed someone’s property in such a manner? But I was even less prepared for the comment that followed: “It’s not an issue, his parents will pay for the damage.”

I remember my own school, also private (but not anywhere near as privileged and upmarket as Victor’s). Every parents meeting used to end with backhanders from parents whose kids struggled, to help their young ones get through to the next grade. The kids knew about this “circle of trust”, but being kids, they abused it and pushed their luck to the limits. Once, during an exam, my friend got caught cheating, she looked up at the teacher who busted her and said: “Really? What are you going to do about it now?” The teacher walked out of the classroom and quit his job. He was fairly young himself and teaching kids with overinflated ego might have proven too much, but the fact my friend knew her parents are going to come to the rescue was unquestionable.

taking-risk

This may sound harsh, but rescuing and over-indulging our kids is one of the most insidious forms of child abuse. It looks like a good idea short term, but it has got destructive long-term effects. Our role as parents is to be the first leaders in kid’s life, but the role of a good leader is to equip our subordinates in knowledge and skills to do succeed without our constant supervision and help.

Remember the times, when children used to come home with bruises, because they were solving the conflicts themselves? You might have been upset, or proud, depending on the outcome. You might have felt like you want to ask: “Who did this to you? I will go and beat him up.” All those emotions were kept inside, because you also knew that solving it himself was better for the kid. They might have taken it outside and sort whatever bothered them between themselves. Today, if the kids are outside at all, there are likely three mothers present doing the conflict resolution on their behalf.

The truth is, as kids experience adults doing so much for them, they love it at first. Who wouldn’t? Lets not forget: this kids are not stupid, they are perfectly capable to negotiate, I would even go as far as saying they “train” their parents, to allow them for more time watching TV, playing with the dog instead of brushing their teeth and so on.  As they grow, their respect for “soft parents” may disappear, and whenever they don’t get what they want, they throw a horrendous tantrum. Parents, trying to avoid a scene in a supermarket or on the street, agree to any demands and the vicious circle is in full spin. Sooner or later, they know someone will rescue them, or they will “act out.” Once again, this isn’t even remotely close to how the world works. It actually disables our kids.

3. OK, HOW DO WE FIX THIS?

Just to make it clear, I am not advocating leaving your kids to themselves when there is a real need for our participation, help and support, especially in situations like legitimate threats and bullying. I have touched on this in my previous post.

They need to know you are there for them WHEN they need your help though, not BEFORE. They’ll need to try things on their own. Healthy teens are going to want to spread their wings, and as adults, we must let them. Here are a few helpful tips to navigate through these waters. Simple, but sometimes simple is the hardest thing.

-       Help them take calculated risks. Watch their steps without unnecessary interference, let them do it themselves. What is one day they haven’t got you around? You need to prepare your child for how the world really works.

-       Let them lose. They must be prepared to both win and lose, instead of always getting what they want.

-       Share your own experiences with “risk” from when you were their age. Make them relevant and if necessary interpret them. Remember, as they get older, you have less influence by the day, so make sure that at least you are the best influence.

-       Don’t throw gifts at them to make up for the lack of quality time together. Your kids are younger than you, it doesn’t mean they are stupid.

-       Remember, they some of your decisions won’t make you popular with your kids. No one said it’s going to be easy, but in a long term by gaining the respect it will start being worth it.

-       Don’t reward basics that life require.

-       Affirm smart risk-taking and hard work wisely. Help your kids see the advantage of stepping out of their comfort zone.

-       Lead by example. It’s hard to ask kids to do something you wouldn’t be seen doing.

Bottom line? Your kids don’t have to love you all day every day. They will quickly get over the disappointment of failure but they will never get rid of the bad habits of being spoiled. Let them fail on their own, pick up the pieces and learn. Your main role as a parent is to prepare them for the world out there, create strong individuals that can stand up for themselves.