Letting kids worry for themselves

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First aired on Radio Active (28/02/13)

There's a lot of debate right now about parenting in the modern age, and whether children are being increasingly coddled and managed, to the point where it's leaving them unable to cope with the stresses of life when they become adults. While psychologist Alex Russell is eager to praise modern parents for all things they're doing right, including being much more in tune with their children than parents of previous generations, he does have some advice for moms and dads: stop worrying so much.

"We're too worried about our kids," he told Radio Active recently. "They're the safest kids in history in North America -- literally. They're the safest and we're the most anxious group of parents in history."

Russell, author of Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement, used the example of parents driving their kids to school every day as an example of this anxiety. He argues that many parents do this out of a fear that their children could get abducted going to or from school. It's a possibility, he says, but an incredibly remote one. Statistically speaking, a parent would have to leave their child on the streets for 650 years before they would get kidnapped, Russell said.

"But because we're so anxious about it, we drive our kids to and from school. [But] what's the actual leading cause of death in childhood? Car accidents during drop off and pick up time. Worried about our kids, we kill them more often."

It's challenging for parents to find a good balance between merely supporting their kids and micro-managing them. Society, he said, both criticizes moms and dads for being helicopter parents, but also looks down on parents whose children are seen as underachieving. Russell argues that the current education system doesn't help, particularly with its emphasis on testing.

"Too many kids have the implicit idea that education is about getting marks. It's about learning, of course."

drop-worry-ball-cover-120.jpgThe way education has progressed, it's hard for kids and parents alike to not be concerned about receiving poor grades when there's such a reward system for higher ones. But Russell says children need to learn that failure is not the worst thing in the world, and that parents shouldn't try to shield their kids from it so much. He encourages them to help them with their homework at an early age and be engaged in their learning, but to slowly give them more independence as they get older. By the age of 10 or 11, kids can be their own "homework bosses," as they should understand their results are directly related to the work they personally put into it.

"Sometimes they're going to do less studying than they should and they'll get a fail or get a poor mark. And when they come home with the poor mark and are upset about it, what you need to say is, 'Oh, that's a drag. Can I make you your favourite meal?'" Make [him or her] feel better, just like you did when [they] wiped out in the park."

The ultimate goal, Russell said, is for kids to develop the skills needed to cope with their own realities. That won't happen if parents do their children's worrying for them. So stop worrying for them, let them worry for themselves, he argues.

"Try to remember this fact: your child is not missing that part of his brain that allows him to be anxious on his own behalf."


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