The A-level results came out last week and, naturally, many young people were feeling anxious. But maybe it’s not the high-stakes tests, or the students themselves, that are to blame. Maybe it’s not even the parents, though we love blaming them for most things.
Maybe the real problem is that society has all but eradicated childhood independence, leaving young people no way to build the confidence that comes from handling some problems and pressures on their own.
This is a new development. Think back to your own childhood: chances are there was a time when something you did went spectacularly wrong, and even though you were scared and young, you had no choice but to deal with it.
At my talks, I often ask the audience to tell me stories like that. At a recent education conference, one woman remembered how she and her friends were taking turns riding their bikes down a hill that ran straight into the street. This hill was covered with pine needles, so her bike practically flew down, and just as she was about to career into traffic she jammed on her brakes to stop — and the handlebars came off. She had a nanosecond to fling herself into the bushes — and did, emerging grazed and bleeding. Another audience member recalled when he and his friend got so lost on a group trek that they had to hitchhike back — the one thing they had been warned never, ever to do.
The school day ends, but adult supervision does not, as they are shuffled off to extra-curricular activities, sports leagues or tutoring.
The one thing these folks had in common (aside from all becoming school administrators) is this: they never told their parents, because they didn’t want to lose their freedom. Somehow they understood that without the chance to have adventures, screw up and fix things themselves, not only would they have a lot less fun, they would also be losing out on something important: developing the “muscle memory” of dealing with disappointment and disaster.
That is the very opportunity many of today’s children are denied. The school day ends, but adult supervision does not, as they are shuffled off to extra-curricular activities, sports leagues or tutoring. Even kids whose families cannot afford extra classes often attend after-school programmes where an adult presides over homework help and whatever activity comes next. Afternoons, weekends and whole summers that might have been spent playing are spent with adults calling the shots and solving the problems. And even if the parents aren’t around, they are monitoring the kids electronically. Why does this matter? Consider this analogy. Some things are fragile, like a glass. Drop it on the floor, it breaks. Then there are things that are resilient, like a plastic cup. Drop it on the floor, nothing bad happens — but nothing good happens either.
But then there are the things that are anti-fragile, things that actually need a bit of stress to toughen up. These include the immune system, which grows stronger by fighting off some germs. And bones, which grow stronger with some resistance exercises. And children.
This is not to say that children benefit from facing trauma or abuse — not at all. But the developing brain expects to be called upon to deal with some frustration, fear, betrayal and disappointment. Later on in life, when perhaps you are confronting some big test results, it helps if you can remember that you are the girl who jumped off her bike at the last minute and emerged scared, scraped, bloodied — and ready to do it again. That is a gift we have to give back to our children. It’s called independence.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, an organisation dedicated to restoring childhood independence.