Dr. Wall Says

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Modern Parenting and the 4 most dangerous words…

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions!”
I have serious concerns to bring up with you about the effect of modern parenting on the future of our society. Armed with the best intentions, and the most noble of aspirations, modern parents are chipping away at the future dreams and goals of their children.
Two things came across my computer screen last week that have prompted this post: One was a video post by The Atlantic (yes, I love them!) and the other was a news feed regarding a couple in Maryland.
Both items addressed my biggest pet peeve with modern society: the implicit assumption that children are not capable. Why should you care if you are not a parent? Because you risk living in a world where the adults of tomorrow are unreliable, and incapable of handling challenges and stress effectively. Let me explain…

A much too dangerous world…

The Maryland couple I referred to earlier are Danielle and Alexander Meitiv who are currently being investigate because a “good samaritan” alerted the authorities that their children were seen walking to school alone!!!! I want you to understand how ridiculous and scary this should be to you, these parents are being investigated for neglectful parenting because their children (10 and 6 year olds) were allowed to walk to school together without parental supervision. The Meitivs did not lose track of their children, they did not let them wander off, they assessed them and determined that both children were capable of walking to their neighborhood school. I don’t know what your experience was like growing-up, but at 7 I walked to school alone, by 11 I took a train and walked to school alone, by 15 I took a train and a bus alone to get to school. Many modern parents will talk about the dangers of predators, traffic and a world of potential threats out there. To that I say: 1) by all measurable indices, the world is safer now than it was two decades ago, and 2) how are your children ever going to be able to negotiate all these threats if you hold their hands and shield them from the world until they are in their 20s?
When did we stop believing our children were capable of negotiating the world? When is it that parents started telling their kids that climbing on trees, jumping off structures, playing with small toys, bugs or dirt, or crossing a street was beyond their ability? Parents and society as a whole have become so protective of children that they are handicapping them. The message that these well meaning entities are sending kids is that they are not capable of negotiating the world. That simple things like walking a few blocks alone, playing without supervison, climbing a wall or a tree or creatively using anything else than an age-appropriate toy to play are now perceived as too dangerous for our kids to handle is crazy to me, but even more terrifying is the implication for these children as they grow up.

A generation of wimps:

As we grow up and negotiate the world we internalize certain lessons, values and beliefs. Those lessons then determine how we view ourselves and our world, which in turn influences our actions. What happens to a child who is constantly shielded from the world? What is the impact of never letting our kids take risks and succeed or fail? The answer is that they become fearful, anxious and uncertain of their own capacity to withstand stress, or solve a problem without the help or guidance of someone else. They internalize the message: “I am not capable. I can’t do it!”
As this child grows up, maybe they are confronted with a few more choices, increasing risks, but their parents don’t suddenly change overnight, nor does society, and so even these risks and choices are far more benign than what they are capable of handling. Further compounding the issues is that, having not developed the sense of competency and self-efficacy that comes with trial and failure, with risk and success, these children now adolescents and young adults continue to rely on guidance from their parents and other authority figures to determine what to do and how to problem solve. This, is the future as we are currently creating it; a nation of adults who have internalized the belief that they are not competent to handle the world on their own. A nation of adults who anxiously avoid risk, struggle or challenged unless their hand is held or they get an okay from someone else. You may think this is alarmist, but there are a number of studies  (1, 2, 3, 4…) already showing the association between over-parenting and anxiety, depression and academic performance (we are a few years out from adult studies on this cohort).

The four words to kill a dream:

The four most dangerous words someone can say and believe are “I can’t do it.” I cannot tell you the number of times that simple phrase, internalized as a truth about one’s self, has single handedly destroyed a dream. Why? Self efficacy, which is the belief that we are capable of successfully negotiating a challenge, is a requirement for action; If I believe I can, then I will try. If I try and fail, but still believe I can I might try another way. With most things in life, this will yield a positive outcome resulting in future action and success. Every now then, no matter how hard or often someone tries, they cannot, but as long as their fundamental belief about themselves is that they can (they are capable) a failure will not set them back too much.

[bctt tweet=””‘I can’t do it’ is the biggest threat that over-parenting and limiting our children’s risks can have on their well-being and our society.””]

“I can’t do it,” however, means that anything that is hard is avoided. Face a challenge… “I can’t do it”. Try to overcome something that causes distress… “I can’t do it.” “I can’t do it”, or the belief that one is not competent/capable has been one of the top three barriers to success that I have encountered in my lifetime as a psychologist and coach. “I can’t do it” doesn’t try, doesn’t problem solve, doesn’t take risks. “I can’t do it” feels small, and helpless and anxious. “I can’t do it” might over time get depressed by how limited their world seems. “I can’t do it” is the biggest threat that over-parenting and limiting our children’s risks can have on their well-being and our society.

Yes, you can!

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We practiced some more after this, and lo and behold he could. Also notice his little brother at then end runs to the other post to try it out. I got nasty looks for this one, because it was “dangerous” “not the proper use of the swing structure” “he’s barefoot andt it was chilly” , and who knows what else.

There is hope:

There’s still hope, the other day I went to newest community playground in San Diego and there was a real, functioning and brand new seesaw (these have been deemed much too dangerous for children for years and are hard to find in your average neighborhood park)! There are parents, like the Meitiv, Ben and Jess Greenfield and I, who believe whole heartedly that our children are capable beings, who can learn how to negotiate the world, handle failure and get hurt without being destroyed by the experience (even though it means we get dirty looks when we allow our kids to climb trees without harnesses, or jump off of high structures or walk to school alone). My oldest just turned six, we will be spending the next year working on his street safety, because I expect him to be able to walk the 11 blocks to school on his own by the time he is 7, and when his little brother joins him, I’ll expect both of them to make it there together…call CPS now, I guess.


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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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