How do we create self-confident children? It’s one of the major parts of the job for modern parents, and – I often think – the most difficult. It’s always been the case that parents must use their own, outdated life experience to equip their children for a world that will have evolved into something completely different by the time they inherit it, but the current pace of technological and social change makes it feel like, these days, that’s very much how it is. Like most other parents, I worry about this. I want to equip my kids for the slings and arrows of adolescence and what lies beyond it, but how to do that when it’s difficult to know what they’ll be up against?
When I was a teenager, my biggest problems were not having a boyfriend, a persistent cowlick and lack of access to the music of Ride. A pair of GHDs and a Spotify account – considered the very basics of a basic bitch by teens of my acquaintance now – would have done away with two of my major concerns at a stroke and, frankly, I could have lived without the boyfriend if I’d had great hair and Twisterella. I marvel at the way the young people I know handle the challenges they face now, and feel pretty glum that their lives seem much more complicated than mine was. I see a lot of articles about the trickiness of growing up on social media (understandable), but relatively few about the fact that today’s teenagers are poised to inherit a world facing environmental and political problems that the adults in charge broadly seem to view as unsolvable (could do with some tips on explaining this). The current generation of British teens are also contemplating the prospect of vast student debts, stagnating social mobility and – depending where they live – kissing goodbye to the traditional markers of adulthood that my generation grew up accepting as our eventual destiny: homeownership and a job title that becomes your permanent pronoun. All this on top of the usual body and relationship issues.
When I was a teenager, my biggest problems were not having a boyfriend, a persistent cowlick and lack of access to the music of Ride
Back in the 90s, instilling self-confidence in children was thought to be achieved by affirmation and praise. The idea was that, if you praised kids enough, the positivity would rub off and manifest as unshakeable self-belief. Twenty years on, the latest thinking is that (while it’s obviously a good idea to give your kids unlimited love and support, plus plenty of positive feedback), blanket praise doesn’t really cut the mustard, as it does little to help kids develop the resilience needed to handle it when things go wrong, or to cope when they fail. Competence and resilience are the current parenting watchwords (a bit ironic, given the aforementioned geopolitical landscape; perhaps the leaders of the future will do better). We’re supposed to concentrate on helping our kids experience competence – mastering skills over time – and allowing them to encounter small failures so that they can see they aren’t something to fear, before helping them pick themselves up and try again. Resilience.
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Honestly, I don’t always find it easy to do this. Offering encouragement, rather than help, doesn’t feel particularly great sometimes, and it’s hard to override the urge to solve problems on my kids’ behalves. Last week, our family spent some time in the Lake District, having exactly the same kind of holiday as I did when I was small. The kids climbed trees and mountains* (*hills), explored streams, observed beasts (red squirrels, grasshoppers, nesting swans), tackled several woodland adventure playground courses, fell into a lake and had to get home barefoot… I realised that, although I worry about what their teenage years will bring, the resources they need to cope probably change less than the cultural ephemera that characterises our teen years. Adaptability and resourcefulness are highly transferable skills. Spending time in the natural environment with those closest to us is – as far as being human goes – the original gig. Being active and remembering what your body’s for, as opposed to how it looks – these are things that will always do us good.
It also struck me that, while it’s normal for parents to try to help our kids become self-confident, it’s less usual to practise what we preach. Watching my sons’ achievements made me wonder: when was the last time I did something comparable? It’s easy, as an adult, to identify the quick route and choose to take it, to minimise risks, do our best to avoid failure and decide that problems which seem too difficult to tackle aren’t worth bothering with. But that doesn't help us progress. Competence and resilience are useful goals to pursue, whatever our age. I don’t have teenagers yet, but I’m doing my best to help the ones I will have one day. Starting with their parents.