Are we raising a generation of delicate children?

But when it comes to kids today, has there been a shift?
But when it comes to kids today, has there been a shift? Photo: Getty Images

Kids today, eh? What's with them?

I know, I know, that line's a bit tired, isn't it?

Every generation brings with it a new idea, or a new movement. Which then leads to all the previous generations weighing in with their two cents. Generation Y were classed as spoiled, Generation X too soft, Baby Boomers too tough. We love labels, that's something our generations can agree on.

But when it comes to kids today, has there been a shift? Have we gone too far in the other direction? Instead of giving tough love, now we give love out by the bucketful. For everything and anything. And we teach kids that everyone's a winner. But, let's be honest. They're not. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we have to watch someone do better than us, succeed where we might need to work a bit harder. And we're not happy with that in today's society.

Internationally renowned researcher Carol Dweck has questioned where we've been headed in recent years:

We often hear these days that we've produced a generation of young people who can't get through the day without an award.They expect success because they're special, not because they've worked hard. Is this true? Have we inadvertently done something to hold back our youth?

When I played sports, there were awards at the end of the year. Best and Fairest, MVP, those kind of things. And it was given to one child who was voted out of the others and that was that. And everyone seemed fine with it. But now, all kids are given pats on the head for breathing, trophies and ribbons handed out to all. And if they don't get it? Well, cue meltdowns and tears. From parents too.

It's a trend I've seen become more apparent in my role. People getting upset and angry if their child isn't praised and acknowledged a certain number of times. Comparing how many times one child gets an award relative to another, and if all children aren't equally awarded, then that's cause to unleash a torrent of abuse.

Dweck believes that we've been mistaken in our belief that praising intelligence and skill encourages confidence, and the idea that motivation and achievement is largely due to inherent abilities. In a study by Eddie Brummelman and colleagues looking at the effects of praise, found that when parents overvalue their children (i.e. tell them how exceptional they are at everything all the time), it didn't actually help build self-esteem, it developed narcissism instead.

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There is nothing wrong with praise and acknowledgement. Nothing at all! But perhaps we need to be reviewing what we're praising and how we're praising. It shouldn't become an expectation, it should be recognition at appropriate times.

While we want to shield our kids from hurt, it is an important lesson for them to learn that sometimes we don't win. The ability to cultivate resilience is one of the most important things we can give to our children. Even more important than award certificates and being told how special they are.

Resilience is the ability to adapt and overcome difficult times in a healthy way. Basically it's how we bounce back from tough stuff. It is through a combination of factors, both from the environment and within an individual that resilience comes about. While it's a work in progress, childhood is where we can really help shape resilience. Some ways we can help our kids build their resilience is by

  • Helping them to understand their feelings, even the negative ones. All feelings are valid, and we don't need to just 'get rid' of the not-so-nice ones.
  • Working with them to develop prosocial problem solving skills
  • Showing warmth and appreciation for effort, as opposed to overvaluing
  • Supporting children to develop a healthy self-view. That is- seeing the parts of themselves that they feel are good, and understanding that nobody is perfect.
  • Reviewing what is in their control, and what is beyond. This helps with accountability and regulation.

And the number one factor in building resilience? According to the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard, having a strong and committed relationship with at least one parent or caregiver is at the core of resilience. All the praise in the world doesn't equal the value that such a relationship can have on a child's development.

Instead of telling our kids how special and wonderful they are, perhaps we need to guide them toward looking at their effort. Telling them that the work they're putting in is fantastic, and having them give something a go, even if it doesn't work out, is the biggest reward in the end. Not being too quick to praise for things that are easily achieved, but instead encouraging our kids to challenge themselves, and praising that effort instead. While it is tough to see your child upset and to miss out on something, maybe the bigger picture is that it's healthy and okay for them to not achieve 100 per cent success all the time. Focusing on the effort rather than the end result. We're not bad people for allowing our children to experience challenges. Because, really, what is the alternative for this latest generation if we don't?