THE BLOG
07/14/2014 05:28 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014

Why Do So Many Youths Today End Up Struggling in Life?

The New York Times Magazine featured an article dealing with the question, "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?"

The answer seems to favor the theory of a Clark University psychologist that our modern world has created a new life stage labeled "emerging adulthood" -- a stage to allow many 20-somethings more time to transform from adolescents into adults.

Having grown up in one generation and then taught in three others, I find this a sad excuse for the real problem: We parents, along with our schools, are providing our youth with the weakest preparation for life that I've ever seen.

Consider three key areas that make it difficult for young people to handle life on their own.

1. Misguided parental "love."

Because of fear of abandonment, children from birth seek the love of their caretakers by imitating them, feeling if they are like their caretakers, the caretakers will love them and always be there for them.

So we caretakers need to return their love by being good imitation role models, helping children prepare to become self-sufficient once they complete adolescence, around age 19. They will deeply love and respect us for this.

But too many parents today unwittingly seek love and happy relationships with their children. While children may respond to this, at a deeper, unconscious level they feel disappointment and even resentment, because the parent is seeking something from them, instead of fully focusing on preparing them for life.

Such parents include those described as "helicopter parents" or "snowplow parents." Their focus is not helping their children realize their best and become self-sufficient.

2. Values.

In a recent Harvard study, 10,000 middle and high school students were asked what was more important to them: achievement, happiness or caring for others. Almost 80% of the students chose achievement and happiness.

Meanwhile, 96% of their parents chose caring for others. 80% of their children disagreed, saying their parents primarily valued their achievement and happiness.

Child psychologists called the study "incredibly important" and a "wake up call to parents, a clear indication that we need to reprioritize our parenting agendas ASAP." Despite parents' stated belief in "caring for others," kids are focused on "achievement and happiness." This could help explain why so many in their 20s are struggling, because science confirms that a lack of empathy (the absence of caring for others) clearly makes kids less successful and less happy.

Those of us in the so called "greatest generation" were raised to "be the best you can be, help others and leave the world a better place." Pursuing that purpose gave us a deep sense of achievement and happiness.

3. Play.

The Torrance Test, accepted worldwide for measuring creativity, shows a steady decline in American creativity over the past 20 years, particularly in kindergarten to grade 3, indicating more of a problem at home than at school.

The contrast in play between childhood three generations ago and today's childhood is stark. When I was a kid, we kids created most of our games. I formed a neighborhood baseball team and got the newspaper to publish a "challenge" ad. Today, adults organize everything; kids just show up.

Today, our schools eliminate recess and play, the prime area when kids can think and act creatively.

I am the founder of a network of schools mostly because I was a dreamer as a kid, gullible and sometimes the butt of the joke. But that childhood world taught me how to think outside the box -- something not taught in school.

I hope you are finding ways to encourage your children to think and act creatively as my mother did for me, while my stepfather relentlessly made sure I was learning the lessons I needed that prepared me for life,like discipline and perseverance.

My mother was easy to love; my stepfather was not. But I respected him in spite of his stern nature and life revealed my deeper love for him.

I think that is the deep, natural bond we have with caretakers who truly prepare us for life.