Should childhood be an adversity-free zone?
To many parents, the obvious answer is yes. Protecting kids is a natural parental instinct, and over the last 50 years, we've made notable strides in rousting out pedophiles, treating adolescent drug abuse and mental health problems and making kids far safer in cars and other places where they can get hurt.
Now, the focus has shifted to bullying. President Obama, who hosted a White House conference on the issue last year, said in a recent special on the Cartoon Network, "Bullying is not a rite of passage or a harmless part of growing up. It's wrong." The new documentary "Bully" is earning praise for calling out bullying as pathological abuse of vulnerable kids. Many children these days are better versed on the evils of bullying than their parents, thanks to diligent awareness programs at many schools.
If this all means that fewer unsuspecting kids will suffer the careless cruelty meted out by the feral humans known as teenagers, that will be terrific news. But in our zeal to protect, we need to leave room for a vital part of growing up: Kids need to suffer. At least a little. That's how innocent and vulnerable children evolve into durable, resilient adults. Kids who don't sample adversity, meanwhile, tend to be more fragile when they grow up, and less able to adapt when something goes wrong.
My own kids, who are 13 and 15, are growing up with so many protections that I've virtually stopped worrying about cultural pressures or social hardships harming them. I'm being facetious by suggesting I'd tolerate bullying. I wouldn't. But if anything, I worry that they're buffered by so many social air bags that they may not develop the grit they'll need to cope with tough challenges as adults, like kids who never develop antibodies because they're never exposed to germs.
My kids, admittedly, are lucky. They go to good schools where the administrators prioritize structure and security, so students can focus on learning, not on surviving. "Bully," the film, makes it clear this is not a universal priority among educators. Still, protecting kids from every adversity may be as much of a problem as the scourge of bullying. There's abundant research showing that age-appropriate hardship helps children learn how to confront challenges and develop the skills that will help them cope with the normal vicissitudes of life as adults.
It can start with something as innocent as sleepovers that cause separation anxiety because the child fears being away from the place that normally provides a sense of bedrock security. But when morning comes and everything's okay, the child begins to learn that fears can be overcome. As kids get older, they venture farther away from home, sometimes getting hurt on the playground, cut from teams, embarrassed in front of their friends and yes, challenged by bullies. The setbacks temporarily bring them down, but every challenge they overcome adds an inch or two to their emotional stature. "When a child copes with some manageable level of adversity and ends up feeling a bit more competent and stronger, he or she is becoming more resilient," researchers Rhoda Baruh and Suzanne Stutman write in the compendium Resilience for Today. "The child is learning to think of himself or herself as someone who can handle a challenge."
This plays out every day in a tough economy where success is far from assured, even for talented strivers. While researching my book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, I came to realize that there are so many successful people who had to surmount some kind of hardship first that it's practically a cliché to say that adversity breeds character. Steve Jobs. J.K. Rowling. Howard Schultz of Starbucks. Barack Obama. Fred Smith of FedEx. All faced significant setbacks before they became the successful people we think of today. They learned resilience somewhere, and as with most other things, the most effective way to learn it is by starting young.
Yet many parents try to build their kids' durability and self-esteem by preventing discomfort and simply praising them, instead of letting kids build and discover their own talents through rough-and-tumble interactions with their peers. Thanks to overprotective parents (helped along by opportunistic lawyers), we now have injury-proof playgrounds where the jungle gyms have been cut down to a size at which nobody can get injured, or for that matter, scared climbing to the top. There are GPS devices kids can wear so parents can track their whereabouts all the time. We have sports games with no scores, and therefore no losers (or winners). Kids earn trophies and awards just for participating in sports leagues or school events, as if showing up is an accomplishment.
Encouragement is great, but overprotected kids often arrive at adulthood unequipped for the challenges that nobody can protect them from: a bad boss, a difficult relationship, accidents or illnesses. "We now have a workforce full of people who need constant reassurance and can't take criticism," writes the noted psychologist Carol Dweck in Mindset. "There is a strong mindset in our society about how to boost children's self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child's disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run."
Bullying isn't nature's way of making kids resilient, because the strong prey on the weak and destroy their sense of security. Preventing that from happening is what sensible rules are for. But an effective crusade against bullying should also leave room for kids to experience a measured degree of conflict, search for their own solutions, and appeal to elders only when they can't resolve problems themselves. That's what they'll have to do as adults, after all. Without parents there to help.