By Lenore Skenazy
It’s not your imagination. Kids are getting more anxious, depressed and hypersensitive.
A teacher in Education Week magazine wrote that anxiety “has become the most significant obstacle to learning among my adolescent students.” They’re not only skipping homework assignments, they’re skipping school — weeks and weeks of it.
“School refusal,” as it’s known, is becoming so widespread that a Pennsylvania school district just hired a social worker to work solely on this issue.
And the stats are, ironically enough, anxiety-producing too. Parents Magazine reports that 10 percent of kids are suffering from anxiety. By the time they’re in high school, that number is 25 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
And when they get to college? The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has been asking incoming students if they agree: “[I] feel overwhelmed by all I had to do” since 1985. That first year, 18 percent said yes. By 2016, 41 percent did.
In a giant article about anxiety, the New York Times reported that among teachers, “one word — ‘resiliency’ — kept coming up. More and more students struggle to recover from minor setbacks and aren’t ‘equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively.’ ”
If only there were an easy, fast, free way to make kids less anxious.
I think there is.
The key is that this new deficiency is not innate. Kids aren’t suddenly being born less resilient. Something is making them that way, and that “something” is a lack of practice. You can’t get good at throwing a ball without practice. And you can’t get good at problem-solving and bouncing back if you never get practice at those.
Which kids don’t. Parents have been told that they must watch their kids 24/7 and smooth their path all the way. So it’s no surprise that kids can’t solve problems — we’re always right there, solving them! And when kids lose a soccer game, we’re there with a trophy. And when kids are old enough to walk to school, we walk them anyway (or, worse, drive them).
How can we get brave enough to give our kids back the independence that their mental health depends on?
Have them do the Let Grow Project.
The project, an initiative of the nonprofit I run, works like this: On a certain date, the teachers tell their students that they’re going to do the Let Grow Project. All they have to do is go home and ask their parents if they can do one thing that they feel they’re ready to do that, for one reason or another, they haven’t done yet: Walk the dog. Make dinner. Run an errand.
Because the project is endorsed by the school, and because other families are doing it too, most of the parents say yes. Then they figure out, with their kid, what their particular project will be. And then, sometime over the course of the week, the kid goes and does it, alone or with a friend.
When the kid walks through the door with the half-gallon of milk he got by himself from the deli, the parents are not just proud. They are ecstatic.
Their reaction is almost bizarrely out of proportion with the kids just did. Maybe they spent an hour outside with a friend, or took the bus to karate. Whatever minor thing, it is a major breakthrough.
In fact, it is so major that it might be the key to the resilience kids are lacking. That’s because after parents see for themselves — even once — how competent and safe their kids can be, their fear is replaced by joy. Then they are ready to let their kids do more and more independently. In turn, the kids become more and more capable and confident.
And less anxious.
Manhattan’s East Side Middle School is about to do the project, as is Booker T. Washington Middle School. The Patchogue-Medford School District on Long Island is already doing it in all seven of its elementary schools. The results, says Superintendent Michael Hynes, are extraordinary.
“Parents are actually saying: ‘Wow! I can’t believe that I’ve safety-wrapped my kids so much that they didn’t have they didn’t have the opportunity to do these things,’ ” Hynes said. The parents are so proud, they’re bragging on Facebook — and parents in other school districts are seeing it.
They’re demanding that their kids’ schools start doing the project, too. So it’s happening!
The Let Grow Project is spreading fast because deep down, many of us realize we’ve done something wrong. By trying to help our children all the time, we’ve taken away the normal childhood experience of learning to be part of the world. As a result, the world seems overwhelming — which is pretty much the definition of anxiety.
Letting kids go is the key to letting kids grow.
Skenazy is president of Let Grow and founder of Free-Range Kids. E-mail her at Lenor