Suddenly, my son is a boy. A full-on, superhero-lovin’, covered-in-mud-and-poison-ivy kind of boy. It was a-blink-and-you-missed-it transformation from babyhood, and one for which I really wasn’t prepared. Honestly, sometimes kids need warning systems: a blaring red light with an annoying recording, barking Attention! This kid is growing up. Attention!
In an effort to get ahead of the curve, I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Anthony Rao, a child psychologist and author of “The Way of Boys,” that addressed ways to raise resilient boys. Sponsored by the parents group in my town, the talk drew a full auditorium of people who, I imagine, were a lot like me: seeking tools to make sure we’re prepared for what comes next in the lives of our small people.
Dr. Rao began by sharing a number of statistics, including:
- Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Deficiency (ADHD) diagnoses in the US quadrupled between 1987 and 1997.
- These diagnoses are three times more frequent in boys than girls.
- ADHD is the most common pediatric problem in the United States.
Dr. Rao highlighted these statistics not to worry parents (though he successfully did that for me), but rather to explain the changing environment in which our children are growing up.
Our kids are spending more and more time in front of computer screens and less and less time in the outdoors, he explained. This change, he believes, is a factor for why we are seeing an increase in ADHD diagnoses and other issues that call for medication and some sort of intervention. Dr. Rao’s approach, in these and related cases, is to try behavior modification—everything from letting the child stand instead of sit at his or her desk (which research has shown to increase productivity) to decreasing technology use—in an effort to create an environment where the child can be successful.
Since the 1970s, Dr. Rao said, children have lost 25 percent of their playtime, and there’s been a 50 percent drop in outdoor unstructured time. When I was growing up, I remember my brother disappearing into the woods for hours upon end, exploring, playing, and running. Today, though, if my kids want to play in the woods behind our house, I only feel comfortable allowing them to do so, if my husband or I are in the yard with them. Paranoid? Maybe. But in world where stories about kidnappings and violence lead the news every night, caution prevails.
How do we, as parents, respond to this changing world and the struggles our kids may face as a result? How do we build resiliency in our children? Dr. Rao shared several tips for parents to implement, including:
1. Parents should expose their children to a wide range of activities and hobbies in order to find the right fit with their instincts and talents–and remember that each child in the family may like something different.
2. Parents should, in appropriate circumstances, let children fail, as “failure is a catalyst to learning,” he said. (In other words: don’t overprotect.) Additionally, parents should tell children about their own experiences with failure so children know they are not alone in their struggles.
3. Parents should give children responsibility, even when they are small.
4. Parents should reward effort, not only achievement, so children don’t give up just because they might not always get the gold star.
5. Parents should be mindful of how many “You’re great” messages they give out. By seven or eight years of age, Dr. Rao explained, kids are more aware of the meaning of positive reinforcement, and if parents over use certain messages, especially at times when the kids really aren’t trying or aren’t doing well, the kids will see through the pats on back and question the validity of the feedback (“If she says great job when I’m not really trying, maybe she doesn’t think I can do it after all.”)
And my addition: we need to advocate for our kids. Speak up when something isn’t working for them, establish open lines of communication with teachers and school officials, and be there when they need us–and even the times we think they don’t.
I took away some helpful tips from Dr. Rao’s lecture, and especially agree with him about the need for boys—and girls—to spend time outdoors. Despite the poison ivy my son invariably picks up (and gives to me), my son (and my daughter) are happier and sleep better after time spent in the outdoors. Providing opportunities for kids to be kids–to laugh, run, be silly, play, and imagine–is an important way for them to balance the stresses of a tech-focused society and, hopefully, will help them to be strongly–both physically and mentally.
You can learn more about Dr. Rao here.