Are You Raising Kids in Captivity, then Expecting Them to Survive in the Wild?

By Vanessa Elias

Wild animals in captivity quickly habituate to human care. Living a sheltered life, they don’t learn critical survival skills. They show signs of psychological distress that will sound very familiar to human parents. These animals are depressed, anxious, frustrated. If they are released into the wild, their lack of experience makes them vulnerable. Simply put: they are ill-equipped.

When we launch our kids out into the wilds of life without having had incremental independence in childhood, the learning curve is also steep. Sometimes they come running back to the safety of captivity — their bedroom. We call this “failure to launch.” How is this possible when we have been doing what a “good” parent is supposed to do?

Blame the cultural norms. Our culture has normalized parents doing too much for our children. We were told to protect them from emotional pain and discomfort. But that is robbing them of the experiences that build the skills they need to function in the world. School administrators and teachers of everyone from kindergarteners to high school seniors are seeing the ramifications and are asking parents to make changes at home, starting with not doing their children’s homework. As parents, we have the very best intentions, and work unbelievably hard to create an idyllic childhood for our kids. But raising them in captivity has backfired.

The strategies below can help change things. Not only have I used these practices with my clients as a certified parenting coach and while facilitating NAMI parent support groups, I’ve also used them with my own three daughters. To help prepare your kids to survive (and thrive) outside your home consider:

Don’t Blame or Shame Yourself.

Having raised three children in very different parenting cultures — Utah, Connecticut, London, Switzerland — I see very clearly the impact the local parenting culture and environment has on our behavior and our definition of what it means to be a “good” parent.  Beating yourself up does no one any good. Parents act with love and do the best they can, given their skills, knowledge, and local parenting norms. 

Be Brave.

It’s critical we redefine what it means to be a good parent. For “stepping in,” try “stepping back.” It can be incredibly hard (and downright scary) to do this, but we must be brave — and it will get easier. Remember, the current way is not serving our children. Good parents can and do let their children struggle, fail and be disappointed. 

Go From “Play Deficit” to Play as Priority.

Watch any nature show and you see young mammals playing in a way that mimics the skills they will need in their adult lives. Dr. Peter Gray, one of the founders of Let Grow, highlights this detrimental play deficit in our own species in his TEDx talk. But we have done more than just deprive our children of play time. We have deprived them of all the developmentally rich benefits of play — the minor struggles, disappointments, and adjustments that incrementally build resilience. Play is a refuge for children, an opportunity for them to process the world around them. It is also the best opportunity for our children to find joy.

Increase Kids’ Competence and Confidence with (drumroll please): Chores!

“My friends’ parents don’t make them do other things! Their only priority is school!” These are words I’ve heard time and time again. If our only expectations for our children are academic achievement and other resume-building responsibilities primarily aimed at securing a spot in the most prestigious college possible, the kids miss out on critical learning (and we miss out on much needed help around the house!). Kids need to do chores from a young age, like empty the dishwasher, clean their rooms, prepare their own lunches or snacks, cook a weekly meal, etc., all of which increase their competence and confidence and help them learn to manage multiple demands. If they don’t get to practice in the “safe” supportive environment of our home, it can be an overwhelming amount to navigate when they are on their own.  

Expect — and Encourage — Mistakes.

When we constantly intervene and take over we don’t allow our kids to make mistakes and learn from them. See every mistake and misstep as a learning opportunity. Remember that children rise to the level at which we see them, so see them as humans who will figure it out.

Learn to Sit with the Distress of our Children’s Distress.

Become aware of your own discomfort that lights up when your child is distressed. Notice your urge to jump in and fix your child’s source of pain — and stop. Instead, empathize…and then ask them what their ideas are on how to resolve or deal with it. 

Stop and Reframe.

When my kids are disappointed or struggling, I take a breath and reframe it. This gives me strength. A tiny example: My youngest daughter desperately wanted to carve the beautiful pumpkin she had picked out for her jack-o-lantern, but we ran out of time on Halloween. Instead of torturing myself for what a bad mom I was to let this happen, I realized I was giving my daughter a chance to tolerate disappointment and learn that she would be okay. It completely obliterated my guilt and the “Mom-Fail” label — so definitely a win for both of us. 

In our well-meaning and loving homes, we are raising kids in captivity and are shocked to see them struggle in the “wild.” Accustomed to being told what to do, bring, be, where and when, our children need the opportunity to experience natural consequences and learn what we could call “survival skills.” Let’s help our kids build a resume of challenges that they have faced and learned to handle, rather than a looks-good-on-paper list of academic and athletic achievements. Our children will find strength in knowing that they have done hard things — and knowing we believed in them. It’s never too late to get started — then open the window and watch them fly.

Vanessa Elias, founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC, is a Certified Parent Coach and mental health advocate. She is a facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Child & Adolescent Network (NAMI-CAN) and has led parent support groups since 2015. To connect with Vanessa, please visit her Thrive with a Guide Facebook page and her website.

Photo by Benjamin Wong on Unsplash

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