By Owen Charters
My kids are overprogrammed. For my wife and me, our life outside work is a mad blur of activities: coordinating, registering, driving, finding new gear when old gear is too small or worn out. The boys rotate between baseball, soccer, skating, skiing, swimming, music, piano, tutoring, and church. And that’s the winter schedule—summer brings a whole different set of activities.
This is on my mind because I recently read The Good News About Bad Behaviour: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever And What To Do About It, by Katherine Reynolds Smith. It was published last year and is the long version of an article published in Mother Jones in 2015. You can—and should—read the entire article online.
The core premise of the book is that child discipline that emphasizes consequences and rewards does not work, and especially does not work with the most difficult kids—the ones that cause the disturbances, that act out, that are “that kid.” That is paired with the fact that more kids than ever have behavioural problems, experience anxiety, and struggle with mental health issues. That’s scary. And it’s not just linked to the usual culprits of increased access to technology and excessive screen time. It turns out it may also be the way we’re raising our kids now—the dangers of ‘helicopter parenting,’ of always being there and catching them when they fall, or not ever letting them fall in the first place.
The revised approach to dealing with behavioural difficulty proposed by Smith is based on another book: The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene. The premise in that book is that kids explode and act out because they don’t have the skills to deal with frustrating situations. They don’t have the tools to manage when things don’t go their way, when someone is rude to them, when they get overwhelmed, etc. And they don’t have the skills because we haven’t taught them—we’ve protected them instead. Thus, their reaction to frustrating situations is to yell, to lash out, to switch into fight or flight mode. Our jobs as parents, as educators, as leaders for children and youth is to give them tools so they can identify, manage, and overcome frustrating situations in a productive and socially-acceptable way. This theory for working with kids that exhibit behavioural problems is not that new—the original version of The Explosive Child came out in 2001—but the theory has gained wider acceptance and practice in the intervening years.
Another premise outlined in The Good News About Bad Behaviour is that our kids are overprogrammed. They are supervised constantly, so they don’t spend time poking around in the woods aimlessly or playing pickup basketball or baseball in an empty lot. When one kid gets into an altercation with another kid in a supervised environment, someone usually intervenes to break it up before it escalates, whereas in unsupervised play kids learn (the hard way) to temper social interactions because ‘getting in someone’s face’ has real, physical, and sometimes painful consequences. While not suggesting kids go back to unsupervised play where fights can break out and danger abounds, we do need to recognize that kids need space to learn some things on their own, without adult intervention.
There are more and more proponents of “risky play” now. The Lawson Foundation promotes and funds risky play. There are playgrounds filled with hammers and rusty saws, and get this—parents are NOT allowed in. Compelling research says kids need to get out in nature more; for instance, my youngest son’s kindergarten class has ‘nature school’ outdoors once a week, no matter the weather. From personal experience, when my kids are acting up a walk in the local ravine usually helps (and the dog enjoys it too).
My wife and I are learning to let go, to let our kids discover and, consequently, fail more on their own. It’s not easy. Our instinct is to be there for them, to cushion the blow. But both Smith and Greene emphasize that our jobs are to be there after the fact, to salve and soothe, and to guide our kids in rethinking their behaviour so they get a different outcome the next time. The goal is that they learn, engage, and feel more control and direction over their lives. Of course, as parents, that means we will have less control, but so be it.
This rings true in my work as well. Boys and Girls Clubs are definitely supervised places. But unlike a school classroom, or a structured activity like sports or martial arts, our Clubs offer more chances for kids to interact and encounter situations where they need to cope with peers, with frustrations, with compromise. And importantly, Club staff offer guidance that helps kids make their own choices and discover their own capacity to manage emotions. The best supervision is more like guardrails than direction or instruction.
We hear all the time that kids need structure. And they do … but just not too much. They need space to explore, develop, discover, fail, try, succeed—and they need to do it on their terms, not ours.