In an uncertain world, failure may be best lesson for kids, expert says

Parents don’t trust their kids to find their own way, so they plot out every turn for them. But it can end badly.
A new book says  stress now permeates the lives of both kids and parents in America, with anxiety now the lead mental health disorder for adults and children.

Credit: Dreamstime

Credit: Dreamstime

A new book says  stress now permeates the lives of both kids and parents in America, with anxiety now the lead mental health disorder for adults and children.

When parents tell psychologist Madeline Levine they can’t stand to see their children unhappy, she replies, “Then, you’re in the wrong profession.”

Levine became a national voice for saner parenting in 2006 with a landmark book that explored why the teens flooding into her private psychology practice in affluent Marin County, California, were plagued with addictions, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and self-destructive behaviors.

"The Price of Privilege" was among the first books to address why children with so many advantages felt so little joy. Levine followed up with the book "Teach Your Children Well," which took aim at the middle-class parental obsession with their children's GPAs, test scores and college prospects over their morality, character and compassion.

Levine’s books sent her across the country, speaking to parents and cautioning them that, even without the usual distress markers such as failing grades or acting out, their children were not navigating adolescence successfully.

"I felt like I made a good case, along with dozens of other colleagues running around the country preaching the same message. Here it is 15 years later, and not only has it not gotten any better, it has gotten worse," said Levine, in explanation of why she's written a new book, "Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World," due out next month. Levine is also co-founder of Challenge Success, an expansion of the SOS (Stressed-Out Students) Project at Stanford University that develops curriculum, conferences and programs for parents, schools and kids looking for a healthier and more effective path to success.

In a telephone interview from her home in California, Levine said stress now permeates the lives of both kids and parents in America, noting that anxiety is now the lead mental health disorder for adults and children.

Dr. Madeline Levine

icon to expand image

Everyone agrees kids need more sleep and time outdoors and less homework and testing and that childhood should not be an anxiety-driven treadmill. Yet, because of new fears stoked by dramatic economic shifts, we’re doubling down on old paradigms of what success looks like for kids and what it takes to attain it, said Levine.

“Parents are frightened about the bifurcation in wealth, that there are winners and losers today and very little in between. And they want their kids to be winners,” she said.

In "Ready or Not," Levine blames a shifting global economy and the artificial intelligence and automation revolution for panicking parents into future-proofing their children with the AP classes and elite colleges. Those traditional emblems of achievement will not insulate kids from a world that Levine, using the military term VUCA, calls "volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous."

Madeline Levine’s new book goes on sale Feb. 11.

icon to expand image

When the only certainty is change, Levine says failure is a necessary lesson for children. Yet, parents have little faith in their children’s ability to overcome setbacks. “They don’t trust the teachers or the system; they need to place a finger on the scale because they’re afraid whatever is required of their child, he or she won’t measure up. It’s a searing and destructive vote of no confidence.”

As parents prod their offspring into another AP course, they often overlook the development of the critical skills that will matter in the future, collaboration, adaptability, tolerance for failure, risk-taking, optimism, said Levine. And children have become complicit, falling into formation rather than rebelling.

While her young patients used to tell Levine, “It’s my choice, not my parents’,” they now say with resignation, “Whatever, I have no choice.”

When Levine visits a community, she often meets first with teens before speaking to parents, engaging them in a simple exercise: "Write on one side of a card what your parents worry about and, on the other side, what they don't worry about that they should."

The thousands of cards she’s collected over the years echo the same story: Their parents worry about their grades, their test scores, their futures. What their parents should worry about, according to the kids, is their mental health, stress levels and whether they’re happy.

Parents are well-meaning, seeing the stakes for failure as so high that they must micromanage all their children’s choices. In response to this uber parenting, teens fall into responses of younger children, being good and doing things right to please adults. A consequence of overinvolved parents and overdemanding schools is that teens lack internal motivations and look to those who set their life path — their parents, teachers and coaches — to remove any obstacles from it.

And parents comply, picking the olives off a pizza for a 7-year-old and then picking a major for a 17-year-old.

“We underestimate kids horribly,” said Levine. “We think kids are fragile, and they are not.”

Young adults who never learned to set an alarm clock or do their own wash are dismissed as entitled, but Levine says they’re really impaired by well-meaning parents who tried to spare them disappointments and discomfort. When the parents end up with helpless, morose or unmotivated young adults, Levine says they’re angry their kids haven’t grown up and become responsible.

Parents need to stop shielding their children from failure and choreographing successes for them, said Levine. “And parents have to listen a lot more to their kids. No kid has ever come into my office and said, ‘My parents listen too much.’”