This time of year reminds me of kayaking toward a waterfall. Things start to move faster as summer approaches. All of the end of the school year activities make us fell like we are paddling away, trying to avoid the impending fall, but knowing that it is inevitable.
But as I navigate these frenetic waters this year, I am struck by how quickly the time has gone by. My oldest is finishing his sophomore year. Two years from now, he will be planning his move away, and I know that, as a mom, my most important job is to make sure that he is ready.
Recently, I joined a group that is working to change the college admissions process in order to better reflect character traits such as persistence, resilience, and leadership. Why are colleges so interested in that? They are experiencing drop-out and mental health issues at high rates because students are entering unprepared to face the inevitable challenges associated with leaving home.
So often, parents focus on how they can keep up their children’s academic work. While it is great to review throughout the summer to avoid “brain drain,” it is even more critical to give them opportunities to develop those “non-academic” skills. Here are a few things to keep in mind this summer:
1. Let them struggle
Self-esteem is not a gift that we can give our kids, it is a neurochemical response we rob them of when we do things for them that they can do themselves.
I give presentations to parents all the time, and this is my favorite line. When we work toward a goal, experience failure and then persist until we succeed, our brains get a nice dose of dopamine and serotonin. Think about them as text messages to our brain that say “Wow, that felt good—we should keep working hard” and “I am really good.” When we don’t let our kids struggle, we rob them of that response.
How many toddlers have we seen telling their parents, “I want to do it myself!” Parents, with the best of intentions, try to shelter their children from struggle. We want to help them; it is in our nature. Unfortunately, in the long run, it can set them up for problems.
This summer, try actively thinking about planning activities that might encourage a little bit of struggle, and then work on controlling your impulse to step in and help.
2. Encourage creative thought
Our highest level thinking skills are developed when we are pushing ourselves to think outside of the box. Often, when kids are over scheduled with adult-led activities and adult-designed toys, they miss out on these opportunities for out-of-the-box, creative thinking.
This summer, try to set out a few challenges for your children that encourage them to push themselves to come up with solutions. The egg-drop challenge is a great example: see if they can create a container to keep an egg from breaking that is dropped from a high window. One of my favorites challenges that we did when my kids were younger was to use popsicle sticks and glue guns to create structures that would not break when I stepped on them holding a large watermelon.
3. Use the Four Ss as a framework to teach resilience
Every challenge offers parents an opportunity to actively teach kids resilience, because no matter what the challenge, our response is guided by our understanding of four Ss: self, situation, supports, and strategies. Each time we use these to help our kids prepare for, handle and reflect on challenges, it helps build more resilient brain pathways.
Throughout the summer, use those Four Ss when you feel the urge to step in and help when your child is struggling. Instead of helping them, give them some guiding questions:
Is your strategy working?
Do you have someone you can ask for help?
What strength do you have that you can draw on?
Can you break this down into smaller parts?
4. Scaffold for independence
You know how when a large building is being constructed, the builders set up scaffolds, which are gradually removed as the building becomes more structurally sound? This is similar to the job of parenting. Our goal should always be focusing on what our children need in order to become independent, and providing just enough support, gradually removing those supports as our children become more independent.
This summer, think about a few skills that you would like your children to do more independently and then think about the supports that you need to provide in order to get them there. For example, many kids are going off to college without the ability to make a phone call (yes, it is true). They communicate through social media and perhaps the occasional text when pressed by their parents, but many of them have not had reason to make a phone call, and they are often scared by the prospect. Try setting up a few calls that you child will need to make, and teach them how to do it. Maybe you can have them call a restaurant to make a reservation or to place a take-out order. At first, you will likely have to script the conversation for them, but gradually, they will become more comfortable and may even be able to improvise.
5. Give them responsibilities
My favorite household rule: with privileges come responsibilities and with responsibilities come privileges. Our kids are growing up in an age in which parents love to micromanage. However, as kids get older and head into adolescence, they need to understand how to make responsible choices. The best way for them to learn that is to begin to take on responsibility early on.
This summer, think about age-appropriate chores and responsibilities that your kids can do and teach them how to do them. For example, perhaps your kids are responsible for doing the dishes, taking out the garbage or planning and cooking a meal. As they get older, have them get a job. It is amazing how many great lessons are learned by working a job at an early age, particularly one that requires interaction with customers!
As you are navigating those rapids leading to summer, keep in mind just how much problem solving you are doing yourself. Life is tough; it is full of challenges. This summer, take those small challenges, and use them as opportunities to help your children to be prepared for the bigger challenges that they will face when they head out on their own. Trust me, it will come quicker than you think!