Parents should be like gardeners, not project managers

ARTICLE: Former Stanford dean shares the 8 skills everyone should have by age 18

As part of a ongoing conversation with a friend of mine regarding parenting, I made a lengthy comment in response to the this article. I thought it was worth sharing because this larger topic is my life’s work, both professionally as a therapist and advocate for social-emotional learning (SEL) and personally as a father of two kids. This response is also relevant to all conversations around overparenting, helicopter parents, Millennials, snowflakes, tough love, discipline, emotions, what’s wrong with kids these days, what’s wrong with parents these days, etc. Here’s my original comment:

Now you’ve done it, this convo is my flow. Also happens to be my job. I agree with the premise of the article, but would caution in the implied alternative to “overparenting” which too often uses faulty pseudologic that says something like “if this is bad, then the opposite must be good.”

Related to our previous conversation this makes people think that the right strategy for “soft” and “dependent” young adults is to therefore be “hard” and “let them figure it out on their own.” The reactive parts of our brain tends to think in this kind of “either or” false dichotomies. Integrated whole brain critical thinking allows for nuance, complexity, accuracy and instead says “despite the bad outcome, what part of this is working? We should continue to do that. What part lead to our failure? We should scrutinize that part, make adjustments and try again.”

What is improved is that there is a greater societal understanding of the value of all emotion, social skills, self-motivation, and critical thinking. People are also very into their kids. We should not go backwards in regards to this.

The failure is that in being sensitive to feelings, parents have been too inclined to emphasize the positive emotions and have not coached our children on how to use their unpleasant emotions as they are intended – to course correct back towards healthiness. This is an understandable shortcoming in the part of many parents because most people don’t know how to effectively use their own unpleasant emotions as they were intended. But it is in the unpleasant feelings where competency, autonomy, emotional regulation, self-awareness, and motivation are born, while paradoxically boosting genuine self-esteem by working through “bad” feelings.

Daniel Goleman, Brene Brown, Kristin Neff, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, Daniel Siegel, Carol Dweck – different researchers from different disciplines of Science in the modern era who actually study real people – all arriving at the same conclusions regarding optimal personal development, while clearly defining the contributing role of parents and caregivers from infancy through adulthood.

We should step back when our kids demonstrate autonomy and competency so as to not confuse them or undermine their self-confidence. When they are developmentally unable to do things we should absolutely do all of it for them and reassure them that there are no expectations for them to do things in which they are not capable. At the edge of their emerging abilities, we should be most active and engaged, collaborating with them to facilitate their imminent growth. This is the still relevant model from developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky from almost 100 years ago – the Zone of Proximal Development.

This idea is probably best summarized by parenting and education expert Alison Gopnik, who encourages us to approach our kids as gardeners – to meet the specific needs of our different children at the time in which they need them, and to adapt our strategies over time as they grow. We should try to avoid parenting as carpenters, following generic blueprints while trying to project manage our kids lives. Hopefully sooner rather than later all parents, educators, coaches can integrate these validated practices.

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