Everyone seems to be anxious these days and it’s often difficult to understand why this is. The problem is that this is presenting itself in a significant way in education. The number of students who are labelled as ‘suffering from anxiety,’ is increasingly noticeable. Is the world becoming a more dangerous place? Are gangs of kidnappers roaming the streets of our nation, just waiting to find a child out playing on a bike? Or art thou just fatal vision… Drawing parents into a paranoia about child safety and pushing their own failings onto their children?
The problem with anxiety is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Much like the way in which Macbeth was goaded into murdering a stack of people by three witches, due to a bunch a false prophesies, parents are making their children anxious shut-ins for no reason at all. Now this isn’t to say there aren’t bad people in the world, but there’s more chance that a child will be abused by a family member or close friend of the family, rather than marauding gangs of pedos in trench coats and white vans. Yet this is the way in which many parents are now behaving.
“Don’t do this, don’t do that. You can’t go out and play…” Whilst kids need to build some awareness and defences around stranger danger, shutting them inside with a video game for supervision is certainly not a good alternative to going out, riding a bike, running around building forts and playing with real friends. Sure, they’ll get scratches, bumps and bruises, but at the same time, they develop social skills and the resilience to laugh off those scratches, bumps and bruises and go and find more suitable trouble into which to get themselves. This has been a healthy way to develop for hundreds of millions of children over centuries. The bonus in Western countries now is that most children over 10 don’t have to leave school and go and work in factories fifty hours a week.
Unfortunately, there’s an increased tendency for children to be kept shut in at home or within their parents’ line of sight every moment of the day. How frustratingly boring this must be for everyone involved. It’s not only the fact that this is just weird. It’s also the fact that whenever there’s an opportunity for time to be spent away from the family, it can end up in a situation of separation anxiety. There’s really no winning in this situation as we’re back to the self-fulfilling prophecy in that parents are making their children unnecessarily anxious.
I recently read an article about a pilot program in Queensland, Australia that’s encouraging children to go out exploring and hanging out with friends… Unsupervised!!! The ‘pilot’ was a success, but the organisation is asking for more money so they can expand their program. Wait… what does that mean? The government is spending money to try and get parents to do what they should be doing anyway, which will help develop social skills and reduce obesity… What’s the government even doing funding this in the first place? It should be parents driving this to help ensure their children grow up active, healthy and resilient.
The unfortunate reality is however, that parents are not doing this. They’re disempowering their children and making them feel fearful of anything new, anything different and anything without a clear end result! I would like to blame terrible parenting books and rubbish advice from idiots, who don’t know anything about the reality of life. However, you can only blame stupid authors so much and at the end of the day, parents need to take responsibility for the anxiety they cause their own children.
Let’s face it! Getting covered head to toe in mud never really hurt anyone. Cuts, bruises and bumps are just a part of life and failure is not a four letter word! (It’s actually a seven letter word, but you get the point). The desire to try and create a ‘perfect’ world for their children, has in fact resulted in the exact opposite. For many children who are the ‘world’s most amazing child,’ they face so many additional challenges from this rubbish parenting and they struggle with some of the most basic of tasks when faced with a challenge. The fact that they can’t achieve even the most basic of things without the help and supervision of their parents, then suddenly… they become anxious and once you have an anxiety about something, the prophesy inevitably comes true. Not quite Macbeth true with all those murders, but all the same, true. The child becomes disempowered and crippled by the parents’ neediness and reluctance to let them face the realities of an often challenging and harsh world.
So how do we help students deal with anxiety? By enabling them to try and fail with a sense of a way forward. If something doesn’t work, then try something different. For camps, that seems to create massive anxiety for so many students now, tell them to deal with it. Don’t sugar coat an experience or help them escape it. Help them to face the reality that it could be a challenge, but, they’re capable of fulfilling that challenge. The only way to help address anxiety in anyone is to expose them to the thing they’re anxious about. Now I should put in here that some anxieties are quite real and beyond the remit of schools and outdoor ed programs to help solve. However, for all the other imaginary, self-fulfilling ones, reassure students and help them get involved in the activities. At the end of the day, what’s the worst that will happen?
With so many over the top parents who shut their kids in and try to stop them from ‘failing’ in anyway they can, this poses a massive problem for education, yet at the same time a massive opportunity. So long as the school or organisation is clear in what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, then that’s a good start to help save these children from their anxious, paranoid parents. I recently heard that a counsellor is increasingly dealing with the breakdown of parent/child relationships due to this style of over-parenting. This is not something anyone really wants or needs for their lives, so why not prevent it before it happens. It’s good that parents are involved in their children’s lives, but it’s time they also faced the harsh reality that over-involvement can damage and destroy their children’s lives.
There’s no reason why children should be increasingly anxious today. The world is safer, despite what the media may tell you, people are healthier and living longer and a few bumps and scratches running around playing with friends never really hurt anyone. Sadly, it all comes down to poor parenting and the false belief that parents can save their children from the reality of the world. As educators, we need to set a stand, send clear messages about how and why we do things and cut parents off when their involvement is detrimental to the welfare of their children. It may seem harsh, but the alternative of the Scottish Play, is far worse for everyone involved.