Make Your Kids Do the Hard Things

(AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
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When my son was 16 years old, he told me he wanted to be a filmmaker. No surprise. We live in southern California, America’s seat of entertainment. Most kids around these parts desire to break into entertainment in one way or another. Rather than discourage him from pursuing a career that will provide mostly heartbreak and struggling bank accounts, I decided to get him some work on an independent film set. I called some friends in the business and told them my son and I were willing to work on a production crew for just the cost of gas if they needed anyone. I just wanted him to see all the different jobs that are involved in making a film, so he had a better idea of what he might want to do, specifically.

We got a gig with a grateful indie director who needed crew desperately. The project filmed for three days on a remote cattle ranch out in the foothills just north of Los Angeles. It was a two-hour drive each way for us. For three days we did a lot of grunt work, and my son got to be the production assistant who everyone bossed around. He assembled things, washed things, ran to fetch things…whatever they needed. He loved it.

During the shoot, massive wildfires began closing in on the Los Angeles area. It was an unprecedented fire season, and we watched anxiously each day as the fire line crept closer over the foothills in front of us. The ranch owner briefed us on what to do if we had to evacuate. We were far enough to keep filming, but close enough to be bothered by the smoke and the ash. On the final day of filming, the fires hit Los Angeles, burning alongside the infamous 405 freeway, our path home. Our safety wasn’t threatened by the time we got on the road, but the smoke was thick, the traffic was gridlocked, and the sun was setting.

As we reached the car, I handed my 16-year-old son the keys and said, “You’re driving home.” He was shocked. He had only had his license for a few months and was just learning to navigate California’s massive freeways. The traffic and smoke added a whole new layer of freeway funk. He didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to make him do it, but I knew he was a responsible driver and had the skills to make the trip. I also knew it was a risk. I knew I would be nervous. I knew he would be scared. I knew it would be an even longer trip as I instructed him to just take it slow, stay in the slow lane if that made him feel better, and take it one mile at a time. I’d be right there beside him to help.

He was still not happy. He asked why I was making him do this. I said, “Because if you can drive the 405 through Los Angeles, in the middle of heavy traffic and smoky air, you can drive anywhere.”

We made it home that night, and my son did quite well. I was proud of him. He shook all the way through Los Angeles, through the smoky haze and the brutal gridlock…but he did it. He lives in Chicago now, and he can drive pretty much anywhere with confidence if he has to.

Why am I telling this story?

Because recently I read a report that revealed fewer teenagers are getting their driver’s licenses than ever before. In 1997, 43 percent of American 16-year-olds had a driver’s license. By 2020 that number dropped to just 25 percent. I saw the drop reflected in my son’s friends, and now in the friend group of his younger sister. My children are the rarity among their peers – eager to drive and gain independence. My daughter is just 15 years old, but she’s already begun preparing so she can try for her license on day one.

It used to be like that. We used to dream of the independence that came with being able to get in a car and drive somewhere on our own. Now kids are dreading it.

What happened?

The answer is probably much more complicated than I can break down here. Surely, one problem is that society is infantilizing children far into adulthood. The left may have scoffed at conservatives when we expressed concern about Obamacare allowing parents to keep their children on health insurance as dependents until they’re 26, but it did end up contributing to a delayed adulthood. Many of my parenting peers – conservatives and liberals alike – have begun using that age as a “launch date.”

“Billy can be on our insurance until 26, so our plan is to keep supporting him until then, and that’s when he’ll have to learn to take over all his own bills.”

Or some version of that. It’s common, now. Just that one small change has encouraged parents to delay making independents out of their dependents.

There’s more, but the thing that really sticks out to me, and the reason I shared my son’s driving story, is this: Too many parents have stopped making their kids do hard things.

The pandemic response has certainly triggered some unnatural anxieties in our children. There is no doubt, but this level of anxiety among teens has been a long time in the making. It is the result of the “participation trophy” era – where everyone gets a reward just for trying. Trying is great, but life does not always reward trying. Sometimes you try something and you fail miserably, and it hurts. We, as a nation, are raising kids to stop at the “trying” part. We aren’t teaching them about risk; or what to do when risk results in failure; or how to turn failure into a lesson for success. We are not teaching our children how to push past fear and anxiety. Instead, everything around them is being set up to grant them maximum comfort. The message being sent is that unless you are completely comfortable doing something, don’t even bother.

How do you prepare a child for the risk and danger and trauma of a very real world, one which will not have you in it one day? You do it by making your child do hard things; by daring them to get uncomfortable. When you deny your child difficult experiences, you are denying their success, and ultimately their self-confidence and peace of mind. How does your teenager know she can survive challenging times if you never let her tackle a challenge on her own? What will happen to her when you die? Can she manage real life without someone fixing everything for her all the time? Can she drive through the smoke and make it home without mom’s hand on the wheel?

I didn’t want to let my son drive that day. I was scared for him, and myself. I was scared for my car. I was annoyed that it would probably add an hour on to a long commute after an exhausting workday. Most of all, I hated the idea of him being frightened and uncomfortable. My heart said to just do it myself.

But my brain told me that I would not be there to hold my son’s hand through every challenge in his life; that, God willing, I will pass from this earth long before he does; that he will need to know he is capable of doing hard things, and he can parlay that knowledge into success one day.

Our children are anxious because they live untested. Our entertainment doesn’t allow them to hear benign conversations that might just happen to mention things like domestic violence or other uncomfortable issues without slapping a trigger warning on it first. Our universities don’t allow them to hear competing ideas and debate those ideas robustly. Our social media doesn’t allow them to see and hear distasteful opinions.

We hover over our children. Those of us who used to be out until the street lights came on now monitor every move for our children. They are rarely without supervision in some form or another. The least we can do is manufacture enough hardship to create the independence that just came naturally in the days before the internet was in every pocket.

My son did not enjoy our drive through Los Angeles. He was not grateful to me when we got home. He didn’t change his mind about the experience, and he didn’t appreciate that I made him go through it. I never got a “thank you” and that’s okay. If we want our kids to withstand challenges, we have to be willing to withstand their wrath.

But at 21, my son is also sane and independent. We are a close family, but we are not codependent. My son is in college now. Yes, he is studying film, but he is also working towards a life where he can pursue film and still support himself. He works. He can successfully navigate big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago without fear, a skill that will be very necessary as he works in the entertainment field. He loves new experiences. He knows what it is to be afraid, and he knows what it is to push past fear and find something remarkable on the other side.

Too many parents aren’t letting their children push through fear and discomfort and it is creating a generation of anxious children.

Suck up your own discomfort and fear. Make your children do the hard things.

The world, and this country, need that from them.



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