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Hovering parents rob children of healthy growth

Our corner in the Old Northeast neighborhood of St. Petersburg is the site of a middle school bus stop this year. My husband and I take turns watching what happens when you put 20 unchaperoned adolescents together for even a brief time.

I had one foot out the door the morning I overheard a few of them daring each other to see who could run back and forth across busy First Street fast enough to survive the oncoming cars. Fortunately, the bus showed up in time to prevent any real damage.

A certain amount of adolescent mayhem is normal and natural for this age group. Most adults can remember creating some form of chaos when they were adolescents. But it does seem to me that there was more tolerance in the past among adults for letting kids be kids.

That is only a small part of what is really going on, according to researchers. The bigger picture includes some important information for parents and teachers about healthy adolescent development and stress, and how the two are closely linked.

According to Dr. Lynn Ponton, author of The Romance of Risk, "Healthy risk taking is a positive tool in an adolescent's life for discovering, developing and consolidating his/her identity."

Healthy risk taking — by which I mean the kind of behavior that rattles parental nerves, not actions that are potentially fatal or felonious — demonstrates that your child is developing appropriately and achieving maturation milestones.

If a child is so timid that he never takes any risks at all, this could indicate the presence of a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety or some other developmental complication.

The real question is how can youth today take appropriate risks when the adults hovering around them are so committed to keeping them stress-free?

In the past 10 to 15 years, we have created a parenting culture that has removed many age-appropriate opportunities for failure from their young lives. Parents today fight with teachers for their students' A's and B's and arrange structured playdates so they can know where little Michael or Megan is 24/7, and exactly who they're with and what they're doing.

We have created a culture that guarantees immediate gratification. Too many parents storm school science fairs when their precious prodigies don't win first prize. Their lives have been orchestrated in such a way as to remove any chance for age-appropriate stress or an appropriate sense of failure.

The result, research shows us, is that when there is a true crisis, overprotected children cannot cope as well as those exposed to appropriate levels of stress.

When a parent allows a child to deal with her own failure, facing the natural consequences that come with making mistakes, the child builds an internal system that will equip her in the future to handle life's challenges.

Their physiological stress-coping mechanisms are literally built onto this framework of earlier mishaps and disappointments. No parent would consciously rob a child of such a vital survival mechanism. Yet that is what happens when we hover, fix or remove the red pen from the teacher's desk so our child cannot experience the disappointment that comes from a bad grade.

Perhaps the kids I observed at the bus stop feel compelled to run back and forth across a busy street because that's their only opportunity to do what comes naturally and try to stretch their boundaries. Maybe they were just being kids.

But I hope they have the opportunity to take a dare that might mean just bruised feelings rather than serious physical injury, because without ample opportunities to take appropriate risks, children cannot develop the internal mechanisms to deal with the inevitable life stressors that will come their way.

Those kinds of lessons can't be taught; they have to be experienced. And they usually come with a little dirt and humble pie. I know mine did.

Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She is co-author of "Launching: Parenting to College and Beyond," a handbook for parents and professionals of adolescents and young adults. She can be reached at (727) 418-7882.

Hovering parents rob children of healthy growth 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 3:30am]
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