In 1970, children were thought to be ready to enter Grade One at Primary or Elementary School when they could travel independently around their neighbourhood for 4–8 blocks from their house.
This included 6-year-olds being able to go to the shops and buy things by themselves, or walk or ride to school if it was close enough, and knowing how to explain to a police officer where they lived if they were asked.
These days, the police officer would probably arrest the parents for neglect if a 6-year-old child was found 4 blocks from home by themselves.
Times have changed, but is this always a good thing for our children?
I remember having a lot of freedom growing up. My mother would let me and my siblings play down at the park by ourselves two blocks away from our house. My brother was 7 or 8, I was 5, and my sister was 2 or 3. We weren’t entirely alone. According to my mother, we had a pet Rottweiler watch over us too, and “she would never have let anyone hurt you kids!”.
We rode or walked ourselves to and from school when my brother was in grade 5, I was in grade 3, and my sister was in grade 1. It wasn’t just a bike path either. We had to ride on roads, cross over a river and railway tracks, and not even at a designated crossing. Both my parents had to work, though, so it was just what was done.
After school, we’d come home, open the door by ourselves, make a snack, and play some games or watch TV until our parents came back from work. We were “latch key kids”, and I don’t think we minded too much at all.
Growing up, we played outside unsupervised by adults all the time. Running around with the other kids on the street, playing a sport or making up games, having waterbomb fights during the day or playing spotlight at night. We’d ride to the milkbar whenever we felt like ice cream or a snack and even did a paper round in the neighbourhood with my brother a few times well before we were old enough to work legally.
Granted, there were a few scraped knees and maybe some storm drains that we shouldn’t have gone down. But I knew how to make my way all over town to all my friend’s places on a bike by my 10th birthday. To me, exploring places either by foot or on my bike with my friends and without any parents around were some of the best memories of my childhood.
Fast forward to 2019, and most children will have to wait until they leave their family home to get the same amount of unsupervised time outside that I had before I was a teenager. They spend less time hanging out with their friends in person, and any time they spend is likely to be supervised by their parents or done alongside them, even when they go to the local shopping mall.
In her excellent book, ‘iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood’, the author Jean Twenge says that as a result of the reduced freedom for our youth, the typical 18-year-old in 2019 is similar in maturity levels to what a 15-year-old was back in 1970.
These days, children and adolescents are less capable of living, socialising, or working independently than the previous generations and are suffering more psychologically as a result.
Depression, anxiety, narcissism and deliberate self-harm have all been increasing, and dramatically so since 2012. Unfortunately, this also happens to coincide with the widespread proliferation of smartphones into our society.
If parents should be concerned about anything when it comes to the safety of their children, it is about what they are getting up to online. Adolescent girls appear to be particularly impacted by the introduction of the smartphone and the increased usage of social media that comes with this. As a result, suicide rates among teenage girls have risen to the point where they are now similar to suicide rates in boys of the same age.
What would you prefer to build in a child?
A. A conviction that they are amazing, just the way they are?
B. A belief that they can face and overcome most of the challenges they face in life if they learn from setbacks and feedback and apply themselves?
You may answer both, but if you had to choose one, what would it be?
Self-esteem (A), which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:
“a confidence and satisfaction in oneself”
Self-efficacy (B), which Psychologist Albert Bandura defined as:
“the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the sources of action required to manage prospective situations.”
After decades of research, we now know that focusing on building a child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem (A) at the expense of improving their capacity and self-efficacy (B) in learning and doing things by themselves can have some adverse side effects.
Research on Self-Esteem:
LOW SELF-ESTEEM IS NOT GREAT
- Low self-esteem is linked with increased violence, teenage pregnancy, suicide, low academic achievement and increased rates of school dropout (Misetich & Delis-Abrams, 2003)
- Living alone, being unemployed, having low socioeconomic status or having a disability is linked to lower self-esteem (von Soest, Wagner, Hansen & Gerstorf, 2018)
- 70% of girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way (Dove Self-Esteem Fund, 2008)
- Teenagers with low self-esteem have less resilience and a greater sense of hopelessness (Karatas, 2011)
HEALTHY LEVELS OF SELF-ESTEEM IS BENEFICIAL
- People with healthy self-esteem are more resilient and able to respond helpfully and adaptively to disappointment, failure and obstacles (Allegiance Health, 2015)
- In China, self-esteem significantly predicted life satisfaction (Chen, Cheung, Bond & Leung, 2006)
- School programs that build self-esteem in primary school children also reduce problem behaviours and strengthen connections between the students (Park & Park, 2014)
HIGH SELF-ESTEEM ISN’T ALWAYS A POSITIVE
- Abraham Maslow put self-esteem as a need in his hierarchy of needs pyramid. However, later in his career, he noted that individuals with high self-esteem are more apt to come late to appointments, be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, more likely to accept an offered cigarette, and much more willing to make themselves comfortable without bidding or invitation.
- Carl Rogers, another Humanistic Psychologist, got so sick of new staff coming into his Western Behavioural Sciences Institute with no desire or ability to work that he once sent out a letter that said, “less self-esteem please; more self-discipline!”
- People with fragile or shallow high self-esteem are no better off than individuals with low self-esteem. They engage in exaggerated tendencies to protect, defend and enhance their feelings of self-worth (Kernis, 2008)
- Academic performance is weakly related to self-esteem, with some students doing worse academically after their self-esteem increased (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2005)
Baumeister has looked extensively into the issues with some types of high self-esteem. He found that:
- Students with high self-esteem tend to overestimate their abilities. They also like to boast to others about what they can do.
- High self-esteem doesn’t make people more attractive to others; it just makes the individual think they are more attractive
- Bullies at school and work tend to have higher reported levels of self-esteem
- People with high self-esteem are more likely to take risks and engage in unprotected sex. They tend to be impulsive and not think through the consequences of a decision before acting
- People with high self-esteem are more likely to be prejudiced against others. They tend to be smug and superior when interacting with others
- People with high self-esteem are less likely to work through and overcome relationship conflicts. They can be abusive in relationships and assume their needs come first no matter what situation they are in
- People with high self-esteem seem blind to their own faults and are less likely to learn from experience, change or improve themselves
Research on Self-Efficacy:
SELF-EFFICACY HELPS PEOPLE AT WORK
- A meta-analysis of over 100 studies found a moderately strong correlation (.38) between self-efficacy and job performance (Stakjovic & Luthans, 1998)
- Another meta-analysis found that high self-efficacy is related to better emotional stability and greater job satisfaction (Judge & Bono, 2001)
- Greater self-efficacy leads to less burnout for teachers (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2007)
- Increased self-efficacy in nurses can improve their work performance, reduce turnover rates and protect them from exhaustion (Fida, Laschinger & Leiter, 2018)
SELF-EFFICACY HELPS STUDENTS AT SCHOOL
- High optimism and self-efficacy in students lead to better academic performance, greater coping with stress, better health, and more satisfaction with school (Chemers, Ju & Garcia, 2001)
- Increased self-efficacy leads to more enthusiasm and commitment to learning in students who had previously been struggling to read (Margolis & McCabe, 2006)
SELF-EFFICACY CAN IMPROVE HEALTH OUTCOMES
- Patients with cancer with high self-efficacy adjust to their diagnosis better and are more likely to adhere to their recommended treatment (Lev, 1997)
- Patients with high self-efficacy who have joint replacement surgery exercise more frequently and improve their performance more after the surgery (Moon & Backer, 2000)
- Improving self-efficacy can increase how much previously sedentary adults exercise, which then enhances their overall health (McAuley, 1992)
- Parental self-efficacy can reduce the risk of postpartum depression in new mothers (Cutrona & Troutman, 1986)
- Low self-efficacy is related to anxiety (including social anxiety and panic attacks) and depressive symptoms (Muris, 2002)
The Coddling of the American Mind
This fascinating 2018 book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explains that we have fallen prey to three cognitive distortions that have made the children of the iGeneration less prepared for the real world, more narcissistic, and more likely to suffer from emotional and mental disorders.
The three cognitive biases are:
- “What doesn’t kill us makes us weaker” — therefore, we need to protect our children from everything and make sure that they are safe and free from emotional pain at all times,
- “Always trust your feelings” — so if you feel something, it must be right, and if something offends or upsets you, it must be the other person’s fault, and
- “The world is made up of good people and bad people” — therefore, you must try to call out and take down anyone who has a different point of view because you are precisely right and they are clearly wrong.
We now try to protect children from every danger, monitor and structure all play so that children never get hurt or bullied, and avoid any criticism or activities that may dent their ego.
We tell them that whatever they think and feel must be right and to believe in themselves. We say this even though Psychologists and Behavioural Economists know that there are nearly 100 different biases that the majority of humans fall into, including emotional reasoning, loss aversion, catastrophising and all-or-nothing thinking.
At schools, all children are made to feel like winners regardless of how they do, and they all receive participation awards or student of the week prizes at some point during the year so that no one feels left out or inferior. As a result, 40% more students now receive As for their subjects than they did in the 1970s, even though SAT scores have declined in this same timespan.
What Can We Do?
I’d rather have my children go to a school where teachers are more like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Here’s an excerpt from his excellent commencement address to his son’s year 9 graduating class in 2017:
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”
I want our kids to learn life lessons that help them gain the skills and knowledge required to function as independent adults in the world.
I want children to be both physically and mentally healthy and suffer less from emotional and psychological disorders.
I want them to develop high self-efficacy and a belief that they can do something by trial-and-error and effort rather than assuming that they are great no matter what they can do.
How Do We Build Self-Efficacy?
According to Bandura and Akhtar (2008), there are four main ways to build self-efficacy in our children’s lives. We can do this through:
- Mastery experiences: Ensure that your child has regular opportunities to take on and tackle new and challenging tasks that are just outside their current level of comfort and competence. By pushing themselves with these tasks, they will grow and gain more self-efficacy than repeating something they already know how to do.
- Vicarious experiences: Ensure that your children have positive role models or mentors that they can observe doing the things you want them to know how to do. This could be you, another family member, a friend of yours or a coach. Because you are likely to spend more time with them than other people, it is essential to model the behaviours, mindset and skills you want them to learn. If you do this, they can learn from you, emulate what you do, and then get feedback on how they are going and how they can keep improving these skills.
- Verbal persuasion: The type of words used in self-talk and with others can play a significant role in how much self-efficacy one feels. Like Dr Carol Dweck says, in promoting a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, we need to praise effort and what children do (their actions and intentions) rather than who they are as a person or what the outcome was. This builds up a greater desire to take on more challenging tasks in the future instead of the fear of being wrong, not succeeding, or not being “smart enough”.
- Emotional and physiological states: We need to focus on the overall mental and physical health and well-being of children. If they are sick, tired, sleepy, hungry, stressed, depressed or anxious, it will be more challenging for them to maintain a high level of self-efficacy, and belief in their ability to successfully tackle a challenge will decrease. By helping children look after the other areas of their health, they are more likely to have the energy and confidence to take on whatever is in front of them, overcome setbacks, and persist until they have achieved their goals.
Crime rates are now at their lowest point since 1963. Thanks to many societal changes, your children are definitely safer than you were growing up, yet they have way less freedom. Would you be willing to supervise your children a bit less and let them do more by themselves or with their friends if it helped them grow into independent, resilient and capable adults?
Dr Damon Ashworth