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Taking Some of the Heat Off

Listening to the July 6 episode of The Takeaway, I had a moment of clarity and recognition and also an inward groan. The entire episode was focused on mental health, but the first 12 minutes was spent looking at adolescent mental health – specifically how these young folks fared during the lockdown months of 2020. As you can imagine, young people struggled during these months, but the inward groan (and also the recognition) came as a result of one major finding they talked about. Namely, that it was parents who were responsible for much of the angst adolescents felt.

I groaned because I think parents already blame themselves for so many things when it comes to their teens. We feel so ill-equipped to manage many of the things that come up during these years already, and a study that showed we really made things harder for our kids during the pandemic lockdown wasn’t going to make any of us feel better. But, on the flip side, I think it’s important to understand where we can shift the way we do things to reduce some of the stress on our kids, so here goes:

Imagine that during lockdown, you were stuck living with your boss. That, while you experienced some measure of independence and self-determination at work before, now they are sitting in your office or cubicle with you, supervising. They are able to see exactly what you do in any given moment of any day like never before. That’s how many of our kids felt. While they were used to being at school and making many of their own decisions before, suddenly they found themselves at home, maybe attending online school from the kitchen table, with us hovering, eavesdropping on the lecture perhaps, side-eyeing them as they picked up their cell phone to glance at something while the teacher was talking, noticing if they typed something into the chat box when they were “supposed” to be paying attention. Maybe they do all those things routinely in class anyway, but now they’re in a space where a parent is able to monitor that and it feels really awful to be constantly scrutinized.

Now imagine that your boss knows that you can’t go play on your evening soccer league team because of the lockdown. They know that you can’t travel to take care of an aging parent, so you don’t need time off of work. Consider that your boss believes that without these other things in your life, you have way more time to dedicate to work, and their expectations increase. That’s what kids told the folks who did these studies – that without extra curricular activities and social obligations, their parents (and teachers) ratcheted up the expectations for their academic work during the pandemic lockdown. And while it may seem like that makes a lot of sense, what we aren’t thinking about is the emotional labor kids were managing during that time and what a toll it takes on our ability to complete cognitive functions.

Adolescents already struggle with executive function – it’s part of their job during these years to practice and develop time-management, emotional regulation, cause-and-effect thinking, among other things. But when we are stressed or overwhelmed emotionally, the portion of our brain that is responsible for these things is unable to do its job effectively. And it’s safe to say that adolescents were feeling incredibly overwhelmed during the lockdown – I wrote about that here. So increasing our expectations for them was pretty much the opposite of what they needed, and yet most of us did it anyway.

I don’t say this to make you feel bad about yourself as a parent. I say this so that we can become aware of what our kids are struggling with and do better in the future. While lockdowns are mostly over in many parts of the world, our tweens and teens are still processing the effects of that time – trying to reconnect with friends and maybe catch up with academics, figuring out how to grieve the loss of milestones and also people lost to Covid, and managing their concern for what the future holds. We can support them in this by acknowledging the invisible work they’re doing to navigate all of that and ask what feels helpful during this time. Make sure they have plenty of opportunities to just play and have fun, get rest when they need it, and talk to us when they’re feeling like we are asking too much of them. Sometimes we can get too caught up in timelines and external expectations to remember that our teens still need a lot of nurturing and care.

When Competition Brings Out the Worst in Us

  Human beings like certainty. We like rules and order and we especially like it when we can make analogies in order to extrapolate principles from one thing to another as a way to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, sometimes we do this without questioning the basic underlying ideas or thinking about potential consequences. Case in point, the notion that competition is good for us, that it spurs us to greater feats, drives us to do things we wouldn’t do on our own.

The “Space Race” in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the US and the Soveit Union is widely touted as a prime example of competition that benefited humanity as a whole. There are those who say that humans would never have made it to the moon without it, or at least not as quickly.

Capitalism is rooted in the idea that competition for customers means that companies will be held to account, that they will continue to innovate and grow and we will all be better off.

We’ve extended these ideas to our places of work and our schools – reviewing employees and students on a bell curve, creating sales incentives and spelling bees and the like. Some parents even pit their own children against each other in competitions around chores and grades, but are we really benefiting from this culture of competition?

First and foremost, the notion that competition is responsible for bringing out the best in us is based on a pretty dim notion of human nature. It presupposes that we are not internally motivated enough to innovate and create things on our own, which I don’t believe is true. I think that humans are naturally driven to want to create and improve on things and that competition can actually bring out the worst in us.

Left to our own devices and given ample time and space to experiment and work on things we are interested in, we may find that we get blocked or need some outside inspiration. We can also discover that there are different ways of thinking about things and perhaps feel more free to expand our creativity. But when we’re worried about “losing” a race of some sort, we can take shortcuts, fudge data, and become more focused on the end result than we are on the ultimate goal. Our brains react to this stress with a flood of stress hormones that shut down our ability to be creative or think rationally, and the emotional need to triumph takes precedence.

The idea that human beings require some sort of external motivation to perform to our potential is baked in to our cultural narrative, but are we actually training ourselves to eliminate our own internal reasons for acting, thinking, innovating? When we teach kids that they can’t be trusted to come up with their own ideas unless we give them a compelling reason, we are underestimating the human need to challenge ourselves and think creatively.

If our reasons for scientific discovery and product innovation center around competition with other countries or becoming the richest entrepreneur, are we really living up to our potential, or have we simply become slaves to an artificial construct? Does Apple feel like they really need to innovate on their phone technology or are they simply creating new phone after new phone because that’s what is expected of corporations? Is it because their executives want to continue to be the most well-compensated workers in the world or because they want to maintain their place on the NASDAQ or Fortune Magazine’s lists of successful companies?

If human beings are designed to create and be in community -which there is ample scientific evidence to support – then the premise that we are unmotivated slugs who need to one-up each other is contrary to our actual nature. If we have decided that competition is the way to keep moving forward, we have also said that creativity and collaboration are not as important, even though these things are an integral part of what it means to be a healthy human being.

What if our entire economy, educational system and cultural ethos are built on a premise that is anathema to what it means to be human? And what if we’ve bought in to it so deeply that it is creating depression, isolation, and anxiety on an epic scale? How can we begin to shift our view of humanity to acknowledge that people will create, innovate, and grow regardless of whether we challenge them to do so? What if we trust that, even if someone else’s process doesn’t look exactly like we think it ought to, if we give them time and space and support enough to believe in themselves, they will flourish and begin to express their purpose and passion and it will end up benefiting us all?