The Gift of Uncertainty: Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Rewrite the Rules of Parenting.
Up until now, parents have spent a lot of energy trying to control circumstances. Our job, or so we thought, was to curate our kids’ lives in a way that creates the best odds for their success. So we parents helicoptered, rushed to “fix” problems for our kids, or “lawn mowered” things to create a smooth life for them. Then COVID-19 ripped off the blinders. Suddenly we’ve seen that, despite our best efforts, we can’t control the future after all. And when we consider the scope and pace of change happening in every area, it’s clear the only certainty is uncertainty.
The sudden arrival of the new normal has been rough on parents, says Michele Borba, Ed.D. But try to see the uncertainty as a gift. If we help our kids develop the adaptable mindset to face an ever-changing future right now, they’ll be far more likely to thrive in the future.
“It’s human nature to crave certainty,” admits Dr. Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2021, ISBN: 978-0-593-08527-1, $27.00). “Fear of ambiguity is an evolutionary holdover. It makes sense that we desperately want to create a sense of certainty for those we love the most: our kids. But what we’re doing clearly isn’t working. The kids are not all right.”
Consider the declaration of emergency signed in October by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. They found that between March and October of 2020, emergency department visits for mental health emergencies rose by 24 percent for children ages 5-11 years and 31 percent for children ages 12-17 years. Plus, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts increased nearly 51 percent among girls ages 12-17 years in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.
The pandemic is hardly the end of the uncertainty. Our kids face a future of mind-boggling change, one in which nothing is guaranteed: relationships, employment, health, housing. It is estimated that 65 percent of children entering grade school today will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet. While we can’t train kids for nonexistent occupations, we can help them develop adaptable mindsets that will be crucial for their success.
Rather than tightening our grip (which is too often our knee-jerk reaction), we need to embrace a parenting reset, says Dr. Borba. Actually, she believes we’ve needed a reset for some time. The current situation just ups the urgency.
“We have to realize that we’re raising our kids in a different world from the one in which we were raised,” notes Dr. Borba. “The path was much clearer then. We knew the recipe for success. All we had to do was to get our kids to fall in line. We have to pivot to help our kids, and it’s urgent. Plus, while we are teaching them, we must learn new skills ourselves.”
First we need to realize that what we’re teaching our kids now is the antithesis of what will help them thrive in an uncertain world. The “helicoptered” generation is now being overly coddled because we feel guilty about all the disappointments they’ve endured during the pandemic. Pivoting or thinking outside the box isn’t a skillset they’re learning. (It doesn’t help that apps like Waze or Find My Way Back Now instantly reroute their path.)
All our sheltering, accommodating, and rescuing isn’t doing kids any favors. In fact, it has created a kind of “uncertainty paralysis” in which they wait around to be rescued.
The good news is that resilience, which is what allows us to handle uncertainty, is not connected to GPA or locked into DNA. It is teachable. Dr. Borba says we need to revamp our parenting agendas around this quality moving forward. The more our kids can adapt to change, the greater the odds that they will thrive.
Here are a few of the skills of resilience they (and sometimes we!) desperately need:
- Confidence… so they know they can solve problems, find their way in a world without a road map, and make smart decisions without knowing all the facts.
- Empathy… so they can collaborate with others to solve problems.
- Self-control… so they can put the brakes on stress that uncertainty brings and can think straight and forge on.
- Curiosity… so they’ll think outside the box when confronted with uncertainty and find another path (and want to be the lifelong learners the future demands).
- Perseverance… so they don’t give up when things are tough. They need to realize that success is self-driven and comes from their effort.
- Optimism… so they won’t ruminate on doom and gloom. Instead of being paralyzed by fear or feeling hopeless, they’ll see all the possibilities/silver linings. They’ll view change as an adventure and not a source of dread.
While it may sound like a tall order, Borba says it’s really just a matter of helping our kids take little risks so they can learn to detour when needed without falling apart.
“The more we can get kids out of their comfort zones now, and help them reframe how they think about change and uncertainty, the better they’ll be able to push through challenges later,” she says. “You don’t have to curate experiences for them. Plenty of everyday moments will present themselves—just be prepared to step back and let the kids handle them.”
About the Author
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has spoken in nineteen countries on five continents, and served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and corporations including Sesame Street, Harvard, U.S. Air Force Academy, eighteen U.S. Army bases in Europe and the Asian-Pacific, H.H. the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and a TEDx Talk: “Empathy Is a Verb.” She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career working with over one million parents and educators worldwide. She is an NBC contributor who appears regularly on Today and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband and is the mother of three grown sons.