A couple of years ago I wrote in group about an article in Psychology Today called “A Nation of Wimps,” written by Hara Estroff Marano, the magazine’s editor at large. Marano had noticed an alarming spike in the number of college students with serious mental health problems, so she decided to find out why. Her investigation uncovered a startling truth: “The best evidence suggests that parental invasiveness and overinvolvement is crippling children psychologically.”
Marano found that a critical mass of overprotective and overinvolved American parents are focusing their PDA-nation professional skills, time, and energies to protect their kids from hardships while simultaneously turning up the pressure to achieve more. The result, she says, is a culture of kids who are fragile, depressed, anxious, overcompliant, and unable to think on their feet.
Two weeks ago I went to hear Marano speak to a large gathering of parents at a local Denver high school. Her appearance coincided with the release of A Nation of Wimps (nationofwimps.com), the book she wrote after her article hit a cultural nerve. Her basic thesis: “Parents want to make kids happy, but happiness doesn’t come from the easy stuff. There is no happiness without challenge, risk, and growth. So stop wrapping our kids in bubble wrap—it makes it harder for them.”
Marano suggested 12 practices that can operate as antidotes to the “wimp virus.” I was talking with some youth ministry friends about this list, and they quickly saw connections to their own ministries. I can’t tackle all 12, but here are half a dozen, with a strategic application to youth ministry for each one.
- Let kids play. One backlash in youth ministry over the last decade is against the “fun and games” approach to ministry. At the heart of that critique is a cry to return to the gospel—to reclaim C.H. Spurgeon’s “beeline to Jesus” in everything we do. But the unintended consequence is a disparaging of games in general. Marano says, “Play looks like a waste of time because it’s not goal-directed. But play is critical neurologically. Play makes kids far more attentive. And play inherently helps kids navigate ambiguity.”
- Eat dinner together five nights a week. Meals grease the skids for connection. That’s true at home, and in youth ministry. Marano says, “Conversation produces curiosity and identity-building.”
- Learn how to criticize kids. Marano says the key to effective criticism is to avoid the kind of “second best” language that fuels perfectionism. “It’s killing to them,” she says. “Instead of offering your ‘performance judgment,’ ask them to evaluate their own performance.”
- Take achievement pressure off kids. In an experiential parent-training seminar I lead called “Fighting the Entitlement Dragon,” one of the turning points for parents comes about halfway through, when I challenge them to pay more attention to who their kids are becoming than to what they’re achieving. Kids’ achievements may or may not impact the world for good, but who they’re becoming certainly will. Marano says, “Success hinges less on getting things right than how you handle getting it wrong.”
- Teach kids how to tolerate the discomfort of challenges, failures, and boredom. We all know that you don’t get physically stronger without resistance—it’s a no-brainer. But it’s funny how we’re sort of wired to remove obstacles from kids’ lives instead of proactively drag obstacles into their path. In that sense, a workcamp is the youth ministry version of a “perfect storm.” The trip to the camp and back requires a tolerance for boredom, and the work at camp organically produces challenges and failures (along with successes). Check out our workcamp site (groupworkcamps.com) for challenge opportunities.
- Encourage your kids to problem-solve and take risks. Marano says it’s crucial to surround teenagers with “creative problem-solving questions.” That’s basically the reason I created my little JCQ’s: 150 Jesus-Centered Questions (Group) card flip-deck—it’s designed to get kids wrestling with surprising questions about Jesus that have no “right answer.” Marano says, “Kids need to know there’s more than
one right way to do almost everything.”