When we do everything for our kids, we do so with the best of intentions. But when it comes to getting ahead in life, skills like getting to places on time, being in charge of your own backpack or briefcase, and knowing how to cook turn out to be as important as schoolwork, piano lessons, and competitive sports. However accomplished our kids may be in a résumé sense, a young adult lacking life skills is not prepared to succeed in life without a full-time concierge, personal assistant, valet, or parent by their side. Would you rather always be there for them, or have confidence that they can do for themselves when they leave home, and in that unwelcome future time when you’re gone?
LIFE SKILLS MATTER
A person hand-held through life—where things are always taken care of for them —doesn’t have the opportunity to develop the concept of mastery at the heart of psychology professor Albert Bandura’s theory of “self-efficacy,” which is the belief in your abilities to complete a task, reach a goal, and manage a situation.
Having things done for you and having no control over those outcomes can also lead to a kind of “learned helplessness,” a concept developed by psychology professors Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman that describes how humans shut down when they feel they have no control over situations. Learned helplessness was originally thought to occur only when bad events are uncontrollable. More recently, Seligman has written that learned helplessness can also occur when good events are uncontrollable, as when a parent rewards a child with praise regardless of what she does. According to Seligman, it’s crucial that humans experience contingency”—which means “learning that your actions matter, that they control outcomes that are important. ”Young children who experience
“non-contingency” between actions and outcomes will experience “passivity, depression, and poor physical health.”
Beit T’Shuvah is an addiction treatment center that has been serving the Greater Los Angeles area for decades. Historically their clientele were people in their thirties and forties. Recently the staff has seen a sharp increase in young adult clients, many of whom appear to suffer from this “learned helplessness” and lack of “self-efficacy.” With this changing demographic in mind, the staff of Beit T’Shuvah conducts prevention outreach programs at schools and community centers in the Greater Los Angeles area and elsewhere across the nation. Their target audience is parents, and they focus their message on how the seemingly benevolent act of handling everything for one’s kids can lead those kids down a path toward alcohol and drug addiction.
Rachel (not her real name) was one such kid. I spoke with her in the spring of 2014, when she was twentythree years old and had been clean and ober for three years, thanks in large part to the support she found at Beit T’Shuvah. I asked her to detail the sequence of behaviors and experiences that led to her alcohol and drug addiction.
Rachel is from an affluent and Conservative Jewish family in Los Angeles, and her parents always had very high expectations for what she and her three younger siblings would achieve academically. It was not hard for Rachel to meet their expectations; she was self-motivated, worked hard, and earned straight As throughout her years in middle school and at her private high school. But at an early age she began to experience a “meaninglessness” that became pervasive, and she turned to disordered eating, drugs, and alcohol to get through each day.
“A lot of things were done for me growing up. Even simple things like making my bed or doing laundry—I never did any of that. I never did anything for myself.” Rachel experienced some relief by taking control over what she ate. She was ten years old when her eating disorder began. Her parents were not aware of this problem for years.
By the time Rachel was in high school, her parents were handling matters both in and outside of the house for her. For example, if she had a conflict with a friend, or an issue arose at school, her parents would take it into their own hands. “There was always a ‘fix it.’ It wasn’t of my own doing. I was going through the motions. Doing life. Not really participating in it. It was scary.” Rachel began using cocaine at fourteen along with alcohol and other drugs. “The thing I could do best was drink and use; it took me out of feeling life was completely pointless.” At the start of Rachel’s senior year in high school her mother managed all aspects of Rachel’s life, and in particular her college admission process, “like a secretary.” When the college admissions letters came Rachel had a number of exciting options. She decided to attend a prestigious private university in the South. There, she pursued a rigorous pre med program and earned all As, but she was starting to experience the cost of all of those years of overparenting, with devastating results.
“When I got to college, I had no living skills whatsoever. I had an unbelievable ability to do well in school, but that was it. Nothing else. Not only was I in an environment where I knew no one, but I had to fend for myself and I didn’t know how.” Rachel soothed this bewilderment over how to manage her day-to-day life by drinking daily. She also became addicted to Adderall.
At nineteen years of age, in December of her sophomore year of college, Rachel attempted suicide. Rachel’s parents pulled her out of school and took her to Beit T’Shuvah for treatment of her addiction.
Rachel’s story is extreme. But it illustrates the reason for the mounting concern about what’s happening to affluent kids today. In her 2013 paper in Psychology Today, “The Problem with Rich Kids,” researcher Suniya S. Luthar shares her studies on kids like Rachel from well-educated, high-income, two parent families who were found to abuse drugs and alcohol at much higher rates than their peers at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum (which was a surprise to Luthar, who expected the opposite). Luther writes, “Across geographical areas and public and private schools, upper-middle-class youngsters show alarmingly high rates of serious disturbance.”
HOW TO TEACH LIFE SKILLS
There’s a scarcity of information on how one acquires life skills, presumably because children who are otherwise healthy and developing normally used to develop these skills naturally in the normal course of childhood, and we’re only just beginning to recognize that these skills are missing in many children and must be affirmatively taught.
However, researchers, therapists, and advocates who work with kids with special needs, and parents of kids with special needs, think about life skills as a matter of course; their aim is to help children acquire such skills in order to function in the world independently out in the mainstream one day. Perhaps ironically, children with special needs who get good interventions are, often, getting life skills training (as well as developing grit that comes from failing and trying again) that many of today’s “typically developing” kids lack.
My friend Stacey Ashlund is part of this community of parents with special needs kids.6 She has two children, one of whom, her son, is both hearing and vision impaired. Having sought the best possible resources to support their son in his growth and development, Stacey and her husband learned about the applied behavior analysis (ABA) method, a system for behavior change derived in the 1960s by a group of faculty at the University of Washington, based on the work of behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, and applied to the autism community in the 1980s. ABA changes behavior by offering rewards for the desired behavior. They also learned about the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), an approach to supporting children with developmental disabilities developed by internationally known researcher Dr. Steven Gutstein.
RDI focuses on the growth that comes when the relationship between caregiver and child is developed in a step-by-step way, and specifically teaches that failure equals learning and focuses on the process, not the end result. Influenced by the ABA, RDI, and other sources, Stacey pulled together the following strategy for building skills in her children.
- first we do it for you
- then we do it with you
- then we watch you do it
- then you do it completely independently
This philosophy and strategy neatly sums up not only the intrinsic purpose of parenting but the practical path toward independence for all kids. It also aligns with psychologist Madeline Levine’s warning: Don’t do for your kid what your kid can already do, or can almost do. When we overparent we delay moving from the first bullet point to the second, we really get stalled at moving from the second to the third, and we may never get to the fourth bullet point at all. But we must. The real world will demand that our kids be able to execute bullet point four.
Stacey’s son is achieving in ways neither doctors or educators initially predicted. He is exceptionally bright, and that, plus access to great resources and tremendous engagement of his parents, including how they’ve implemented the applied behavioral analysis and Relationship Development Intervention approaches, have likely made the difference. As Stacey well knows, though, this method of teaching skills to a child can be applied to any child, regardless of needs or ability. Her second child is developing “typically” (that is, has no special needs), yet Stacey and her husband parent both of their children using this same wise approach.