If you have a child, or spend any time around children and young adults, you know that, as a population, their mental health is suffering, and you might even know it firsthand. Even before the pandemic, we were seeing spikes in anxiety and depression in our youth. But – in the words of our incredible Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy – the pandemic has taken a "devastating" toll on kids' wellness.
With the news of kids' mental health ever more dire, today I'm calling upon all of us parents to take an unflinching look at how our behaviors either support our kid's wellness or instead, are fomenting things like anxiety or depression. Hear me: I'm not saying that whatever is happening is our "fault" – yet we play an undeniably huge role in our kids' environment and upbringing. Researchers who study childhood anxiety, for example, will tell you that the best way to reduce anxiety in children is to teach parents new behaviors. This means that if we have the courage to examine our day-to-day behaviors and the culture and climate we are fostering inside our home, we may come to realize that there are things we can do to help our kids rather than exacerbate harm.
If you want to be part of what's good in your kid's life, if you want to be part of the remedy for what may ail them, review the below pledge. As you'll see, the pledge is all about what we parents are going to do differently in order to support our kids in being healthier and happier. Of course, I can't possibly know your personal situation, the needs of your kid, or your cultural values, so, do feel free to modify the language to suit your unique situation. (That said, if you're tempted to remove an entire step of the pledge I encourage you to be curious about why you're doing that and what it is you are trying to hold onto; feel free to email me at email@example.com to discuss.)
I believe in you. I believe in all of us. We all just want our kids to be healthy and happy. This pledge is a commitment to THAT.
Parents, whether your child is in elementary school, middle school, high school, or beyond, join me in taking this 14-step pledge. Say it aloud to your child, ideally in-person. If you're raising kids with someone else, encourage them to take the pledge, too.
STEP 1: My Love is Unconditional
I love you for you, just as you are. I don't love you more when you do something really well, and I don't love you less when you do less well or outright mess up. I don't wish that you were somebody else. There is nothing you can do to make me stop loving you. You can count on that.
STEP 2: The Role of a Parent
This is your amazing life, not mine, and as your parent I have the important job of keeping you safe and well until you can keep yourself safe and well. This means that over the course of your childhood I need to teach you all the basic things you'll need to be able to do for yourself one day.
I'm also here to support you in figuring out the bigger questions such as what you're good at and what you love, and to understand your identities, challenges, and needs. But I do not have plans for your life that you need to adhere to. And I won't push you from behind or drag you along to get you to certain places in life. No. I will stay in my own lane right here alongside you, so that I can be here for you when you need me but so that I can be out of your way when you do not.
STEP 3: Trust and Communication
In addition to unconditional love, the bond you and I have as parent and child is made strong through trust and communication. I want you to know that you can trust me, and I want to be able to trust you, too. When you tell me you are in need of help, care, or a significant change, I will believe you. When we talk about things honestly, there's nothing we can't get through.
STEP 4: Your Feelings are Valid
When you're sad, anxious, mad, or have other feelings, they are a valid response to what you are experiencing. There is no feeling of yours that is big enough to scare me away or to make me stop loving you. Instead of me trying to fix whatever is wrong or implying that what you're going through is something you should just get over, I will sit with you, and ask if you want to share more about your feelings. I might also ask if you want some suggestions or if you just want to vent. And I will honor your answer.
STEP 5: Your Work is Yours to Do
Your school work is a pact between you and your teacher. If you have questions for me, I will try to answer them, but I will redirect you to your teacher much of the time. If you ask me for feedback on your work, I will give it to you. But I will not do the work outright myself because I know that the only way you can learn and grow is by doing the work yourself.
I also know that learning and growth takes a lot of effort and time. This means that I'm going to ease up on the frequency with which I ask about your homework, quizzes, tests, and other results. Instead I ask that you come talk to me if you feel you are struggling with some aspect of school. (If relevant, add: I will only look at the parent grade portal every now and then. Even braver: I will stop looking at the parent grade portal and trust that you will come to me if you are struggling.)
Step 6: Your Struggles are Lessons in Disguise
Most problems are actually learning opportunities in disguise. So when I step in to handle your problems, I'm accidentally sending you the message "you can't do this." But what I really want to be saying is "yes you can!", and that's because you are so very capable, and it makes me proud to watch you grow, and as you get older you'll just get better and better at doing stuff and at coping when things don't go your way. So, even though it's hard for me to watch you struggle, I pledge not to step in and handle it unless it feels like a true emergency where a parent justifiably needs to take over. Instead, I will be there to listen to what you're struggling with, and if you want, I'll brainstorm solutions with you. I believe in you, and the more I let you figure things out and do for yourself, the stronger and more capable, confident, and resilient you will be.
Step 7: I Will Teach You to Self Advocate
Your teachers and school leaders want to help you learn and grow, too, as do the other adults in your life such as your coaches, counselors, tutors, and mentors. If an issue arises with these other adults, I will not get in the way by trying to have that conversation for you. But I will brainstorm with you about how you can speak with them while simultaneously treating them with respect. (If relevant, add: This means I will do my best to stop arguing with the grownups in your life.)
You also need to learn how to talk with all the strangers you'll encounter in our society such as store clerks, bus and train drivers, restaurant servers, car mechanics, and the stranger nearest you if you have an emergency. It can feel awkward or scary at first to talk to folks you don't know, but with practice you'll get better at it.
Step 8: You Have an Increasing Right to Privacy
Part of keeping you safe means being on the lookout for you at all times. Yet as you grow older, you are learning to keep yourself safe by using better judgment, and that's a really good thing. You are also entitled to increasing privacy as you age – I won't be tracking your whereabouts forever. So, I will work with you to find the right balance between my need to know information and your need for privacy. The shorthand for that is "you don't want me to pry, and I don't want you to lie." Again, trust and communication are key. I will make a plan for how I will reduce the extent to which I rely on apps over the years to tell me where you are and what you're up to.
This also applies to your grades in school. I will make a plan to reduce the extent to which I access the parent portal, and instead I ask that you let me know if and when you are struggling so that I can support you in improving the situation.
This also applies to what I tell other people about your life. I'm going to stop sharing your private information – things like grades, scores, medical issues, colleges you're considering applying to or have gotten into, or the person you're crushing on – without having your permission first. This goes for in person and on my social media. Your life, your business.
Step 9: I Won't Be Nosy About Other Kids
Things like grades, scores, and college plans and outcomes are private information. So, I'm going to stop asking your friends and my friends' kids about this kind of stuff.
Step 10: Your Future Looks Bright
A successful, happy life comes from pursuing the things you're truly interested in, and from treating others with dignity and kindness. I can't wait to see what you decide to do out in this world. I am excited for you and I will always root for you.
Step 11: I'll Stop Obsessing About College
I don't want us to be the kind of family that treats childhood like it's training ground for college. You're a kid. You're supposed to play freely, sleep well, and spend time with family, not just get your homework done and prepare for the next test.
When the time comes, say at the start of your junior year of high school, we can begin to talk about what you want to do after graduating high school, whether that be a four-year college, a two-year college, a trade school, a structured gap year, the military, or a full-time job. There is no "right path" that I expect you to follow. There are so many possibilities – some I can't even imagine! The only path that's "right" is the path that feels right to YOU when the time comes. And you're allowed to change your mind many times as you figure yourself out.
If college turns out to be where you're headed, I will remember that there are over 3000 four-year colleges here in the United States, which means that the top 10% of those places amounts to more than 300 schools. Most of these colleges don't require a flawless academic record of the utmost rigor in high school and a resume stacked with activities and achievements. Plenty of them admit kids who got Bs, Cs, even some Ds and Fs. So, I will stop obsessing about the so-called top 20 schools and be delighted to help you find the place that's the right fit for you.
I want you to have wonderful opportunities and I want you to challenge yourself to continually learn and grow. To get ahead in life, hard work will be required. But your mental health and wellness matter most of all and I will never put some college's admissions criteria and preferences ahead of you doing what is right and healthy for YOU.
Step 12: What I Need From You
I need just a few things from you: 1) Please treat everyone you meet with dignity and kindness. (Yes this goes for your siblings, too 😊); 2) Work hard as often as you can, but also understand that it's natural for stuff to go wrong and that's okay; 3) Do your chores, because our home life functions smoothly when we all pitch in; 4) Participate in as many family meals as you can, because our family relationships keep all of us well and strong; and 5) Don't EVER hesitate to come to me for help.
Step 13: I Will Get the Help I Need In Order to Be the Parent You Deserve
I'll admit that some of the aspects of this pledge may be challenging for me. I'm your parent, and I'm a grownup, but I'm also learning and growing, too, just like you are. I will go and get the support I need to be able to adhere to this pledge, so that I can get better and better at showing up for you in the ways that are most loving and helpful. I truly want to be the parent you need and deserve, always.
Step 14: I Would Like to Hear Your Thoughts About This Pledge, If You Have Any
[Reader, here is where you make room for your kid to say what they need to say. They may have nothing to say. If that's the case, thank them for listening and get up and move on with your day. (Giving them space is important generally, and what they may need immediately after you give this pledge is a chance to think, or just to do nothing as they mull this over.) If they do have thoughts, or outright feedback for you, try to take it as if the universe in its infinite wisdom is giving you a chance to level up as a parent. Listen actively by repeating back what you've heard without defensiveness or snark. (e.g. "What I'm hearing is that you wish I didn't ask you about your homework as soon as you walk in the door." "What I'm hearing is that you hate it when I ask your friends about how they are doing in school.") Ask "Did I get that right? Is there more you want to say?" When they're done talking, thank them for sharing their thoughts. End with something like, "Thanks for trusting that I can learn and grow. I'll going to try to do better. I love you."
Readers, here's a smattering of what's behind this pledge.
If you're well familiar with my work, you probably know that I first got curious about the link between parental behavior and kid's poor mental health over twenty years ago when I was a college dean. I tried to do my part to address the problem with my book How to Raise an Adult (the chapter on the mental health correlation with overparenting is here) and I also gave a TED Talk on the subject. Around the same time, psychologists were starting to correlate the set of parenting behaviors we call "overparenting" with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and a lack of executive function in kids. (See Suniya Luthar's work. See Madeline Levine's work.) In those years I was on the board of the nonprofit Challenge Success which I greatly admire, and which among other things advocates for "Playtime, Downtime and Family Time (PDF)" as protective factors against all the challenges and pressures that kids are up against. Much more recently, I wrote an essay for the book Which Side of History: How Technology is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives on the impact of surveillance technologies such as parent grade portals and GPS-tracking apps on the quality of childrens' lives, which you can find excerpted here with my thanks to Grown & Flown, another great resource for parents. I'm also a fan of the nonprofit Let Grow which advocates for more freedom for kids including allowing them to be outdoors unsupervised. And finally, Kate Julian's article in the Atlantic summarizing the work of Yale researcher Eli Lebowitz on childhood anxiety blew my mind; if your kid has anxiety, read that article before the week is up!
I'm regarded as an expert, and to some extent, I am. But If you know my work, you know that I don't hold myself out as being more wise or important than anyone else. In addition to my professional expertise, I'm also a mom and have been raising my kids in a climate and culture of overparenting here in Silicon Valley. Turns out I'm not immune to the very problems I've identified. So, I've had to do a lot of soul searching about my parenting style. I've come to terms with a lot of it and I'm willing to be vulnerable and accept my imperfections. With the support of family therapy, I am actively re-patterning my behaviors towards my two kids so that I can be the parent they need and deserve. I'm grateful for their grace and graciousness towards me.
All of which goes to say, please trust that I am not judging you – I'm trying to help you, and your kid. Please trust that my purpose is not to blame us parents (God knows we are all trying our absolute best), yet I am willing to name some of our less-than-helpful behaviors, because you can't tame what you can't name. I'll end with gratitude to the McLean, Virginia community and in particular, Safe Communities Coalition and Potomac School, which is where I first tested the content that became this pledge.
Did any of the steps hit you as particularly welcome? Or on the other hand, hard, or even controversial? Is this pledge something you are interested in incorporating into your family life?
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