“Sam” – whose real name I’m not using to protect his privacy – was a first-year college student when he was referred to me. He was taking English and music, and he had slashed his arms with the bow of his violin.
He told me it was not a suicide attempt but rather a protest against his childhood.
Sam told me that as a child, he was a star student, excelling in academics and music, as he spent a lot of time in those activities. However, after Sam reached a certain level of technical ability, he started to fall behind. Around grade 11, the emphasis in the classroom shifted more toward comprehension, creative writing, music composition and group projects, and thus, Sam barely made it into college. Once in college, things became much worse, and Sam admitted to me that he slashed his arms after he was caught cheating on an English essay that he just couldn’t “figure out on his own.”
Sam’s story is not unique. I’ve seen this type of scenario play out countless times: A micromanaged child who performed well with linear, technical tasks begins to unravel when required to do more complex, creative or group-oriented assignments.
A 2014 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology showed the relationship between the time children spend in less-structured and structured activities and the development of vital skills that are becoming ever more important in our 21st century world. Scientists call these skills self-directed executive functioning. As researchers involved in the study noted, these skills help kids in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, ranging from allowing them to flexibly switch between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing to being able to delay gratification or stop themselves from yelling when angry. Executive functioning during childhood predicts important outcomes, such as academic performance, health and wealth as well as criminal behavior years and even decades later. The study results concluded that children who spent more time in structured activities had less self-directed executive functioning, while those who spent more time participating in free-flowing, open-ended activities had greater self-directed executive functioning.
The key identified 21st century skills are creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration. Over-instruction of kids that leaves no time or space for trial and error, mistakes and just figuring things out on one’s own can stand in the way of children developing all of these skills.
Of course, some level of structure is good for children. But with seemingly never-ending structured activities consuming more and more of our kids’ time, their lives have been thrown off balance. This is leaving kids with an inability to think on their feet and outside of the box.
Today’s well-meaning parents who are overscheduling and over-directing their kids in an effort to help them stay competitive with their peers are not fully preparing those children for our rapidly changing modern world that increasingly demands complex cognitive skills which can’t be outsourced or automated. The days of awards and promotions for those who know the right answer are quickly disappearing (we have Google for that). We are in the era of conceptualization, where those who can ask the right questions, find the answers and apply that knowledge within diverse groups and environments will succeed. Those who discover, communicate, innovate and connect will flourish.
What many parents don’t realize is that these 21st century skills allow our children to excel in both their professional and personal lives. After all, creativity and resilience are two sides of the same coin. One cannot be resilient unless he or she is creative. When kids can’t figure out new and different of solutions to their problems, they remain stuck.
The mental health crisis across our campuses and classrooms is serious. It’s clear we need more counselors, therapists and psychiatrists to help the countless children and families who are suffering. However, we also need to get serious about changing how we parent and educate our children – moving from instruction to guidance, from direction to empowerment and from perfectionism to resilience. I know there are many more students with a story similar to Sam’s. It’s not too late to make the change.