“I want to apologize for my generation and the world we have created for you.”
A mentor of one of my teen daughters made this statement a few years back. When my daughter first told me about it I understood his mindset. His apology was well-intended. It had been an especially crazy media week featuring stories of environmental disaster, civil strife and political rancor.
But then I thought again: No! Don’t model such pessimism for the next generation! That just makes us part of the problem. If adults can’t envision a better future, how can we expect children to have hope?
Finally, a larger question emerged: How did we get to this defeatist point?
Neverending news cycle wears us down
No doubt one culprit is the media saturation many of us have allowed our families to experience. On the national level, the onslaught of the 24/7 news cycle is hard to tame. On the personal level, the onslaught of social media, texts, e-mails, snaps, posts, tweets, etc. is also hard to tether — especially for teens. In a sense, many of us are becoming human media outlets stuck in a forever “breaking” news cycle of our own lives. Even new brain metaphors like “my mind doesn’t have the bandwidth for that” and “my mental batteries need recharging” show the technological seepage.
The result? We end up living way too much in the present, with no time for reflecting on the past or envisioning the future. Hence the anxiety of my daughter’s well-intentioned mentor.
So what can today’s parents do? I discovered some answers in Madeline Levine’s recent book, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.
Levine notes “it is the velocity of change that we find truly head-spinning” in today’s media-dominated culture. Consequently, anxiety “is now the number one mental health disorder for both adults and children.”
“Old” solutions to the media saturation problem
For Levine, one road to a better, less anxious future for children leads to the past. “For most kids, having something resembling an old-fashioned childhood — playing outside, meeting challenges without constant parental interference, being bored, having chores, taking some risks — is far more likely to build the kinds of competencies kids have always needed and that will be particularly important in the future,” she writes.
Another way of thinking about such “old-fashioned” remedies for media saturation is to divide them into body and mind strategies. Physically, parents can try to foster more non-tech, slowed-down family time. These strategies include:
Granted, technology has many beneficial uses at home. However, children need boundaries. Boundaries help their physical development beyond looking at screens.
Psychologically, Levine recommends parents revisit a tool from the past.
“While it may sound profoundly old-fashioned, never underestimate teaching your kids the value of a good attitude,” she writes. “That means teaching and appreciating optimism, empathy, gratitude, self-reflection, humility, and enthusiasm around challenges and diverse points of view.”
She calls for parents to model an optimistic “explanatory style,” or “the manner in which we habitually explain to ourselves why things happen and what they mean.”
In addition to expressing optimism, parents should provide context. This helps “reframe” media narratives for children to provide more balanced perspectives. For example, in our house we have talked about the eventual endings of the 1918 flu pandemic and the 1960s nuclear gamesmanship as ways to cope with recent scary headlines. Reflecting on historical traumas that eventually passed helps lessen everyone’s anxiety about the present and future.
The “new” power of increasingly involved fathers
Late in her book, Levine models optimism for the future by noting the positive impacts of increasingly involved fathers. The continued redefinition and expansion of modern fatherhood — whether working or at-home — bodes well for all families.
“In a popular quip, the scientist Alan Kay said, ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it,’” Levine notes. This quote reminded me of years ago when I attended the Annual At-Home Dads Convention, which I highly recommend. At the conference, one of the presenters joked that full-time at-home dads are like “fathers from the future.”
It’s ironic that Levine offers some old-fashioned advice to “future-proof” today’s families. But in a statement that contrasts with my daughter’s well-meaning mentor, she practices the “good attitude” she preaches.
“We want our children to run toward adulthood eagerly, not cringe from it or burrow down in our spare room for years,” Levine writes. “We want to reassure them that, even in our unpredictable era, there’s always a way forward to a fulfilling life.”
In other words, “the future isn’t a tide that’s going to crush us, it’s a wave we’re a part of.” Don’t let media saturation make your family forget that.