When psychologist Madeline Levine wrote The Price of Privilege 14 years ago, she wanted to persuade parents that pushing kids to succeed at any cost was making them suffer. But since then, the rates of anxiety and depression in kids have only increased, suggesting that life today may be even harder for them.
“We’ve got fires, crazy politics, climate change, mass murders, all kinds of social uncertainty and fear. So, kids (and their parents, too) are incredibly anxious, and they don’t know how to be effective in a very uncertain environment,” she says.
Enter her new book, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. Meant as a guide for parents, the book offers information about the challenges kids face today and what parents can do to better support them. Too often parents take the wrong approach to encouraging their kids’ success, argues Levine, pushing unrealistic expectations onto them and over-managing their lives, denying them opportunities to grow and develop resilience. She hopes to show parents that by cultivating more positive social-emotional skills—like optimism, compassion, and humility—kids will be better prepared for the future they face, while protecting their mental health.
I spoke to her recently about her book and what parents can take away from it.
Jill Suttie: You take issue with the term “emerging adulthood” for late adolescence. How should parents help their kids negotiate this stage of development better?
Madeline Levine: The concept of emerging adulthood didn’t exist when I was training many decades ago. Now every major psychiatric institution has an emerging adult program. So, what are they and why are they different?
They’re programs for kids who in many ways have been protected from learning how to manage their feelings and their lives. They haven’t learned how to get on in the world—how to make a bed, how to talk with somebody who’s angry. The reason that these programs are so popular right now is that so many parents are willing to accommodate to their child in all the wrong ways.
If your kid says, “I don’t want to go to a sleepover, because I won’t know the kids there and I’ll have to sleep in a strange bed,” and you say, “OK, you don’t have to go,” or your kid tells you the dog across the street scares them because he barks loudly, and you say, “Well, we can walk the other way; we don’t have to pass the dog,” those kinds of accommodations get in the way of your kid building resilience and competence. How do kids build those if they don’t have a lot of practice in age-appropriate, small challenges?
I think we parents do this because we’re nervous ourselves, right? Plus, it’s much easier to give in, especially when a child is distressed. But it robs our kids of the opportunity to learn that they can manage. I see parents whose child isn’t invited to somebody else’s party say to their kid, “I’m going to make an even bigger party for you, so those other girls will come to your party and not hers.” That’s a very big mistake. Learning that you will be rejected at some point in life and can tolerate it, learn from it, and pick yourself up again is important for resilience. But too often those experiences are missing for kids whom we’re calling “emerging adults.”
JS: Your book mentions foundational skills that parents can teach their kids—like communication, empathy, collaboration, and humility. If these aren’t emphasized at school, what can parents do?
ML: Well, first parents have to believe that the skills aren’t just nice add-ons. They’re mandatory for being successful in life.
My husband’s cousin is the head of neuroimaging at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, so he hires a lot of scientists. I asked him if there is anything different that he is looking for in the young scientists he’s hiring now versus the scientists he hired 20 years ago. And he said, “Absolutely, content has gone to the bottom of the list.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to know your stuff. But his point was that whereas before being the smartest guy in the room was probably insurance for getting hired, it’s not anymore. What’s insurance now is the ability to work collaboratively, to have new ideas, to fail at something and pick yourself up again. You can find out a lot of the content that you may need on Google; but what to do with it, how to know if it’s legitimate information, how to work in a group, and how to come up with new ideas—that’s what’s needed now.
JS: So how can parents actually nurture those skills in their kids?
ML: They can stop being focused on performance and start being focused on process. Instead of asking your kid, “What grades did you get?,” you ask, “How was that test?” or “How was your day?” The emphasis on performance tells your kids that that’s the only thing that really matters.
Another thing we can do is listen better. No kid who’s been in my office has ever said to me, “You know, my parents listened too much.” We can model curiosity, so that becomes a value that is important to them. You can ask, “What did you learn today?” or “What are you struggling with?”
Also, instead of sitting every single weekend and watching your kids play soccer or lacrosse, you should be involved in your community. Do something that makes this a better world, and model that for your kids. Don’t talk about who has the new Tesla at the dinner table, but talk about what’s going on in the world—climate change, things like that. If we start modeling curiosity, independence, creativity, and the importance of working collaboratively in a group, those are the things your kid’s going to learn.
JS: You write that hope and optimism are “ultimate life skills.” How can parents help kids sustain hope and optimism when they’re struggling with anxiety and dread?
ML: I’m by nature a pessimist, but I found that it wasn’t doing me much good. And it wasn’t doing my kids much good, because pessimism can lead to hopelessness, and hopelessness leads to depression. Right now, in this moment in history, we need young people who feel they have agency, and optimists have a far greater sense of agency than people who are pessimists.
I’m concerned with how passive kids have become. Fifteen years ago, a kid would come to my office, take off their backpack and throw it on the floor, and say, “Get my parents off my back. They can’t tell me what to do!” Now, that’s sort of petered out in the last five to seven years, and kids tell me that there’s nothing they can do; it’s just the way it is. That’s really worrisome, because you don’t want teenagers to become passive and lose their sense of rebellion and of being able to change the world.
As a parent, your outlook on the world—optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or not hopeful—really has an impact on your kids. My own kids pointed out to me that I was always asking them, “Is everything okay?” as if I was asking, “What went wrong today?” Our language needs to change. Instead of interrupting and telling kids how to do something, which parents often do reflexively, we need to change that to say something like, “I think you can handle this” or “You’ve got this”—something that instills confidence and optimism. We underestimate kids in terms of what they’re capable of learning and doing.
JS: Let’s say your teenager has stopped studying and is doing poorly in school. Do you recommend letting them struggle through it or stepping in?
ML: If your kid was an A student and suddenly he’s failing, that requires an intervention. Something’s going on. But if your kid goes from being an A student to a B student, that’s a different scenario. Sure, it may warrant some discussion, but don’t forget that damage can be done by interventions that are unnecessary. Look at the Varsity Blues Scandal—the parents paying huge amounts of money to get their kids into colleges. There’s no greater vote of no confidence than to give a school half a million dollars because you don’t think your kid will get in.
If you’re going to err on one side or the other, you err on the side of restraint. Hopefully you wait for a child to say, “I’m having trouble with this. I need some help.” You don’t rush in; you watch your kid to see what’s going on with them. If they’re the kind of kid that’s heading toward college, and suddenly he loses all interest in his studies, then something’s up with him—maybe his girlfriend rejected him or he’s doing substances or he’s no longer on the traveling lacrosse team. When you see that kind of dip, that’s when you intervene—not with the kid that’s gone from an A- to a B+. We often intervene because of our own anxiety, but really we just need a much bigger vision for our kids for what a successful life looks like.
JS: You write about children needing a well-developed moral compass. What are the points of that compass and how do parents help their children to learn those ?
ML: That idea came very specifically out of speaking with so many people in the tech world. I spent a day at Google with Peter Norvig, the head of research, and it was distressing to me. Yes, it was a privilege to spend time with him, but then I mentioned that some of the girls I treat [in psychotherapy] had gone on YouTube to learn how to more effectively cut their wrists. I asked him, “What’s your responsibility in this?” and he said, “It’s not my responsibility.”
I understand that he’s an engineer, not an ethicist, but I walked away from the whole process really concerned about the silo-ing of moral responsibility around things with potentially enormous consequences. And it’s not just at Google. We now know how to edit genes with CRISPR, but who’s going to get their genes edited so they don’t have a lifelong illness? Only the people who can afford to pay for it? Those are the kinds of questions our kids are going to have to grapple with.
So, what are the points of a moral compass? I think they are honesty, integrity, and a worldview that is larger than the individual. Too many of us are hunkered down in our families. We need a far broader view of the world. That guy at Google has a daughter, and I asked him if he’s concerned about her seeing this YouTube material online, and his answer was basically, “My daughter would never do that.” That just shows that he misunderstands the connection that we all have with each other. Sure, maybe he’s right and she wouldn’t do it, but the girl next door or down the block might, or maybe her best friend might. We can’t ignore that we’re all impacted by each other.
JS: What do you most hope parents will take away from your book?
ML: I would like parents to take away enthusiasm for confronting uncertainty. I understand that’s a huge ask, because people are so worried. But we’ve been through tough times in this country before, and we need to have the kind of enthusiasm we had for young kids when they were learning to walk: They fall down, you encourage them to get up again; they fall down, you clap your hands and say, “Come on baby, get up again.” We need the kind of enthusiasm for wobbly legs in a wobbly world—not really knowing how to do something yet, not being sure of how long something’s going to take to become competent, but knowing that our kids will end up walking.
The future is a wave that’s either going to crush us or that we can learn to ride. I would like parents to be optimistic and to pay attention to the little things they can do. Let kids sleep a little bit more, show concern about the world around you, understand that there are moral issues. Dinnertime conversations shouldn’t be about how everybody did on the test. Ask your kids what they think about politically. Or, if they’re young, ask them about the new kid in school and have a conversation about how hard that can be—maybe make some suggestions about what to say to the new kid.
My overarching message is that we’re on an expired parenting paradigm and it needs to change. Let’s get with the program and be enthusiastic about it, while we’re at it.