Why are kids so bored, impatient, and fragile these days?

boy with basketball
CC BY 2.0 John Morgan

Kids' social, emotional, and academic functioning has been declining for years, which suggests we need a new approach to parenting.

A friend of mine, who has been a kindergarten teacher for over 30 years, recently lamented the change she's noticed in kids over the past five years. Little 4- and 5-year-old kids are struggling terribly to focus, and my friend blames it on the iPad. "We used to do special projects that lasted weeks," she told me. "Now, we're lucky if a project lasts a few days."

My friend isn't the only one to notice this change. An occupational therapist from Toronto, Victoria Prooday, who has worked with parents, children, and teachers for many years, wrote an alarming blog post last summer outlining what she sees to be the reasons for kids' widespread boredom, entitled behavior, lack of patience, and minimal social skills. While you should read the article in its entirety, here are the basic points she makes:

1) Technology and its high levels of screen-based stimulation is being used as a free babysitting service, but it's not actually free at all.

"The payment is waiting for you just around the corner. We pay with our kids’ nervous systems, with their attention, and with their ability for delayed gratification. Compared to virtual reality, everyday life is boring."

2) Kids' desires are instantly met. Parents have a tendency to meet their children's requests immediately. The notion of delaying gratification for the sake of teaching that lesson to kids is rare these days. This is frightening because it reduces kids' resiliency in the face of future stress.

3) Kids rule the world. We've all heard it before, a parent lamenting, "My child won't go to bed. He won't eat vegetables. She won't use the potty. He doesn't like the dirt." But who's the boss? Those decisions shouldn't be up to a child to decide. It's the job of parents to teach their kid that some things have to be done because they're good for us, even if we don't want to do them.

4) Constant fun. Real life isn't fun. Enough with the parallel lives of parents and kids, where only one is required to work and the other is allowed to play, free from expectations or chores.

"This is basic monotonous work that trains the brain to be workable and function under 'boredom,' which is the same 'muscle' that is required to be eventually teachable at school. When they come to school and it is time for handwriting their answer is 'I can’t. It is too hard. Too boring.' Why? Because the workable 'muscle' is not getting trained through endless fun. It gets trained through work."

5) Limited social interaction. Kids aren't spending as much time with other kids as they used to, mostly because they're hanging out on devices, but also because play is now supposed to be supervised by adults. This limits opportunities for honing social skills, which will put any kid at a huge disadvantage for the rest of life.

It's a depressing picture of parenting today, but fortunately the solutions are fairly straightforward, even if they do require a strong parental backbone to implement! These problems are interconnected and, as each one is addressed, others will improve, too. For example, when daily chores are required of a child, there is less time to spend on screens. As children gain responsibility and mature, parents may be more willing to let them play independently. Being physically active is conducive to eating healthy food and going to bed without a fight.

It can be fixed. There's still time for a generation of parents who knows what it's like to be raised without the Internet in every pocket to teach their kids about the beauty and wonder of the real world, to instill a sense of responsibility, to teach them how to be bored with grace, and to pull their own weight around the house. But that requires us to acknowledge the severity of the problem as it is right now.

Why are kids so bored, impatient, and fragile these days?
Kids' social, emotional, and academic functioning has been declining for years, which suggests we need a new approach to parenting -- or, perhaps, an old one.

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