Dear Kid Whisperer,
As my eleven-year-old returns to school, I am very concerned. I feel like he was a in a cocoon here at home for much of the last school year because of COVID, and it has affected his social development. He has a tendency to wallow a bit, and I worry about him not having a good year, both because of last year and because of his attitude. How do I avoid him getting bogged down in a funk as we enter the school year? -Trevor, Skokie, Illinois
Often, especially during tough times, adults will accidentally encourage negative attitudes.
When kids complain about school or life in general, caring adults will often stop whatever they are doing, make a beeline to their kid, and attend to the issue, offering free advice in the process.
While this sounds like a good idea, it isn’t.
Going about things this way tells your kid that adults will give you undivided attention when you have a problem. This encourages the kid to bring more problems to the attention of adults and to see more situations as problems. Dealing with these situations emotionally exacerbates these issues. Giving the kid advice implies that you don’t think they can solve problems on their own.
In addition, no one of any age likes to get unsolicited advice, and humans tend to resent the purveyors of such advice. So, by giving lots of attention to a kid who complains of a problem and then giving them advice, we make the kid think that they have more problems than they actually have, We also imply that the kid isn’t able to solve those problems, and, at the end of all of it, we’ve also made the kid resentful of us.
After all of this, what Kid really needed was love in the form of empathy, and the opportunity to solve his own problem so he could feel effective as a human being. He didn’t need us to solve the problem. Here’s how I would handle your kid when he expresses frustration with his life heading into his new school year:
Kid: Oh, bother. I have very few friends, this summer has been less socially successful than I would have liked, and now I am going to sixth grade, whereby I surely will be ignored and not properly appreciated.
Kid Whisperer (while doing dishes): Yikes. That doesn’t sound good. I certainly remember being eleven! Are you going to be able to solve that problem? If so, how?
Kid: I don’t know! I’m only eleven. I don’t know things yet.
Kid Whisperer: Yikes. Do you want some ideas?
Kid: No, frankly.
Kid Whisperer: Okay. Good luck. I know you’ll figure out something.
If, at some point in the future, Kid comes to you asking how to make friends, you can tell him what has been successful for people you have known (not for you, but for others). Otherwise, just be sad when and if your kid fails to make friends. Eventually, perhaps after many failures, Kid may come to you for ideas about how to solve his problem.
In the meantime, the above actions teach Kid that you care about him, that his problems are his problems, and that you have confidence in his ability so be a strong, effective person.
This is a great emotional location from which Kid can begin a lifetime of responsibility and problem solving!