August 6, 2018

Autonomy and Mastery – the Hidden Gifts of Camp

What do kids need, really need, in order to thrive?

A smart guy at University of Rochester did a study on just that and he, Richard Ryan, identified three psychological requirements for kids to thrive: Autonomy, mastery and connection.

One would hope for schools to supply at least the opportunity for these to occur. Because they don’t occur by magic. For kids to develop the big three, they require adults to set the scene. Or, more precisely, to get out of the way.

This has never been more urgent than today, for you are the first generation of parents to raise children who spend 24/7 with a computer in their pocket. The data on how this affects children are just beginning to come out, and the news is not good. The screen generation is prone to depression and anxiety – thanks to having to measure up to everyone else’s on-screen marketing of themselves and also thanks to knowing just how left out they are of something every 10 seconds. And thanks also to their addiction to “likes” every time they hit refresh. No like = no dopamine = no happy.

We are also coming to understand how badly Google has affected kids. I ask a teenager to sweep a floor. They give me a blank look. Or make a grilled cheese sandwich. Same blank look. Chores? Physical labour? Can you Google it? If not, they’re lost.

Mastery is what happens when they can do it. Whatever it is. It’s not the specific task that matters, it’s the sense of mastery that grows self-confidence and the ability to take on challenges. School offers ample opportunity for mastery. The problem is often that we, as parents, get in the way. I sure did when my kids were young. Helping with homework and calling teachers when things did not go as planned were my two favorite ways of taking charge of my kids’ education. I thought I was helping.

Fast forward: My daughter is doing a Masters in Social Work at Columbia University in New York. The first week of school they send her to a placement at an inner city community centre in The Bronx. Scary subway ride. Scary streets. Scary kids. I’m scared. I want to call Columbia, to ask in shock how they can send her there with zero training.

A friend talks me down off that ledge. Thank goodness, for how else could my child have attained mastery?

The second quality they need is independence, in order to develop autonomy. Autonomy happens when children are given space to make their own decisions, mess up and learn. Incredibly challenging… for parents. Here too we desperately want to smooth their every path and to prevent risk. This rises from our own fear for their safety and success. In the short term it might raise grades and reduce skinned knees. Longer term, autonomy suffers.

And finally, connection, that most basic of human needs after food and shelter. Kids today are having a harder time connecting with each other than any previous generation, thanks again to their devices. Their dozens of weekly hours on-screen put them in virtual contact, which is a poor substitute for actual face-to-face human connection. They don’t get to practice getting along with each other, or having normal tiffs and solving them. This makes them not such great team players.

It also deprives kids of one of the biggest upsides of interpersonal connection: Validation of who we are. In close relationships, we constantly receive mostly subtle signals that reinforce our worth. Absent those stimuli, more kids are more insecure than ever before. Which means parents try too hard to feed the validation beast. Which doesn’t help.

When we, as parents, tell our kids how wonderful they are, it tends to backfire. They doubt the verity of our validations, and then question themselves more. How to uptick their self-esteem? Provide opportunity for them to do things that make them proud of themselves. Most especially the big three: Mastery, autonomy and connection. Hence camp!

by Joanne Kates



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