The Modern Dad's Survival Guide
Being a dad in 2018 is different from being a dad in 1968—or even in 1998. Here’s what you need to know to successfully parent in the 21st century.
Illustrations by Zach Roszczewski
Your Kids Want to Be Famous. Help Them Use That Ambition for Good.
A generation ago, kids craved mere popularity. Today studies find that “becoming famous” is the number-one aspiration of 10- to 12-year-olds. And they don’t necessarily want to become skilled athletes or musicians, as kids from previous generations did: They simply want to be famous for fame’s sake. Researchers attribute these findings to two sources: the time children spend on social media and the rise in television programming featuring fame as a central value. Why is this a problem? A child who craves external affirmation and praise tends to be not only more anxious and depressed but also less accomplished. Rather than quash or pass judgment on a kid’s desire for fame, however, operationalize it. Ambition and energy are positive traits. Encourage kids to channel those traits, and the sense of justice that is at its most fervent during adolescence, into positive social efforts. Volunteer opportunities, which abound in every community, and online organizations like Teens Against Bullying can give teenagers influential and fulfilling missions.
The Gender Pay Gap Begins at Home. But Only If You Let It.
Today women are the primary or sole breadwinner in nearly half of American families. Yet the pay gap persists—in fact, it begins at birth. Studies show that boys are paid more for doing fewer chores. Boys are more likely to get an allowance, and their allowance is usually higher. Parents are also more likely to talk about financial goals with boys as well as more likely to save money for their college education—even though more women than men have been earning college degrees since 2014. To combat this, be gender-neutral in the financial attitudes and practices you demonstrate to your family. One encouraging real-world sign that this gender-biased dynamic may be changing: The pay gap, for the generation of women aged 25 to 34, continues, very slowly, to shrink.
The More Money Changes, the More It Stays the Same. Focus on the Fundamentals.
We used to learn about saving money by stuffing nickels into a piggy bank or putting part of a weekly allowance into a savings account. Today many kids may think of money as a piece of plastic or just a number on an ATM screen, even as smartphone apps have turned some teens into stock traders and cryptocurrency investors. Money’s easier to make, but it’s also easier to lose. Kids also pick up a great deal of information about money from their peers and the internet, and much of that information may be unreliable. To help kids develop fiscal responsibility, teach them the importance of delayed gratification and autonomy. Start teaching kids these skills as early as age three, perhaps by discussing with them, in age-appropriate ways, concepts like value, distinguishing needs from wants, saving and spending, and charity. Games such as those at ThreeJars or the Balance's “Kids and Money” section can be powerful tools for instilling these concepts, as can personal anecdotes: Kids love to hear you tell stories about your own childhood.
Your Kid’s So Talented! But Don’t Tell Them That.
Eighty-five percent of parents believe it’s important to tell their kids they’re smart. Yet research shows that this is actually hurting kids. Elementary-school students who’ve been praised as smart—or have even been told things like “You have a mind for math” or “You have a gift with words”—often struggle when they encounter adversity. They believe they’re bumping up against the limits of their natural abilities—a so-called “fixed mind-set.” But peers who’ve been praised as hard workers manifest what researchers call a “growth mind-set”: They believe they can resolve tough problems through dedication and effort. Functional MRI scans show that growth-mind-set learning actually changes the brain. Its benefits, appearing as early as the age of one or two, cut across race, class, and gender. The end result? Resilient, accomplished adults who don’t require constant validation, who seek out more challenges, and who recognize that difficulty is an inevitable part of doing something worthwhile. Even if it’s hard to do, rein in the compliments. Instead, praise process. Praise strategy. Praise grit. Above all, teach your kids that, as one Stanford educator puts it, “Mistakes grow your brain.”
Your Kids Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. Stop Asking.
Here’s a scary thought: The job your child is best suited for might not even exist yet. This makes it harder than ever to prepare your child to eventually enter the workforce. Career counselors urge parents to think less about preparing children for a specific job and more about focusing on their unique skill sets. The fact is most kids aren’t asking themselves what they want to be; they’re asking themselves who they are. Many have interests that are too wide-ranging to be distilled to a single professional “calling,” and asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?” can actually cause anxiety. A further challenge: Kids who aren’t interested in a specific career tend not to be praised and encouraged the same way that kids who want to be, say, vets or doctors or police officers are. The best career advice for parents of the job holders of the future? Encourage your child to develop the abilities and interests most meaningful to them. The foundation of their future career will fall into place naturally.
Don’t Limit Your Kid’s Screen Time. Become a “Media Mentor.”
When it comes to media exposure, the American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended a restrictive approach. The past decade has forced parents and organizations like the AAP to reconsider the wisdom of that strategy. Portable devices like smartphones and tablets mean kids can stream entertainment or play video games anytime, anywhere. But there have also been huge developments in educational content. In 2016, the AAP officially dropped its restrictive approach in favor of more open-ended guidelines, urging parents to become “media mentors.” This means staying informed about available content so you can curate positive screen-time experiences and weed out programs and games that don’t support cognitive and emotional growth. Try to commit a couple of hours every other weekend to watching television shows or using apps with your child. When you talk about them afterward, you can pose questions that will help them engage productively with their media-saturated world.
No One Makes Decisions Easily—It’s Science! Help Your Kids Block Out the Noise.
American consumers have more choices than ever. And yet, as recent discoveries in neuroscience have made clear, our brains do not prioritize well when it comes to decision-making. Living in a society overloaded with information is our modern condition and quandary, but it can be especially dangerous for adolescents, who find themselves on the precipice of crucial life choices. Studies show1 that people who are asked to make a series of trivial choices display what’s known as neural fatigue—a phenomenon in which they show increasingly poor impulse control and lack of judgment as the number of choices grows. Kids may be particularly susceptible to neural fatigue, but you can help your child avoid it by making small, practical changes. For example, when possible, encourage your children to tackle their most important work first. Help them focus by restricting their social media use until after they’ve completed the day’s most pressing tasks. Choose the right time to talk about big decisions, and spare your kids a few of the more mundane tasks when you can. Even something as small as doing their back-to-school shopping for them can be a big help.
Nobody Is Perfect. It Just Seems That Way Online.
Social media doesn’t reflect anybody’s reality. But scrolling endlessly through curated accounts can make some young people feel otherwise—that while they’re struggling in their lives, their peers are effortlessly flourishing. Experts urge parents to talk to kids about the inherently superficial aspects of social media. Remind them that everyone covers up the parts of their lives that they feel insecure about and that what we see on social media is never the entire truth of a person. Researchers have found that some people are prone to a style of thinking called social perfectionism, in which they may believe they’ve failed or disappointed others2. While social perfectionism can affect any person at any age, young people who experience it may feel that they’re the only ones not measuring up—and this feeling can be exacerbated by the impossibly high standards set on social media. You can help them by sharing stories about the insecurities and struggles you had at their age and by encouraging older siblings or other family members to do the same.
1 The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin
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