Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg specializes in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Author of four books and an editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ parenting web page (Healthychildren.org), Ginsburg is a renowned authority on developing resilience in children and adolescents. Katherine Reynolds Lewis spoke with him about his view of what’s most important in parenting children and adolescents.
Q: What concerns do you hear from parents and children today?
A: Parents are concerned about their kids' success and whether their dreams will come true in the future. Kids tend to be concerned most about stress. They're worried about the future and they're absorbing a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed in the present. The solution is for us all to clearly define success.
We have to think beyond what they're going to look like at 18 years old and the job or college they're going to. We have to remember that what we're really trying to do is raise successful adults, successful 35-year-olds.
They have to be compassionate, generous and empathetic. They have to be hard-working and have tenacity. They have to have social and collaborative skills. They have to be able to take constructive criticism. They have to be creative and innovative. And they have to be resilient.
The challenge is that when we pressure kids too hard for today, we undermine their long-term success. Kids who are middle class or upper middle class are a generation that is highly stressed out and has a lot of perfectionistic qualities. Perfectionism is the death of creativity and innovation.
The solution is really to absolutely want kids to be incredibly successful and put in a great effort now, but to have realistic expectations that understand that kids are uneven. Life is a balancing act between hard work, pleasure and having wonderful relationships.
Q: How do you strike that balance?
A: What we demand is effort. We have to understand that effort creates uneven results. The problem now is that parents think that in order for kids to achieve they have to be good at everything—every academic subject, athletics, art.
No one is good at everything. The challenge is to figure out what we shine at and how we want to contribute to the world.
Q: Can you talk about resilience?
A: Resilience is absolutely not a character or temperament trait, it is about the circumstances we put into kids' lives.
The kids who do really well, even through tough times, are the kids who have at least one adult who believes in them unconditionally and holds them to high expectations. That's the bottom line.
Through the American Academy of Pediatrics, I have a seven C's model of resilience. It's about putting into place the things in a kid's life so they'll have self-confidence, a sense of their own competence, strong character, feel deeply connected, have positive coping strategies, have a good sense of control and understand that they matter and can contribute to the world.
Q: What should parents be doing to build resilience?
A: Parents should be letting kids make some of their own mistakes but under their very watchful eye. They should be modeling and teaching appropriate coping strategies for their kids. Above all, they should be loving the kid they've got, not the one they think belongs on a bumper sticker.
This generation of parents is so torn about all of the different roles in their lives that they feel guilty all the time. The thing they sacrifice in order to alleviate their guilt is themselves.
It is incredibly important that kids see us as role models of healthy adults. When we exhibit good self-care, it's a strategic act of good parenting.
That, to me, to be honest with you, is one of the biggest messages that this generation of parents needs to hear. Really, being child-focused is beautiful, but forgetting about yourself doesn’t help your kids.
Q: Are there tools for parents to manage their own anxiety?
A: Look around and find the right peer group of parents. Find the right models who are 20 years older than you who can say, "It really does turn out okay." It's easy to find a group of friends who can drive you into a frenzy and will make you feel like you're not doing enough for your kid all the time, or your kid is going to fall behind.
It's important to live in a community and find a peer group that understands we have to preserve childhood. Childhood has to be about play, it has to be about fun, it has to be about exploration, it has to be about creativity and we know that is what ultimately will build success.
Q: What do kids need from parents in terms of time and connection?
A: They definitely need time. If you're talking about little kids, we're the best toy they've ever had. They'd rather play with us and get attention from us than anything else.
If you're talking about adolescents, it's absolutely no different. When we get so hung up on success and performance during adolescence, our relationship with our kids begins to get hurt. And we actually end up again undermining their success. They want high-quality conversation time with us, even if they pretend that they don’t.
Your goal in adolescence is to raise a kid who will stay connected with you and ultimately become interdependent on you. Adolescence is about kids pushing us away because of how intensely they love us and because they're trying to figure out how to stand on their own.
Your challenge as a parent is to figure out how to honor their independence rather than have them feel like they're being controlled.
Q: What hidden truths should people know about adolescence?
A: It's absolutely a terrific time of life. Adolescents are amazing, but you just have to play adolescence right. When you are controlling, they run away. When you are supportive of their growing independence, adolescence goes much, much smoother.
Most adolescents are doing very well. Every time we talk about adolescence we talk about adolescents as if they're in crisis, as if it's a terrible time of storm and stress. It's simply not true. Not only is it not true, it undermines our teenagers. The fundamental questions of adolescence are, "Am I normal?" and "Who am I?" When we all become incredibly alarmed at the mere presence of adolescents, we are communicating to them that they are the source of problems and that we expect the worst.