What are you going to be when you grow up? It’s a seemingly harmless question that we were all asked as kids. But this question no longer serves today’s youth. It simply increases their anxiety and causes them to doubt their self-worth. It implies that they need to become someone else to be successful in life. It suggests that they are not good enough, and it perpetuates our workhorse culture that dictates one must achieve degrees and accolades to serve a purpose.
This is what I am left thinking after reading about Robert Chu, a 25-year-old medical student at McMaster University who committed suicide in September 2016 after being passed over twice for residency. I do not wish to undermine or simplify the growing epidemic of suicide rates among medical students — there are several factors that contribute to this issue. Instead, I want to consider what exactly we are teaching youth about self-worth. How are we preparing them to meet failure? How are we preparing them to persevere through difficult circumstances?
We need to start asking ourselves why we aren’t enough, why our children aren’t enough, why roles such as friend, mother, husband, sister, and colleague, for instance, just aren’t enough. Why do we continue to base our self-identity and worth on achievements and external recognition?
Our culture of “work hard, play hard” often leaves little time for that ever-elusive work-life balance. And it doesn’t start in medical school. It doesn’t start in college. It doesn’t start in high school. It starts much earlier than that — it starts in the way we speak to our children about their future. It begins with how we convince them that one day they will turn into something — like a butterfly — something much greater than their true essence, or how the world must acknowledge our unique snowflakes. And that, my friends, is a huge disservice that we need to start remedying.
Because there is an epidemic in the hallways of our high schools today — a student body riddled with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. There is staggering data that supports the rise of mental health concerns among youth. For instance, a study appearing in the journal Pediatrics reported that from 2005 to 2014, there was a 37% increase in children ages 12–20 who reported having at least one episode of major depression.
While many experts admit that much of the uptick in reported mental health issues is due to our increased awareness of mental health and its disorders, others are pointing to the direct culprits including the effects of screen time and social media on socialization and an ever-changing and competitive workforce.
Still, the one element that has me convinced we need to rethink the way we speak to our children is the commonly adopted parenting style that seeks to shelter children from pain and disappointment — the helicopter parent.
It doesn’t take much to see the effects of this parenting style. All one has to do is walk into a high school principal’s office to meet the child who fails to learn about consequences because mom or dad saves the day. For example, not only does mom bring the forgotten lunch box to the school office, but she makes sure it’s hot. Or the parents who intervene so much that they erase the need for youth to engage in problem-solving whether it’s at school or on the soccer field. Or the youth who aren’t privy to winning or losing because they are part of teams or events where everyone is a winner.
It’s time that we as a society re-embrace disappointment and failure as emotions that are meant to be felt and experienced and then washed away, rather than repaired, fixed, and avoided at all costs. We can only save our kids for so long until they meet real life head-on. And when they do meet real life, what will it be like for them if they are suddenly expected to learn about failure and disappointment for the first time at 18 years old?
Are the qualities of resilience, hard work, perseverance, and failure not just that — qualities? How do we begin to teach achievement and success without the former? It is time to start teaching character first — and achievement last. It is time to start asking our kids who they are and how they want to improve rather than asking them who it is they will become when they do or don’t earn a degree because sometimes being you is just that — more than enough.