There is an odd situation going on today – that we can’t tell anyone something that ‘makes them feel uncomfortable’. Teachers are now being told that they can’t teach certain history topics for fear that ‘students will feel badly’. Interesting as there are things in the past we can be proud of, but there are also things we should not be proud of – so if anyone might feel uncomfortable we don’t get to talk about it? How in the world are we going to learn from history about what happened if we don’t look and discuss it? Writer and philosopher George Santayana, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” People and civilizations evolve even when past things were done that were not good. Those things, as we discuss history, may make us feel badly in the moment – but also provide insight and perspective so that the bad things aren’t done again.
Two questions came to mind as I thought about this and the impact on children and the resulting impact as those children become adults. Are today’s children so ‘fragile’ that they can’t handle anything other than positive feedback and information – even if it isn’t truthful? And, as young adults entering into a contemporary workplace, how does play out?
For the first question, there has been a disturbing trend going on with children for a while. Rather than teach children how to cope with adversity and build their confidence, I have seen many parents sheltering their children to an extreme. Don’t get me wrong, we parents are supposed to protect our children from harm. But when does the definition of harm include protection from ANYTHING that might make them feel badly or impact their self-esteem or confidence? When does protection include hovering so extensively that the helicopter parents are nicknamed ‘Blackhawks’? My twin sons played soccer when they were young and their team lost nearly every game. At the end of the season, each player got a trophy – and the kids believed they had won the soccer league. The coach and many of the other parents let their sons believe this falsehood. My husband and I explained the truth to our boys – and supported them as they expressed their feelings about losing. It made them feel badly in the moment – sad that they had lost and angry that they felt lied to about winning. They were learning that having those strong feelings was survivable, that expressing them made them feel better, and that losing wasn’t the end of the world.
This is significant as no one wins all the time. The feelings of losing – disappointment, sadness, anger – will eventually come up so it is essential that children learn the life skills of dealing with failure or losing or ‘feeling badly’. Children can be supported in working through their feelings by being listened to with presence, without judgement or caution, and with empathy and understanding – so they can feel better themselves. Without having these skills, risks will be avoided, and they will look to the outside world to take care of them and to validate them. A client recently shared an example of how this plays out in the workplace. A young woman went into her manager’s office after the announcement that a co-worker (and her best friend) was transferring to another location. The young woman told her manager, ‘Now that my best friend is leaving, you’ll have to find me another best friend’. Amazing that the young woman expected her manager to take care of her friend needs at work. She didn’t have the skills to deal with losing her best friend in the workplace.
A broader implication was outlined in a Wall Street Journal article entitled ‘Everything Is Awesome! Why You Can’t Tell Employees That They Are Doing a Bad Job’. The article covered the growing trend of ‘Accentuate the Positive’ – only telling employees positive things during their performance reviews. It cited that employers fear that they will crush employees’ confidence and erode performance. It encouraged asking managers to ease up on harsh feedback. Perhaps a better encouragement would be to ask for specific examples of ‘harsh feedback’. If the feedback was harsh, then communication and performance management skills are needed for the manager. However, what if the label of ‘harsh’ came from an employee who was never allowed to fail or feel badly as a child? They may have no skills to deal with any type of feedback that isn’t glowing – leaving them unable to deal with the real adult working world.
My colleague John often asks, ‘Are you raising children or adults?’ Hmm – if we think that we are raising adults, we’ll consider their adult world and focus on preparing them for the world they are actually going to live in. We’ll tell them the truth and we’ll be there to support them in their sadness, anger, fear, and disappointment. And they will learn that feelings are just feelings – not good or bad, and that they can express feeling badly over history or other difficult topics, and that they’ll be OK. The cost of not teaching them these skills? We risk crippling them for today’s working world where you don’t always win, things aren’t always easy, and things aren’t going to always go your way.
I don’t believe that today’s children or employees are that fragile. And, I believe, that with skills they can effectively handle difficult conversations, difficult situations, and feeling badly. We can start today with our children. But we also need to provide training in these skills to our adults in the workplace. If you want more capable employees, stop complaining about the skills they don’t have and teach them. Stop expecting them to come into the workplace with the same set of skills that you have. Stop saying ‘why do I have to do it?’. These may be kids who grew up without any of the teaching. So, make the commitment to them and their success. It is an investment well worth the work.