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Giving Them Something to Run With

I wrote a few weeks back about how kids will often surprise us with their initiative, dedication, and passion if we actually give them opportunities to take leadership and ownership of what they do. I’ve since had that conversation with several people, and the feedback has been interesting. Some responded by offering stories of their own where young people have grabbed hold of an opportunity and made the most of it. Others, however, responded with real anxiety about the kids in their own lives.

This second group all described situations with children (and in one case grandchildren) who have been given chances to involve themselves in all sorts of activities but who never seem to manage the motivation or dedication to do much of anything beyond playing video games or swiping through social media. Although parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends had encouraged them to take on everything from music to sports, volunteering to activism, they showed no little or no interest in anything.

In the case of one older child, the parent described how he’d barely completed high school, then moved into the basement of his girlfriend’s parents and refused to even look at work or school of any kind. He claimed the idea of working made him depressed. When his mother suggested that he at least come and volunteer with her at the local drop-in, he said that made him depressed too. Then he broke up with his girlfriend, moved back into his mother’s basement, where he refuses to do any work around the house, not even his own laundry, wearing the same clothes for weeks at a time, barely bathing. All he does is play video games.

This example is extreme, of course, but I know it’s not isolated. And the parents of these kids are desperate to discover how to engage their children in something, anything, that gives them a sense of purpose and fulfilment. There are no easy answers to this question, but there are a few things I think that parents can do in these situations.

1. In the kinds of extreme example that I just described above, you need to get help. Clinical depression, whatever its triggers and sources, needs professional attention. The best thing you can do for these kids is to have them see a professional.

2. Structure a healthy life. Whether you’re at a stage where you’re involving a therapist or just on your own, you need to structure your kids’ life in ways that are healthy. If they were able to do it on their own, they would have done it already. Make sure they get proper sleep, food, exercise. They’ll fight you on it, but a healthy lifestyle is one of the key elements in enabling kids to fight through depression and anxiety. It won’t eliminate the problem, but it will give them physical and emotional resources to cope more effectively.

3. Radically reduce their screen and device usage. In almost every example I heard in my recent conversations (and in many more examples in other situations) a common ingredient both of children who are deeply depressed and of children who are unmotivated and disengaged, is that their devices become an unhealthy, addictive escape for them. Their devices don’t cause these problems necessarily, but they unquestionably exacerbate the issue, allowing kids to avoid the bigger issues in their lives. In these cases, the devices or video games may need to go entirely. There may be no safe amount, at least not at first.

4. Especially when they’re younger, but at any age, involve them in what you do. Get them to help you with whatever you do around the house – cook, clean, garden, change the oil, patch the drywall, refinish the dresser, decorate for Christmas. Take them to the things you do around the community – working, volunteering, going to the gym, singing in the choir, hearing a concert, watching a film, attending a festival, hiking a trail. If you find that you don’t have these kinds of things in your life, then the change needs to begin with you. Kids need to see you model a full and healthy life.

5. Don’t make participation an option. In our family we require our kids always to be doing something active, something artistic, something spiritual, and something volunteer. We don’t have a whole lot of restrictions around what those things are. Athletic activities have ranged from fencing to a regular soccer play date in the park, from highly structured rep sports to informal hikes. Artistic activities have included formal drum lessons, time set aside to cartoon, and going to a local kid’s art centre. Spiritual activities have mostly been attending church and having a check in time with me each morning, but we know that this will change as the kids grow older and work through their own beliefs. Volunteer activities have included participating in the local river cleanup, walking in the Coldest Night of the Year fundraiser, and selling handmade crafts to buy farm animals for people in poverty around the world. The point is that they need to be involved in a variety of activities that stimulate them as whole people.

6. Encourage their interests. I don’t mean that you should obsess over the possibility that they’ll become famous athletes or singers just because they ask to play basketball or join a choir. I mean that you should be supportive of the places where they do seem to have engagement and aptitude. Does your kid like to cook? Great. Let him plan and cook meals around the house now and again, or have him help out preparing food at the drop-in, or let him know about cooking competitions that he could enter. Does your kid enjoy mucking around in nature? Fabulous. Take her on meandering hikes, or have her join an outdoors club, or encourage her to be a counsellor at a summer camp. Kids don’t know what options there are to express their interests until we show them.

If this sounds like hard work, it sure is. And there are no guarantees. But we can’t accuse our youth of being uncommitted and undisciplined if we aren’t willing to demonstrate this same commitment and discipline even in something as important as their futures. Let’s get to work.