The next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years.
~ Chris Martenson
We may not feel prepared for what lies ahead, yet it is clearly our responsibility to help lead our children in the “right direction” as we head into the future with them. That might seem like a frighteningly impossible task, but we are obligated to try our best. It doesn’t matter how old our kids are – it is our job to guide their growth and support them through many stages of understanding. You might note that this is nothing more than what we’d be doing anyway. But if we first do the work of identifying our values and priorities, and shifting our own thinking and actions in the direction we’d like our family and loved ones to follow, we can ensure that our parenting path is aligned with the resource-challenged future that we anticipate.
As parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, or educators of young people, we are each a living and walking example of the values that the children in our lives will absorb. This is true whether we are intentional about it or not. Kids model what they see the adults in their life doing. Many adults underestimate how significantly their habits and practices have an effect on the children and teens in their lives. If we carry ourselves with conviction and intent, routinely making choices that reflect our values regardless of what those around us are doing, chances are that the youth around us will reflect that strength of character, independent thinking, and self-reliant approach to life. Even if all we do is strive to model our own resilient choices, it will go a long way in helping to prepare others by simply priming their attitude to positively accept a shift toward more resilient living.
It’s easiest to start from babyhood, of course. Kids who have been raised to experience resilient and sustainable living as the norm will naturally have less shifting to do. Keeping expectations flexible and modest from an early age can help. But what if the children in your life are already ingrained in mainstream ways? It would be no wonder if they were, given the pervasiveness and intensity of media marketing. Corporations pay millions for “market research” to identify how best to influence people, including young children, to buy their products (or convince their parents to buy their products) and increase the companies’ bottom lines. Local banks and gas pumps now have television screens with commercials on them. Public schools allow televisions with advertising messages to be part of their students’ “learning” experiences. Movies and video games are underwritten by corporations, with the perk of strategic brand or product placement. Even in families where there is no television or Internet, exposure to commercial forces is very difficult to avoid. (I speak from experience, with four kids and no TV since 2004.) But it’s never too late to set new habits and shift expectations.
So what can we do? We cannot change the fact that our collective reality is changing. Many of us (particularly those of us in our 20s and 30s) were raised to believe that we should stretch ourselves financially and personally – to the limit and beyond – to ensure that our children will have a carefree and abundant childhood. But it is no longer advisable or even possible to overextend ourselves financially, and it is also essential to our own personal strength and health to not overextend ourselves personally – not even where our children are concerned. Not to mention that experts disagree about what a “carefree” childhood is and whether it is even in a child’s best interest to have such a thing.
But, as anyone who has dealt with children can relate, imposing new limits on kids can be very challenging. Does this mean we’re imposing hardship on them – or worse, on ourselves? Not at all, though they may accuse us of that in the moment. A kid who is set in his or her ways may resist when (for example) you suggest they unplug from their electronic device of choice and go for a hike instead. But that’s okay. Kids need to be allowed to express their frustrations and dissatisfactions with such changes (as do adults), and they do best when guided to express their feelings in a way that is healthy and respectful to themselves and those around them. They benefit from having a chance to process their experiences verbally, and they will need some loving guidance in adjusting their communication strategy if it doesn’t come easily at first. They need present adults who can be patient and supportive while they work on such skills, and who express and maintain clear expectations with support for following them when it doesn’t come easy.
Happiness and fun come in many forms. The mainstream media has spent the last few decades convincing people of all generations that happiness, enjoyment, and self-worth can (and should) be purchased. But a resilient life demands a different definition of happiness, one in which fulfilling relationships, satisfying activities, and creative expression are paramount – and, incidentally, impossible to buy. It seems to me that many people, children and adults alike, need help shifting away from this paradigm and towards a new one (or a really old one, if you like) embracing creative, satisfying, productive, and unplugged kinds of fun. Some kids, particularly those who spend hours a day “plugged in” to electronic devices, don’t know where to start. Can we help them?
Of course we can. Some of us older adults are lucky enough to remember family times centered on games of all kinds, walks in the city or the woods, art and craft projects that did not come with instructions, chalk drawings on the pavement, long games of creative “pretend” in the house or yard, hide-and-seek or tag, backyard camping, and hot summer days spent plotting anything that might possibly be more fun than lying around. Some of us put pencil to paper and learned to sketch just by trying, or wrote letters or novels or comics. Some of us learned to identify the bugs in our yard, by sight and activity if not by name. Some of us helped in the garden or the kitchen or the woodshop. We had block parties and street fairs and backyard picnics. We made stuff and built stuff and shared with friends or siblings or neighbors. These are becoming “lost arts” among many in the current generation of kids. We can help reverse that.
Challenge the children around you – yours or someone else’s – to think outside the box in getting their entertainment needs met. Have conversations with them about what they’d do if there were no cars, or no cell phones, or no running water. No video games, no texting, no Internet, no electricity. No movies, no televised sports, no fast food. Empathize with them when they complain about how hard that would be. And then help open their minds to all of the creative possibilities that could replace those things. You both might be surprised with the ideas they have to offer.
At the same time, challenge yourself. Review all of the things you enjoy about your own life, not just your basic needs and how they are met. What do you do for entertainment? How do you keep fit? Which relationships are most meaningful to you? How much of your “free” time is spent engaged in activities that are dependent on disposable income or abundant energy? What can you do to shift your interests away from the mainstream media machine and toward activities that help you develop self-sufficiency skills and grow relationships within your community?
Have you dabbled in any of the many “nearly lost arts” that are being rediscovered by resilience-seekers – fiber arts, metalworking, gardening, carpentry, sewing, foraging, small mechanical repair, home food preservation, animal husbandry, home brewing, fishing, or any other productive or useful hobbies? What about old-fashioned pastimes such as playing a musical instrument, playing card games, writing poetry, drawing, birdwatching, lawn games, hiking, biking? When we immerse ourselves in such activities and let the kids around us see our enthusiasm grow – better yet, invite them to participate – it gives them unspoken permission to do the same when they’re choosing how to spend their time.
Most of all, let them know that they are smart and resourceful and have all the inner tools they need to be able to handle whatever comes their way. We don’t know what the future holds, though we can take some important guesses. There will be surprises and shocks along the way. A passion for creative problem-solving and a strong sense of self-confidence are among the most important strengths you can foster in a child. Help them experience firsthand that they can have satisfying fun even without the use of electronics or even electricity. Empower them to see their world as a place where they can thrive and make a difference even as many of the things that we previously took for granted change and shift. Let them know that, above all else, they are loved and appreciated, and that you and other adults in their life will support them as they grow and learn.
As we experience the world changing around us, it’s our job as adults to know our own foundational beliefs so that we can be strong in them as we lead the way for the younger generation. We are capable of shifting our expectations and increasing our resilience so that we can better adapt to our ever-changing situations. And kids are capable as well, although they may not know it yet; it’s up to us to show them how. Do your own inner work of clarifying your values and priorities, model the experiences and habits that you want to carry into our future, and always be mindful of how important your thoughtful presence and leadership are to the young people in your life.