We’re all familiar with the concept of proactive versus reactive responses. A proactive approach anticipates and seeks to avoid potential problems or obstacles. A reactive approach waits for problems to arise and then deals with them as they occur. As it turns out, both can be beneficial, but while knowledge should be gained from mistakes and difficult processes, stress can be reduced by avoiding them in the first place.
This is where teens and children really need the help of adults. Children are already at a disadvantage with an undeveloped frontal lobe that hinders their ability to see long-term, to think about the consequences of their actions, or to plan ahead. That’s why we often shake our heads and ask, “What were they thinking?” when it comes to this age group. They weren’t. They haven’t learned to be proactive, to consider that what they are doing now matters to their future.
Enter mom and dad. You have a lifetime of experience and you’ve oftentimes wished you would have thought things through before making a big decision or taking an action you later regretted. You want your kids to benefit from your experience, especially since being proactive crosses many domains, including school work, goal setting, and preparedness for activities, sports, and other extra-curriculars. It’s important that they get it now, or they may face much unnecessary hardship down the road.
So how can you prepare your kids to be prepared? Think about this:
- Kids need to have goals. What’s the point? What are they working toward? Why are they participating? Do grades matter? Unbelievably, we fail to talk to kids about these big questions. We put them in activities, send them off to school, and encourage them to join clubs, but never tell them how they’re going to benefit themselves or others through their participation. Kids needs to know how today’s behaviors affect their future. If they don’t, they will go into everything with a short-sighted attitude and therefore, a lack of internal motivation. They will question working hard on something, and making sacrifices for it, if they don’t see the value.
- Kids need to know that every action has a consequence. Science teaches us that for every action, there is a reaction. Every decision or indecision, both good and bad, leads to an outcome. Kids struggle with understanding this concept, even as they age and go on to college. Witness some of the behavior of young twenty-somethings and there’s no doubt that they still haven’t grasped the concept of consequences. But the sooner you talk to your kids about this, the better chance you have of getting through. Discuss how a decision about homework, or quitting a team, or running for office will have long-term implications. Have your kids walk through various scenarios and really think through each decision they make.
- Kids need to realize that staying ahead of the game is easier than playing catch up. Every person alive has let a job or responsibility slip and then scrambled at the last minute to try to minimize the damage. And every person alive has dealt with the repercussions of procrastination. Teaching your kids to work ahead and to plan their schedules will positively impact every area of their lives. As I tell my students, “If you control your schedule, it won’t control you.”
- Kids need to experience how good it feels to be proactive. Once kids begin to plan, work toward goals, and think through decisions, they will see a noticeable change in their lives. They will experience less stress and their confidence will grow as they gain control of their responsibilities. Research shows that kids crave structure, rules, and boundaries. Recording homework in a school agenda, breaking large assignments down and working on them each night, and keeping a personal calendar of upcoming events are all ways kids create structure in their lives. Positive results breed internal motivation, so the more proactive kids are, the more motivated they become to take control of and responsibility for their decisions.
Of course, the best way to teach kids to become proactive is to demonstrate it in your own life. Teach by example and show your kids that foreseeing obstacles and planning ahead is always better than dealing with the aftermath of a failure that could have been avoided.