It’s said real growth and achievement lie outside one’s comfort zone, but getting even one toe beyond that sacred space is difficult for adults, not to mention children. Yet Massachusetts dad, author, and Babson College Professor Keith Rollag says parents can help children be less nervous in new situations by making them less focused on performance and more on fun.
“Get them to focus on the excitement of discovery rather than the fear of performance,” says Rollag, author of What To Do When You’re New: How To Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations. “After they’ve gone to some new situation, get them to talk about the fun parts; help them associate new situations with excitement and discovery, rather than fear and evaluation.”
While Rollag’s book was written for adults, he says many of the approaches and theories are applicable and helpful to children and the new situations they face, be it starting a new school, trying a new sport, or attempting a new hobby.
“For school, we’ve really emphasized the performance part in so much of what we do now — whether it’s standardized tests, exams, recitals, games — is geared around performing and competition,” he says. “I see the performance mindset in my kids. If they try something and it doesn’t work — if they aren’t perfect at it the first time — they don’t want to do it again. They see that failure as a measure of their permanent ability, and they don’t realize it’s all about learning.”
To combat that thought pattern, Rollag advises parents emphasize the fun in trying new things, as opposed to mastery.
“Certainly praise failure if they don’t get it perfectly right,” he says. “Be really clear you don’t send signals that you expect them to do well. I think it’s hard for parents because we all have visions of our kids being great athletes, great musicians; we silently have high expectations. We have to be really careful about sending those subtle signals of disappointment that they aren’t the best kid on the team, the best musician in the band, whatever they’re working on.”
Even the simple act of asking a stranger a question — in a safe situation — is an opportunity for children to step outside their comfort zone. Rollag shares a story about the time his kids broke their crayons at a restaurant. He encouraged them to approach the hostess and ask for a new set.
“They’re like, ‘I can’t do that!’ I said, ‘Why not?’ Finally, one of them got the urge, went up there and asked, and got the crayons. My daughter came back realizing it wasn’t as scary as she thought it was,” he recalls. “It’s practice, doing it enough times to rewire the brain to realize it isn’t as scary as you think it is. For most of us, it’s a learned activity. If they have questions, make them ask the question, if that’s sitting in a restaurant trying to decide what to eat or in a store deciding what to buy. Make them walk up to somebody and ask a question.”
Each question asked and answered builds a child’s confidence a little higher.
“The more we can put our kids in those situations, in safe environments, they’ll just get more comfortable, and it’s going to pay off down the road,” Rollag says.
And, down the road, the ability to be confident in new situations will be critical for today’s children. David Deming, associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University, published a study, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market.” In it, he notes that despite the trend of jobs lost to technology and automation, since 1980 “jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater relative growth.” In addition, “employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill,” he wrote.
And social skills, sometimes called interpersonal or “soft” skills, encompass everything from knowing how to shake a hand and introduce oneself, to maintaining eye contact, holding up your end of a conversation, being comfortable in a new situation, or trying new things. All of these abilities are bolstered by practice, and opportunities for children today are fewer than ever before, thanks to technology and the prevailing parenting style.
“Technology has given people an out,” notes Rollag, an associate professor of management and chair of the Management Division at Babson. “You can go into new situations and drag all your old relationships with you. You see it with parents at soccer games, where they used to talk with each other and now they just stare at their smartphone. I think kids do the same thing: Instead of getting to know the new people around them, they continue with the old people. When you have that alternative, there’s less of a need to build relationships.”
It’s a reality even affecting youth in their college years. “It’s clear that a lot of students can continue on just interacting with their old high school friends through Facebook, Instagram, and others,” he adds. “They don’t have as much of a need to get to know their dorm mates or classmates in the way they would have 15 to 20 years ago, where if you didn’t get to know the people around you, you didn’t have anything.”
And today it’s easy (and the cultural norm) for parents to do the question-asking, ice-breaking, and friend-making for their children.
“We do a disservice to our kids if we run interference for them in new situations,” he asserts. “Many of us do it out of fear of protecting them: We introduce the kids to people, rather than having them do it themselves; we ask the questions instead of them; we remind them of people’s names as opposed to getting them to memorize them; we will set up relationships, even play dates, now. It’s almost as if we are structuring those relationship developments in ways that don’t help kids to build those relationships themselves. We have to learn as parents to hold back and let some of that take care of itself. They need to learn to be self-sufficient in those basic being-new skills.”
Underlying all of this is the fact that humans — of any age — are hard-wired to be uncomfortable in new situations and strangers. We are descended from small tribes of hunter-gatherers who rarely left their “home” area or encountered strangers, both of which were often dangerous threats to the status quo, jeopardizing their health (or that of that tribe) and/or food source. Add to that the fact that those days were truly survival of the fittest, with performance (hunting and gathering) meaning life or death, and it’s no surprise humans still are naturally nervous when trying something new. Battling this is, truly, bucking human nature.
“They’re the same reasons, whether we’re 4 years old or 40, that cause us to be reluctant,” Rollag says. “These aren’t easy things to do, we’re not built or wired to do these skills, and we’re not wired to live in this world around strangers.”
Yet in today’s world, new situations are ever-present, and parents can help children feel more comfortable about them by building new expectations.
“Talk with your kids about it, try to get at their feelings, what they’re worried about going into new situations, and try your best to help them understand that it’s normal,” he says. “It’s great as a parent to say, ‘Hey, I get nervous in new situations.’ Ask them to go introduce themselves to that kid over there. Push them into doing those skills: introducing themselves, ask questions, even remembering names. The best thing you can do to help kids become comfortable in new situations is put them into new situations that are safe so they can learn from them rather than feeling miserable.”
Another key reminder: Uneasiness is temporary.
“Get them to recognize that nervousness only lasts for a little while, for as long as it takes you to find somebody to play with, the first real laughter you have with another kid, the first good conversation, the first amount of play. Kids, once they get past that, they’re off to the races and all is good. It’s getting them past that awkward phase.”
Once that’s complete, parents can then help their children reflect on their victory: be it meeting new people or attempting a new skill.
“We get so focused on performance, we forget the joy,” Rollag notes. “We lose sight of the cool part about learning. Being able to look back and say, ‘A few weeks ago, I couldn’t do that. Now I can!’”