How are your kids surviving and thriving without structure – for the first time in their lives?

May 27, 2020

How are your kids surviving and thriving without structure – for the first time in their lives?

Nap-time, playtime, nursery school, class schedules, coach practices, music lessons, summer programs, tutor sessions, college classes, exams, internships, jobs. All of these activities have given kids and young adults accountability, responsibility, and a built-in time management assistant. They have provided them with a framework and structure, which has led to productivity in some form or another.

But now what?

Poof! It has all gone. College finals are complete. Off campus houses, if not already forfeited, will soon be gone, and our sons and daughters will be heading home for the next 12 weeks or longer. If they have moved back home they may already be feeling bored and bereft.

Hours upon hours are being spent on the couch or in their rooms, desperately trying to stay connected to their friends, watching shows together, falling in love with John Krasinski’s SGN, creating tik-toks of their dog sleeping or their own little sad faces.

You may find yourself knocking on bedroom doors at 1pm just to make sure they’re up and about. High School students find themselves in the same predicament, lacking luster about their watered-down high school classes, and hell bent on avoiding any extra effort in their given end-of-term projects. Even AP tests may seem more irrelevant to them. Productivity has almost come to a grinding halt and it’s driving them and you (their parents) a little nuts.

What to do about it?

Before we throw up our arms in total surrender, let’s take a few moments to look at our kid’s personalities and strengths for a second and see if that shifts our perspective and generates some sympathy and strategies.  Throughout my two decades of working as a career coach, I’ve noticed there are traits associated with productivity.

Trait 1: Inherent Initiative
Some of us are born with the initiative trait and for this group, COVID-19 days can be full of finding things to do and getting them done. These kids simply don’t need to be cajoled into doing anything because they instinctively start and finish things on their own.

Trait 2: Innate ability to work without structure
Others are born with a built-in, innate external structure around them and can thrive without the need for deadlines and external motivation.

Trait 3: Natural curiosity
We remember the kid who is always asking questions and trying to figure things out. They find ideas and opportunities everywhere they go. If their natural curiosity was embraced and encouraged when they were little, it may have survived into their older years.

All 3 traits:

If they are lucky to be born with all three traits, it is likely that their productivity levels haven’t dropped much at all. In fact it is a time of endless building, seeking, making and baking and figuring things out. Take my step-son, Tristan, for example, a kid who never needed anyone to tell him to do his homework, and managed to thrive in online high school for a year. He tends not to get bored because he’ll find things to do that interest him.

But let’s face it, all three traits in one person are tough to find, especially in the younger generations, because all they know is deadlines and milestones and curriculum and coaches. And if the traits don’t come naturally it can be tricky. But there is hope, because, well, there always is.

Tell you more? Sure.

Curiosity. If your kid doesn’t have it, it’s likely because it got lost somewhere along the academic career path – probably after 6th grade. Your daughter used to love splashing around in her wellies, fishing for frogs or worms, or building cityscapes out of leaves and sticks. Your son used to love bashing nails into old pieces of wood, or poring over Lego boxes for hours on end. This week I found myself watching a five-year-old sitting by a canal with her feet in the water, happy as a clam, digging holes in the river bank and making designs with grass and goose feathers. “She has become obsessed with being near and in water.” Mom told me. She’s gotten bored with the screens and is much happier when she’s outside. Now I’m not necessarily suggesting your 20- year-old go play in the stream behind the house; actually, maybe I am. Now is the time to help them reclaim their curiosity.

Initiative. If there seems to be a lack of initiative, chances are they are happy to rely on you to get things started for them and if you do, well, that just reinforces that they don’t need to take initiative on their own. But chances are they’re bored inside and lack motivation. Here’s how you can help without enabling:

Create a “Back to your Childhood” list for them, and tell them to explore some activities that made them happy when they were younger. You may need to help them find the resources they need just to get them started. So what if it feels childish? If you get pushback, pick one and start doing it yourself. If they liked puzzles, put one on the dining table and puzzle away. I can nearly guarantee they won’t be able to resist.  If they liked sewing or sticking things to paper, consider finding a pattern or Lifehack for making masks, order some cool fabrics and start making them yourself. Chances are they’ll jump right in, albeit reluctantly. And then presto! They will start to enjoy it when their ego gets out of the way.

Structure. Giving kids structure is up to you. And I say this while ducking because some parents will yell back, ‘You try to put some structure around a teenager or 20-year old who hasn’t lived at home for 2 years!’ To that I say, “It’s your house, your rules.”

  1. Have cellphone-free hours during the day. All phones in a basket. You’ll have to negotiate the time that works for everyone and there will have to be some compromise and crying, but hey, that’s life.
  2. Set Alexa to go off at certain times in the day, and bring everyone together for a ‘1-5 boredom check-in.’ If it’s over 5, pay attention to their needs for 10 minutes and help them get set up with an activity. Then check in again in 45 mins to find out the boredom factor. If you’re working from home, this 10-minute break also serves as “stretch time” from your Zoom meetings!
  3. Have meals at the same time each day and give everyone at least one meal to prepare a week. It doesn’t have to be gourmet, but there does have to be effort.
  4. Schedule Creativity Hour every day.
  5. # 5 is for college grads and young professionals who might have moved back home and are looking for a job. Click here to read about Josh and how he is using his time.

Please reach out to me for ideas and motivation. We’re currently working with quite a few young adults either in a career and/or job search, or college admissions and applications. We’re spending time creating structure, to do lists, short and medium goals, and making the most of this time.

Jo Leonard
Chief Career Coach & COVID-19 Motivator


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