Parents are Raising Kids in Captivity, then Expecting Them to Survive in the Wild

Wild animals in captivity quickly habituate to human care, live a sheltered life and as a result, don’t learn critical survival skills. They show signs of psychological distress that will sound very familiar to human parents. These animals are depressed, anxious and frustrated, and also self-harm, behave compulsively and require anti-depressants. If they are released into the wild, their lack of experience makes them vulnerable and they are ill-equipped for survival.



When kids are launched into the wilds of life outside the home without having had the small, incremental childhood experiences, the learning curve is too great and they come running back to the safety of home. This is called “failure to launch”. How is this possible when parents have done everything that a “good” parent is supposed to do? The cultural norm of doing too much for children and protecting them from emotional pain and discomfort is robbing them of the experiences and skills they need to function in the world. Parents have the very best intentions, but it’s clear that their children’s idyllic (raised in protective captivity) childhood has backfired.


By incorporating the following strategies into everyday living, children can experience the growth they need in order to survive (and thrive) once they leave home.


No Parent Blame or Shame

Parents don’t realize the impact that the national and local parenting culture and environment has on their own behavior and internalized definition of what it means to be a “good” parent. Parents must not feel at fault or blame themselves. They must recognize that they acted with love and best intentions and did the best they could with the skills, knowledge—and parenting culture—they had.


Be Brave

It’s critical to redefine what it is to be a “good parent”. It can be incredibly hard (and downright scary) to do this, but bravery makes it easier. Remember that the current way is not serving children and the culture norms must be adjusted to find a better way. A good parent lets their children struggle, fail and be disappointed.


Go From Play Deficit to Play as Priority

All nature shows have young mammals playing in a way that mimics the skills they will need in their adult lives. By depriving children of critical play, they have also been deprived of developmentally appropriate, incremental struggle and disappointment. Play is a refuge for children, an opportunity for them to process the world around them. It is also the best opportunity for children to find joy.


Increase Kids’ Competence and Confidence—with Chores

“My friends’ parents don’t make them do other things! Their only priority is school!” are words many parents have heard time and time again. If parents’ only expectations for their children are academic achievement and other resume-building responsibilities with the primary mission to secure a spot in the most prestigious college possible, they miss out on critical learning (and parents miss out on much needed help around the house). Children need to do chores from a young age like empty dishwashers, clean their own rooms, prepare their own lunches or snacks, cook a weekly family meal, etc. to increase their competence and confidence and learn to manage multiple demands. If they don’t get to practice in the “safe” supportive environment at home, it can be an overwhelming amount to learn and navigate when they are on their own.


Expect—and Encourage—Mistakes

When adults constantly step in and take over, children aren’t allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. Parents need to see every mistake and misstep as a learning opportunity. Remember that children rise to the level at which the adults around them see them, so be sure they are seen as humans that will figure it out.


Learn to Sit with the Distress of Children’s Distress

Become aware of the discomfort that lights up when a child is distressed. Notice the urge to jump in and fix a child’s source of pain or distress—and stop. Instead, it is critical to empathize with the child’s pain and then ask them what their ideas are on how to resolve or deal with it.


Stop and Reframe

When kids are disappointed or struggling, it is important to take a breath and reframe it to give strength. An example would be of a child who desperately wanted to carve a beautiful pumpkin they had picked out for their jack-o-lantern, but the family ran out of time to do so on Halloween. Rather than torturing oneself for being a bad parent to let this happen, realize that this gives the child a chance to tolerate disappointment and learn that they will still be ok. This can completely obliterate the guilt and “parent-fail” label—so definitely a win-win for all.


In well-meaning and loving homes, children have been raised in captivity and then parents are shocked when they realize that the children can’t make it in the “wild”. Accustomed to being told what to do, bring, be, where and when, children have only known a sheltered existence, been deprived of the opportunity to experience natural consequences and the chance to learn crucial survival skills. Rather than helping kids build a looks-good-on-paper resume of academic and athletic achievements, adults must help kids build a resume of challenges that they have faced and have been able to handle. Children will find strength in knowing that they have done hard things and will have the resilience they need for their lifetimes in the wild. It’s never too late to get started.


As printed in Natural Awakenings.