Growth mindset: lessons from How to Grow a Grown Up
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
Talk and Q&A, 9 December 2019, 1532 Performing Arts Centre, Bristol
Dr Dominique Thompson started as a university GP at the end of the last century, at which happy time Livin’ La Vida Loca topped the charts and – coincidence? – only maybe one or two in every 10 of her consultations were mental health related. When she stopped work recently (78,000 brief encounters later) to write How to Grow a Grown Up to a backing track of Sam Smith, it was more like nine in 10.
What the hour most usefully does is paint a picture of the world in which our teenage children are growing up today. What’s different? Thompson would say it’s this:
More perfectionism and competitiveness, borne of macro-economic factors like the global economic crisis and cutthroat labour market. It’s not only that, says Thompson, but the little things as well: the spreading of competition into areas like cake (think Great British Bake Off) and holiday romance (think Love Island). Our teens are officially Never Good Enough
Social media, which is doing the obvious job of magnifying that perfectionism and competitiveness
Increased parental involvement, as we try to squash risk for our children (doubting their ability to cope with failure, what with all that perfectionism and competitiveness). Twenty years ago, we did not accompany our children to school, write their job applications or – honestly – stay on in their new university town for a few days while they settle in
The talk almost studiously avoids sex and relationships, painting 21st-century teenagers as essay-churning, internship-hungry worrywarts. Perhaps the population Dr Thompson was serving at Bristol University, and the private-school parents she is now on tour to support, skew the conversation. But as we go on to consider some proven mental health solutions, I think I can trace a line to helping children with their sex and relationships:
Lesson 1: Accept it – you’re embarrassing
I’m not sure if it’s anything more than a theory, but it’s a good one: being embarrassed by their parents is an evolutionary mechanism to help our young develop independence. A more aggressive method – say, killing and eating us – would spoil that tribal advantage, and a less aggressive one – say, staying at home forever holding hands and listening to Radio 2 together – would render them complacent and vulnerable. Shuffling five mortified steps behind hits the evolutionary sweet spot. So accept it: you’re not their mate and you don’t belong in whatever goes on between the hours of 10pm and 2am.
Lesson 2: Friends are good
Dr Thompson advocates for a wide and varied support network (though how to encourage that is anyone’s guess). What it made me think was: for the reasons stated in Lesson 1, it doesn’t always have to be us that our children talk to. A well-timed “What does Ish think? She’d know what to do” might work best for your child and let you off the hook when you’re about to get preachy.
Lesson 3: Young people need a sense of purpose
This might not only get them off TikTok but serve as a nice route into The Talk. Sex ed isn’t all about condoms and teenage pregnancy anymore: they’re more likely to learn what they need to know at a Pride march or campaigning to end violence against women. Get angry with them, not at them.
Lesson 4: Let children fail
To counter that fear of failure and drive for perfection, we have to make risks available again (now that children are no longer smoking, drinking or taking drugs to the extent that perhaps we did). Kids today are apparently sticking where they know they can win. When it comes to sex and relationships, I guess that means backing the hell off on the everyday, even if you hate their girlfriend, while remaining permanently available. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”
I’m not sure I was quite this talk’s target audience, but its parting shot, its If You Only Take One Thing From This (or If You Only Say One Thing To Your Child), rang loud and true:
There is nothing you could do or say that I wouldn’t want to hear about and help you with