Once upon a time, a group of boys were shipwrecked on an uninhabitable island. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The central conceit of the classic novel The Lord of The Flies is so well known that even if you haven’t read the book, you likely know that the marooned boys in the story end up turning on each other. But what if I told you that in a real life parallel instance, a group of boys were able to survive on an island for 15 months, by peacefully cooperating with each other?
While researching for a book, journalist and author Rutger Bregman stumbled upon a real life story of six boys (the oldest 16, the youngest 13) who were marooned on an island off the Australian coast after fleeing the boredom of their boarding school. Captain Warner, the man who rescued the boys in 1966, recounts:
The boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.
In his article for The Guardian, Bregman interviews Captain Warner as well as Mano Totau, one of the boys who was 15 at the time of the shipwreck. The whole article is worth reading, and I think it raises some interesting questions about how kids can thrive.
The Ability to Self-Regulate is Important
If your kids and their friends were marooned on an island, how would they fare?
There are a lot of practical skills like knot-tying and fire-starting that would come in handy for this situation. But equally important would be the ability to self-regulate, the social skills required to work together with others, and the resilience and grit needed to overcome obstacles, deal with setbacks, and develop flexible strategies that learn from those setbacks. In The Lord of The Flies, the boys couldn’t regulate their own emotions and so they gave into their worst impulses, resulting in chaos and violence. In direct contrast, Mano and his friends were able to regulate their own individual behavior, and were thus also able to cooperate with each other to achieve mutually beneficial goals.
The most important way that children develop the traits outlined above, such as resilience, is by taking risks and dealing with the natural consequences. After jumping from a swing at too high an altitude and landing painfully (perhaps with a broken bone), it becomes very clear how to adjust for next time. Mistakes are important, and there are plenty of naturally occurring feedback loops (touching a hot stove, for example) that help kids to develop good judgment. To see this in action, check out this 20 minute video documenting adventure play at a playground in Wales.
What About the Parental Role?
Of course, while shipwrecked boys may find ways to survive in the absence of parental aid, we shouldn’t take that to mean that parents are superfluous. Rather, parents have an indispensable role in helping their kids learn to self-regulate. I think this is beautifully demonstrated in Pixar’s animated film Inside Out, a film which I suggest can be a great tool for parents to use with their kids as a way of exploring emotions together. (You can read my thoughts on that film here) Parents are also crucial for helping kids learn to navigate risk. One study even found that the mere presence of a parental figure can activate teens’ prefrontal cortex, helping them to better assess risk, leading to better judgment (Source) Likewise, a study of teens in Iceland found that those teens are far less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse when their parents are engaged and have ongoing conversations with them. (Source)
There is of course an undeniable tension in recognizing that kids both need to make mistakes and develop resilience on their own and the recognition and also need parental guidance and support. And how best to navigate this tension in any given situation is ultimately going to be up to parental discretion as we try to make the best choices for our individual families. But I think there is great wisdom in trying to preserve this tension, rather than resolving it easily in either the direction of parentless parenting or helicopter parenting. And on a meta-level, when we let our kids see us assessing risk on their behalf, we’re also modeling for them the very process of risk-assessing. Rather than saying “because I said so,” in every instance, if we explain our reasoning aloud, we invite our kids into that process of reasoning for themselves which is integral to their capacity for good judgment.
Technology is a Tool
In many ways the expanse of technology is similar to a deserted island. They both reveal a child’s (or and adults) ability to self-regulate their emotions. Everything I’ve said here about life off the grid, whether on an unexplored island or just your own backyard, applies equally well to the digital world. We often speak about digital technologies and the internet as being a unique menace to kids and young adults. But I think technology merely amplifies our experiences, either for better or worse. Technology is a tool, and just like you can use a stick to help stabilize a shelter or alternatively as a spear in a fight, so also the way we use technology merely amplifies our preexisting virtues or vices. And while the particular practical skills required for safely navigating the physical world often differ from the skills needed for online safety, the essential need for self-regulation and appropriate risk assessment is the exact same.
In our own parenting adventures, my wife and I have greatly benefited from the perspectives in Andy Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family. In my review of Crouch’s book, I write that “many of us feel frustrated with how much technology has changed our family life, providing endless distractions that interrupt and prevent familial bonding.” Reading Crouch’s book helped us to resolve a lot of that frustration by creating and clearly communicating goals for how we would technology in our home. Crouch invites us to see technology as a tool that is best utilized when we are specific about how we want to use it and for what goals, and also clear about what potential misuses look like. In Crouch’s view, the best approach to technology within a family is to work together as a family to determine how technology will be used within the household. Importantly, when we as parents can model self-regulation including in simple ways like putting our phones away at the dinner table, we can help guide our kids as they develop this capacity for self-regulation as well.
Our children will likely never find themselves shipwrecked on an uninhabitable island. But our kids will undoubtedly face many situations, both online and offline, that will require character traits and capacities like self-regulation, critical thinking, resilience, and the ability to work well with others. I believe the more opportunities we provide our kids to develop these capacities, the better prepared they will be for whatever life throws at them.
Over the years, I’ve written a number of articles on the topic of parental engagement.
I’m passionate about helping the next generation develop good habits of digital citizenship.