Over-Parenting our Way to Demise
I have long felt that as a society we have lost our way. I also truly believe that a great deal of this is about parenting. We over parent our children to the point that they feel they are owed something. A friend is a nursery school teacher and she pointed me towards this article aptly named A Nation of Wimps.
I think that is an accurate name for what is going on in our society. Everyone is trying to protect their children to the point that we not allowing them to grow and mature.
Behold the wholly sanitized childhood without skinned knees or the occasional C in history. “Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”
Yes, failing at times is a good thing. We learn from it. Children at some point are going to become an adult that will have to make choices, and not all of those choices will be good ones. Having a few failures gives them the background to figure out what choices are better than others. I will fully admit that sometimes all the choices are bad, but you still have to learn which choices will give the best possible outcome.
No one doubts that there are significant economic forces pushing parents to invest so heavily in their children’s outcome from an early age. But taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees. With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply amoral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we’re on our way to creating a nation of wimps.
Every parent wants what is best for their children. It is instinct to hope that your child will live a life that is “easier” than you did. But the fact remains that every life will have disappointments, failures, and expectations that won’t be reached. It happens to all of us. You need to teach your children the ability to pick themselves up and brush themselves off. There will come a time that you will not be there for them.
College, it seems, is where the fragility factor is now making its greatest mark. It’s where intellectual and developmental tracks converge as the emotional training wheels come off. By all accounts, psychological distress is rampant on college campuses. It takes a variety of forms, including anxiety and depression—which are increasingly regarded as two faces of the same coin—binge drinking and substance abuse, self-mutilation and other forms of disconnection. The mental state of students is now so precarious for so many that, says Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, “it is interfering with the core mission of the university.”
The severity of student mental health problems has been rising since 1988, according to an annual survey of counseling center directors. Through 1996, the most common problems raised by students were relationship issues. That is developmentally appropriate, reports Sherry Benton, assistant director of counseling at Kansas State University. But in 1996, anxiety overtook relationship concerns and has remained the major problem. The University of Michigan Depression Center, the nation’s first, estimates that 15 percent of college students nationwide are suffering from that disorder alone.
I read something recently that talked about the percentage of parents that expected a phone call from their children who were out of the home attending college. I can’t remember the exact number but it was about half of parents surveyed. How exactly do these kids learn to do things for themselves when Mommy and Daddy are still keeping tabs on everything that they are doing?
Some of this is showing up in very disturbing ways:
Relationship problems haven’t gone away; their nature has dramatically shifted and the severity escalated. Colleges report ever more cases of obsessive pursuit, otherwise known as stalking, leading to violence, even death. Anorexia or bulimia in florid or subclinical form now afflicts 40 percent of women at some time in their college career. Eleven weeks into a semester, reports psychologist Russ Federman, head of counseling at the University of Virginia, “all appointment slots are filled. But the students don’t stop coming.”
Drinking, too, has changed. Once a means of social lubrication, it has acquired a darker, more desperate nature. Campuses nationwide are reporting record increases in binge drinking over the past decade, with students often stuporous in class, if they get there at all. Psychologist Paul E. Joffe, chair of the suicide prevention team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, contends that at bottom binge-drinking is a quest for authenticity and intensity of experience. It gives young people something all their own to talk about, and sharing stories about the path to passing out is a primary purpose. It’s an inverted world in which drinking to oblivion is the way to feel connected and alive.
“There is a ritual every university administrator has come to fear,” reports John Portmann, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. “Every fall, parents drop off their well-groomed freshmen and within two or three days many have consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol and placed themselves in harm’s way. These kids have been controlled for so long, they just go crazy.”
Why would we feel that is a good idea? The numbers of young woman who have said that they have been abused in relationship is frightening. While I am not denying the pathology that is behind people staying in an abusive relationship exists, but many of these kids are not coming from abusive homes, which lowers the risk of the them being abused as an adult.
Talk to a college president or administrator and you’re almost certainly bound to hear tales of the parents who call at 2 a.m. to protest Branden’s C in economics because it’s going to damage his shot at grad school.
Shortly after psychologist Robert Epstein announced to his university students that he expected them to work hard and would hold them to high standards, he heard from a parent—on official judicial stationery—asking how he could dare mistreat the young. Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, eventually filed a complaint with the California commission on judicial misconduct, and the judge was censured for abusing his office—but not before he created havoc in the psychology department at the University of California, San Diego.
I also was reading some stories from hiring directors about the millennium generation and their job interviewing skills. They are pretty poor:
A college senior brought her cat into an interview for a buyer’s position at clothing retailer American Eagle. She set the crate-housed cat on the interviewer’s desk and periodically played with it. “It hit me like — why would you think that’s OK?” says Mark Dillon, the chain’s former recruiting director. “She cut herself off before she had a chance.”
• Helicoptering parents. A man in his late 20s brought his father into a 45-minute interview for a material handling job on an assembly line, says Teri Nichols, owner of a Spherion staffing-agency in Brooksville, Fla. At Cigna, a health insurance provider, the father of a recent grad who received an offer for a sales job, called to negotiate a higher salary, says Paula Welch, a Cigna HR consultant.
While yes the story about the cat is funny, it is also very scary. These kids are going to be running the country one day and they think bringing a cat to an interview is acceptable behavior. I think it can be a good idea for a parent to help their child through the first job interview process and teaching them about negotiating a salary, those are necessary skills to have over your lifetime. But you don’t make the call yourself.
It is any wonder that kids today don’t understand the concept of responsiblity and hard work?
Although we’re well on our way to making kids more fragile, no one thinks that kids and young adults are fundamentally more flawed than in previous generations. Maybe many will “recover” from diagnoses too liberally slapped on to them. In his own studies of 14 skills he has identified as essential for adulthood in American culture, from love to leadership, Epstein has found that “although teens don’t necessarily behave in a competent way, they have the potential to be every bit as competent and as incompetent as adults.”
It is all in our hands parents. Are we up to the task?