We pamper them, overprotect them, project our own fears onto them. We send them to school with sanitizing gel (well, about a third of Americans do, anyway), we rush in to stem frustration, stave off boredom, save them from failure. We give them mobile phones much too early so that they can be in touch with us all day long, encouraging an endless state of dependency.
“I wish my parents had some hobby other than me,” lamented a young patient to David Anderegg, a child psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts. Hyperattentive parents respond to every blip in their children’s emotional radar, schedule their kids’ days with an endless stream of ‘improving’ and ‘educational’ activities, terrified that their young ones will fall behind their peers academically, emotionally, socially. Many parents are, in effect, trying to eliminate the possibility of failure from the equation.
The result? “Well intentioned as it may appear, the net effect is making kids more fragile and that may be why adolescents are breaking down in record numbers,” says Dr. Jared Balmer, member of the Joint Commission Youth Advisory Council, in his webinar “The Four-Headed Monster.” Traditionally, motor vehicle accidents have been the leading cause of death among teens, accounting for 70% of deaths in 2007. Teen suicide rates, however, have been rising dramatically, so much so that by 2030 suicide is projected to become the number one killer of adolescents.
We’re so fearful that our kids may be unhappy that we’re making them so. “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.”
Parents who jump in to ‘save’ their children from every physical abrasion, every emotional road burn, are taking away those coping tools, or never allowing them to develop in the first place.
And it isn’t just parents. A friend of mine described to me track races that were held at his middle school in Oxford, England. Yes, the kids would race, but everyone, regardless of their performance, regardless of whether they came in first or last place, were given identical ‘achievement’ ribbons. That’s very nice, very egalitarian and positive reinforcementy. But you know what? Employers don’t give ribbons (or raises) for simply showing up.
In the same vein, “schools are no longer geared toward child development, they’re geared to academic achievement,” says Elkind. Grade inflation, a symptom of parental anxiety about their childrens’ success, appears to be rampant. When Lawrence Summers took over as president of Harvard in July of 2001, he was horrified to discover that 94 percent of the college’s seniors were graduating with honors. Grade inflation is “a pure index of emotional overinvestment in a child’s success. And it rests on a notion of juvenile frailty—the assumption that children are easily bruised and need explicit uplift,” argues social historian Peter Stearns in his book, Anxious Parenting: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.
“I learned, especially in school, to value ‘success’ and hide ‘failure’ so that I wouldn’t be scolded or ridiculed. That wasn’t the way I had started out, when both were interesting and failure was sometimes more interesting than success because it raised more questions,” writes Gestalt therapist Barry Stevens in her book Don’t Push the River (It Flows by Itself). Our misguided attempts to shield our kids from perceived failure has taken the play, the give-and-take and ups-and-downs, out of modern American schooling. It’s education on Prozac.
Over 40,000 U.S. schools have done away with recess. Free play time has been largely usurped by organized sports, managed and arranged by adults, with intense pressure (you’ve all encountered the raging parents on the sidelines and in the stands) to succeed. So ironically, we’re attempting to take all of the disappointment out of development, while simultaneously ramping up the emphasis on success. As Hara Estroff Marano writes in her Psychology Today article entitled “A Nation of Wimps,” this makes children “risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety.”
“Children need to be gently encouraged to take risks and learn that nothing terrible happens,” says Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “They need gradual exposure to find that the world is not dangerous. Having overprotective parents is a risk factor for anxiety disorders because children do not have opportunities to master their innate shyness and become more comfortable in the world.”
Sometimes it’s very difficult indeed for a parent to step back and let their kids take the knocks on their own. An anecdote: It’s the end of the school day, and I’m sitting on the grass in the school playground, talking to another father. Behind me I can hear two boys teasing my son. I hear him say, “Stop doing that, it’s really annoying.” I glance over my shoulder. My seven year-old stands with his back to a wall, the two boys – one clearly the ringleader and a much younger one simply aping him – repeatedly saying something I can’t quite catch. I let it go. Let him handle it on his own. For a while. A couple of minutes later I glance again, and my son is crying, the ringleader circling him like a wolf around a wounded moose. I’ve had enough. I turn around and bark sternly, “Hey Shithead [not his real name]! Knock it off.” And he does.
Should I have let things play out on their own, resisted the impulse to intervene? I don’t know. Perhaps I robbed my son of a valuable lesson in dealing with bullies. Perhaps I denied him a chance at self-actualization, whatever that might mean. I’m not really sure.
But I do know this. Kids aren’t brittle psyches ready to shatter at the first sign of stress, not delicate flowers to be shielded from the slightest icy breeze. They’re not perfect, nor are they the smartest, most charming and infallible creatures on the planet. They will fail. Parents need to deal with that, so that their kids are able to handle it as well. You’re trying to raise an independent, self-reliant person here, not a hothouse orchid. Teach them Samuel Beckett’s lesson – “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better” – and chances are they’ll end up a lot stronger for it.