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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
A Nation of Wimps
Posted: Jun 8, 2013 6:42 PM
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From Psychology Today, Thursday, May 16, 2013,. See
A Nation of Wimps

Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life
for their children. However, parental hyperconcern has the net effect
of making kids more fragile; that may be why they're breaking down in
record numbers.

By Hara Estroff Marano

Maybe it's the cyclist in the park, trim under his sleek metallic
blue helmet, cruising along the dirt path... at three miles an hour.
On his tricycle.

Or perhaps it's today's playground, all-rubber-cushioned surface
where kids used to skin their knees. And... wait a minute... those
aren't little kids playing. Their mommies-and especially their
daddies-are in there with them, coplaying or play-by-play coaching.
Few take it half-easy on the perimeter benches, as parents used to
do, letting the kids figure things out for themselves.

Then there are the sanitizing gels, with which over a third of
parents now send their kids to school, according to a recent survey.
Presumably, parents now worry that school bathrooms are not good
enough for their children.

Consider the teacher new to an upscale suburban town. Shuffling
through the sheaf of reports certifying the educational
"accommodations" he was required to make for many of his history
students, he was struck by the exhaustive, well-written-and obviously
costly-one on behalf of a girl who was already proving among the most
competent of his ninth-graders. "She's somewhat neurotic," he
confides, "but she is bright, organized and conscientious-the type
who'd get to school to turn in a paper on time, even if she were
dying of stomach flu." He finally found the disability he was to make
allowances for: difficulty with Gestalt thinking. The 13-year-old
"couldn't see the big picture." That cleverly devised defect (what
13-year-old can construct the big picture?) would allow her to take
all her tests untimed, especially the big one at the end of the
rainbow, the college-worthy SAT.

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."

Messing up, however, even in the playground, is wildly out of style.
Although error and experimentation are the true mothers of success,
parents are taking pains to remove failure from the equation.

"Life is planned out for us," says Elise Kramer, a Cornell University
junior. "But we don't know what to want." As Elkind puts it, "Parents
and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they're
geared to academic achievement."

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 a moral 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.

The Fragility Factor

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.

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."

Heavy drinking has also become the quickest and easiest way to gain
acceptance, says psychologist Bernardo J. Carducci, professor at
Indiana University Southeast and founder of its Shyness Research
Institute. "Much of collegiate social activity is centered on alcohol
consumption because it's an anxiety reducer and demands no social
skills," he says. "Plus it provides an instant identity; it lets
people know that you are willing to belong."

Welcome to the Hothouse

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.

Enter: grade inflation. When he took over as president of Harvard in
July 2001, Lawrence Summers publicly ridiculed the value of honors
after discovering that 94 percent of the college's seniors were
graduating with them. Safer to lower the bar than raise the
discomfort level. Grade inflation is the institutional response to
parental anxiety about school demands on children, contends social
historian Peter Stearns of George Mason University. As such, it 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," Stearns argues in his
book, Anxious Parenting: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.

Parental protectionism may reach its most comic excesses in college,
but it doesn't begin there. Primary schools and high schools are
arguably just as guilty of grade inflation. But if you're searching
for someone to blame, consider Dr. Seuss. "Parents have told their
kids from day one that there's no end to what they are capable of
doing," says Virginia's Portmann. "They read them the Dr. Seuss book
Oh, the Places You'll Go! and create bumper stickers telling the
world their child is an honor student. American parents today expect
their children to be perfect-the smartest, fastest, most charming
people in the universe. And if they can't get the children to prove
it on their own, they'll turn to doctors to make their kids into the
people that parents want to believe their kids are."

What they're really doing, he stresses, is "showing kids how to work
the system for their own benefit."

And subjecting them to intense scrutiny. "I wish my parents had some
hobby other than me," one young patient told David Anderegg, a child
psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts, and professor of psychology at
Bennington College. Anderegg finds that anxious parents are
hyperattentive to their kids, reactive to every blip of their child's
day, eager to solve every problem for their child-and believe that's
good parenting. "If you have an infant and the baby has gas, burping
the baby is being a good parent. But when you have a 10-year-old who
has metaphoric gas, you don't have to burp him. You have to let him
sit with it, try to figure out what to do about it. He then learns to
tolerate moderate amounts of difficulty, and it's not the end of the

Arrivederci, Playtime

In the hothouse that child raising has become, play is all but dead.
Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess. And what play there
is has been corrupted. The organized sports many kids participate in
are managed by adults; difficulties that arise are not worked out by
kids but adjudicated by adult referees.

"So many toys now are designed by and for adults," says Tufts'
Elkind. When kids do engage in their own kind of play, parents become
alarmed. Anderegg points to kids exercising time-honored curiosity by
playing doctor. "It's normal for children to have curiosity about
other children's genitals," he says. "But when they do, most parents
I know are totally freaked out. They wonder what's wrong."

Kids are having a hard time even playing neighborhood pick-up games
because they've never done it, observes Barbara Carlson, president
and cofounder of Putting Families First. "They've been told by their
coaches where on the field to stand, told by their parents what color
socks to wear, told by the referees who's won and what's fair. Kids
are losing leadership skills."

A lot has been written about the commercialization of children's
play, but not the side effects, says Elkind. "Children aren't getting
any benefits out of play as they once did." From the beginning play
helps children learn how to control themselves, how to interact with
others. Contrary to the widely held belief that only intellectual
activities build a sharp brain, it's in play that cognitive agility
really develops. Studies of children and adults around the world
demonstrate that social engagement actually improves intellectual
skills. It fosters decision-making, memory and thinking, speed of
mental processing. This shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, the
human mind is believed to have evolved to deal with social problems.

The Eternal Umbilicus

It's bad enough that today's children are raised in a psychological
hothouse where they are overmonitored and oversheltered. But that
hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that
you can thank the cell phone. Even in college-or perhaps especially
at college-students are typically in contact with their parents
several times a day, reporting every flicker of experience. One
long-distance call overheard on a recent cross-campus walk: "Hi, Mom.
I just got an ice-cream cone; can you believe they put sprinkles on
the bottom as well as on top?"

"Kids are constantly talking to parents," laments Cornell student
Kramer, which makes them perpetually homesick. Of course, they're not
telling the folks everything, notes Portmann. "They're not calling
their parents to say, 'I really went wild last Friday at the frat
house and now I might have chlamydia. Should I go to the student
health center?'"

The perpetual access to parents infantilizes the young, keeping them
in a permanent state of dependency. Whenever the slightest difficulty
arises, "they're constantly referring to their parents for guidance,"
reports Kramer. They're not learning how to manage for themselves.

Think of the cell phone as the eternal umbilicus. One of the ways we
grow up is by internalizing an image of Mom and Dad and the values
and advice they imparted over the early years. Then, whenever we find
ourselves faced with uncertainty or difficulty, we call on that
internalized image. We become, in a way, all the wise adults we've
had the privilege to know. "But cell phones keep kids from figuring
out what to do," says Anderegg. "They've never internalized any
images; all they've internalized is 'call Mom or Dad.'"

Some psychologists think we have yet to recognize the full impact of
the cell phone on child development, because its use is so new.
Although there are far too many variables to establish clear causes
and effects, Indiana's Carducci believes that reliance on cell phones
undermines the young by destroying the ability to plan ahead. "The
first thing students do when they walk out the door of my classroom
is flip open the cell phone. Ninety-five percent of the conversations
go like this: 'I just got out of class; I'll see you in the library
in five minutes.' Absent the phone, you'd have to make arrangements
ahead of time; you'd have to think ahead."

Herein lies another possible pathway to depression. The ability to
plan resides in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the executive branch of
the brain. The PFC is a critical part of the self-regulation system,
and it's deeply implicated in depression, a disorder increasingly
seen as caused or maintained by unregulated thought patterns-lack of
intellectual rigor, if you will. Cognitive therapy owes its very
effectiveness to the systematic application of critical thinking to
emotional reactions. Further, it's in the setting of goals and
progress in working toward them, however mundane they are, that
positive feelings are generated. From such everyday activity,
resistance to depression is born.

What's more, cell phones-along with the instant availability of cash
and almost any consumer good your heart desires-promote fragility by
weakening self-regulation. "You get used to things happening right
away," says Carducci. You not only want the pizza now, you generalize
that expectation to other domains, like friendship and intimate
relationships. You become frustrated and impatient easily. You become
unwilling to work out problems. And so relationships fail-perhaps the
single most powerful experience leading to depression.

From Scrutiny to Anxiety... and Beyond

The 1990s witnessed a landmark reversal in the traditional patterns
of psychopathology. While rates of depression rise with advancing age
among people over 40, they're now increasing fastest among children,
striking more children at younger and younger ages.

In his now-famous studies of how children's temperaments play out,
Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what
creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from
stressful experiences. About 20 percent of babies are born with a
high-strung temperament. They can be spotted even in the womb; they
have fast heartbeats. Their nervous systems are innately programmed
to be overexcitable in response to stimulation, constantly sending
out false alarms about what is dangerous.

As infants and children this group experiences stress in situations
most kids find unthreatening, and they may go through childhood and
even adulthood fearful of unfamiliar people and events, withdrawn and
shy. At school age they become cautious, quiet and introverted. Left
to their own devices they grow up shrinking from social encounters.
They lack confidence around others. They're easily influenced by
others. They are sitting ducks for bullies. And they are on the path
to depression.

While their innate reactivity seems to destine all these children for
later anxiety disorders, things didn't turn out that way. Between a
touchy temperament in infancy and persistence of anxiety stand two
highly significant things: parents. Kagan found to his surprise that
the development of anxiety was scarcely inevitable despite apparent
genetic programming. At age 2, none of the overexcitable infants
wound up fearful if their parents backed off from hovering and
allowed the children to find some comfortable level of accommodation
to the world on their own. Those parents who overprotected their
children-directly observed by conducting interviews in the
home-brought out the worst in them.

A small percentage of children seem almost invulnerable to anxiety
from the start. But the overwhelming majority of kids are somewhere
in between. For them, overparenting can program the nervous system to
create lifelong vulnerability to anxiety and depression.

There is in these studies a lesson for all parents. Those who allow
their kids to find a way to deal with life's day-to-day stresses by
themselves are helping them develop resilience and coping strategies.
"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 and head of the Anxiety
Disorders Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute. "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." They never learn to dampen the
pathways from perception to alarm reaction.

Hothouse parenting undermines children in other ways, too, says
Anderegg. Being examined all the time makes children extremely
self-conscious. As a result they get less communicative; scrutiny
teaches them to bury their real feelings deeply. And most of all,
self-consciousness removes the safety to be experimental and playful.
"If every drawing is going to end up on your parents' refrigerator,
you're not free to fool around, to goof up or make mistakes," says

Parental hovering is why so many teenagers are so ironic, he notes.
It's a kind of detachment, "a way of hiding in plain sight. They just
don't want to be exposed to any more scrutiny."

Parents are always so concerned about children having high
self-esteem, he adds. "But when you cheat on their behalf to get them
ahead of other children"-by pursuing accommodations and
recommendations-you just completely corrode their sense of self. They
feel 'I couldn't do this on my own.' It robs them of their own sense
of efficacy." A child comes to think, "if I need every advantage I
can get, then perhaps there is really something wrong with me." A
slam-dunk for depression.

Virginia's Portmann feels the effects are even more pernicious; they
weaken the whole fabric of society. He sees young people becoming
weaker right before his eyes, more responsive to the herd, too eager
to fit in-less assertive in the classroom, unwilling to disagree with
their peers, afraid to question authority, more willing to conform to
the expectations of those on the next rung of power above them.

Endless Adolescence

The end result of cheating childhood is to extend it forever. Despite
all the parental pressure, and probably because of it, kids are
pushing back-in their own way. They're taking longer to grow up.

Adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends, according to a
recent report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank F.
Furstenberg and colleagues. There is, instead, a growing
no-man's-land of postadolescence from 20 to 30, which they dub "early
adulthood." Those in it look like adults but "haven't become fully
adult yet-traditionally defined as finishing school, landing a job
with benefits, marrying and parenting-because they are not ready or
perhaps not permitted to do so."

Using the classic benchmarks of adulthood, 65 percent of males had
reached adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960. By contrast, in 2000,
only 31 percent had. Among women, 77 percent met the benchmarks of
adulthood by age 30 in 1960. By 2000, the number had fallen to 46

Boom Boom Boomerang

Take away play from the front end of development and it finds a way
onto the back end. A steady march of success through regimented
childhood arranged and monitored by parents creates young adults who
need time to explore themselves. "They often need a period in college
or afterward to legitimately experiment-to be children," says
historian Stearns. "There's decent historical evidence to suggest
that societies that allow kids a few years of latitude and even
moderate [rebellion] end up with healthier kids than societies that
pretend such impulses don't exist."

Marriage is one benchmark of adulthood, but its antecedents extend
well into childhood. "The precursor to marriage is dating, and the
precursor to dating is playing," says Carducci. The less time
children spend in free play, the less socially competent they'll be
as adults. It's in play that we learn give and take, the fundamental
rhythm of all relationships. We learn how to read the feelings of
others and how to negotiate conflicts. Taking the play out of
childhood, he says, is bound to create a developmental lag, and he
sees it clearly in the social patterns of today's adolescents and
young adults, who hang around in groups that are more typical of
childhood. Not to be forgotten: The backdrop of continued high levels
of divorce confuses kids already too fragile to take the huge risk of

Just Whose Shark Tank Is It Anyway?

The stressful world of cutthroat competition that parents see their
kids facing may not even exist. Or it exists, but more in their mind
than in reality-not quite a fiction, more like a distorting mirror.
"Parents perceive the world as a terribly competitive place,"
observes Anderegg. "And many of them project that onto their children
when they're the ones who live or work in a competitive environment.
They then imagine that their children must be swimming in a big shark
tank, too."

"It's hard to know what the world is going to look like 10 years from
now," says Elkind. "How best do you prepare kids for that? Parents
think that earlier is better. That's a natural intuition, but it
happens to be wrong."

What if parents have micromanaged their kids' lives because they've
hitched their measurement of success to a single event whose value to
life and paycheck they have frantically overestimated? No one denies
the Ivy League offers excellent learning experiences, but most
educators know that some of the best programs exist at schools that
don't top the U.S. News and World Report list, and that with the
right attitude-a willingness to be engaged by new ideas-it's possible
to get a meaningful education almost anywhere. Further, argues
historian Stearns, there are ample openings for students at an array
of colleges. "We have a competitive frenzy that frankly involves
parents more than it involves kids themselves," he observes, both as
a father of eight and teacher of many. "Kids are more ambivalent
about the college race than are parents."

Yet the very process of application to select colleges undermines
both the goal of education and the inherent strengths of young
people. "It makes kids sneaky," says Anderegg. Bending rules and
calling in favors to give one's kid a competitive edge is morally

Like Stearns, he is alarmed that parents, pursuing disability
diagnoses so that children can take untimed SATs, actually encourage
kids to think of themselves as sickly and fragile. Colleges no longer
know when SATs are untimed-but the kids know. "The kids know when
you're cheating on their behalf," says Anderegg, "and it makes them
feel terribly guilty. Sometimes they arrange to fail to right the
scales. And when you cheat on their behalf, you completely undermine
their sense of self-esteem. They feel they didn't earn it on their

In buying their children accommodations to assuage their own anxiety,
parents are actually locking their kids into fragility. Says the
suburban teacher: "Exams are a fact of life. They are
anxiety-producing. The kids never learn how to cope with anxiety."

Putting Worry in its Place

Children, however, are not the only ones who are harmed by
hyperconcern. Vigilance is enormously taxing-and it's taken all the
fun out of parenting. "Parenting has in some measurable ways become
less enjoyable than it used to be," says Stearns. "I find parents
less willing to indulge their children's sense of time. So they
either force-feed them or do things for them."

Parents need to abandon the idea of perfection and give up some of
the invasive control they've maintained over their children. The goal
of parenting, Portmann reminds, is to raise an independent human
being. Sooner or later, he says, most kids will be forced to confront
their own mediocrity. Parents may find it easier to give up some
control if they recognize they have exaggerated many of the dangers
of childhood-although they have steadfastly ignored others, namely
the removal of recess from schools and the ubiquity of video games
that encourage aggression.

The childhood we've introduced to our children is very different from
that in past eras, Epstein stresses. Children no longer work at young
ages. They stay in school for longer periods of time and spend more
time exclusively in the company of peers. Children are far less
integrated into adult society than they used to be at every step of
the way. We've introduced laws that give children many rights and
protections-although we have allowed media and marketers to have free

In changing the nature of childhood, Stearns argues, we've introduced
a tendency to assume that children can't handle difficult situations.
"Middle-class parents especially assume that if kids start getting
into difficulty they need to rush in and do it for them, rather than
let them flounder a bit and learn from it. I don't mean we should
abandon them," he says, "but give them more credit for figuring
things out." And recognize that parents themselves have created many
of the stresses and anxieties children are suffering from, without
giving them tools to manage them.

While the adults are at it, they need to remember that one of the
goals of higher education is to help young people develop the
capacity to think for themselves.

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."

Parental anxiety has its place. But the way things now stand, it's
not being applied wisely. We're paying too much attention to too few
kids-and in the end, the wrong kids. As with the girl whose parents
bought her the Gestalt-defect diagnosis, resources are being expended
for kids who don't need them.

There are kids who are worth worrying about-kids in poverty, stresses
Anderegg. "We focus so much on our own children," says Elkind, "It's
time to begin caring about all children."

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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