It reads like it was written yesterday. Yet, it was first published in 2004.
Then, Hara Estroff Marano wrote a great essay in Psychology Today where she explained that we as a nation are turning our children into wimps.
We are coddling children, protecting them from life’s bumps and grinds, artificially propping up their self-esteem, getting involved in their lives to the point where they no longer know where they end and we begin.
As a result, children have been sheltered from adversity and not allowed to fail. They end up refusing to accept that their work is substandard. Not believing that they get anything wrong, they never try to improve.
They end up fragile to the point where they self-medicate with drugs, alcohol and risky behaviors. That is, if they do not fall apart completely.
Such children lack perseverance and resilience. They do not know how to take initiatives and do not know what to do when they fail. They are poorly prepared for a world that is based on trial-and-error.
Marano doesn’t quite say it out loud, but the fault resides with therapy. We, as a culture have decided that growing up should be a therapeutic experience. We bring up children according to the principles that define the therapy culture.
Having made childrearing a therapeutic process, we have prepared children for lifelong therapy. But, they will not be engaging in therapy to solve problems. They will be purchasing therapy that lets them complain about problems. The new therapeutically correct approach to childrearing is producing a nation of whiners.
Marano sets the stage:
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.
When a child goes to school, he does not receive grades. He receives a diagnosis.. In the name of mental health he will be granted special privileges and extra time to take tests.
Marano tells of one girl:
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."
If a child does not know how to fail, he will never learn how to succeed. But, if success is all he knows, success will be empty.
Once the child makes his way to college, he will be suffering from some serious mental health problems.
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."
Apparently, students are so fragile that they do not have the psychological resilience to deal with bad grades. Worse yet, they receive the wholehearted support of their interfering parents. These latter can call out teachers who give their children bad grades. It happens in high school and even in college. The result: rampant grade inflation.
In Marano’s words:
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.
Competition must be bad because it divides a class into winning and losing teams. On Slate today, Jessica Olien offers, on the basis of her own experience, an impassioned attack against dodgeball. She wants it to be definitively outlawed.
For that, among other reasons, Marano’s article is still pertinent.
Olien’s screed is based on what is called anecdotal evidence. Marano, however, reports the results of psychological research into the value of competitive sports. The case is not even ambiguous:
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.