Hara Estroff Marano discusses A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting
What makes you think that we're raising a nation of wimps?
I didn't set out to write a book of that title. In 2002, I discovered that record numbers of college students were experiencing serious psychological disorders. Major depression. Panic attacks. Self-mutilation. Eating disorders. Substance use and abuse. I spoke to hundreds of campus counseling center directors and the people manning the front lines in them. The article I wrote, Crisis on the Campus, made news. In 2004, I found that things had only gotten worse. All along, I had been asking why. The folks at the front lines find that today's students lack the most basic coping skills, because growing up they were overprotected, never allowed to mess up or to experience discomfort, never encouraged to take risks. Coping skills come from figuring out ways to deal with uncertainty and life's lumps and bumps. When the lumps and bumps are smoothed out for you, you have no opportunity to learn how to cope. Then, when you leave the protective cocoon of home for college, you feel overwhelmed by the slightest difficulty. So my book evolved from the evidence that these kids are already psychologically very fragile.
Why do parents overprotect their kids?
Parents know that the world has changed from the time they were kids. They're worried about their kids' success in the fast and fluid new economy and global marketplace. They want their kids better prepared than they felt they were for this new world. They plan out their kids' lives and push for a brand-name education because they think it's going to give their kids the best shot at success. They're terrified that any little deviation from the straight and narrow path of academic achievement or athletic success might ruin their children's chances of getting into a good college. So they do everything in their power to help their kids' succeed.
Isn't this just a problem of rich kids wanting to get into Ivy League colleges?
Not at all. It's happening almost everywhere in America among the middle class and upper middle class, among those people who understand that a four-year college education is now the minimum requirement for middle class status. Ironically, it's worse among the richest segment than among the ordinary middle class, who have always hoped for their kids to better their status through education. Time was, the rich were often neglectful of their kids and just prayed they didn't wrap themselves around a tree in an alcoholic haze before they inherited the company. But in the very dynamic and fluid world we all now inhabit, the rich realize they have the most to lose, and they are most vigilant about positioning their kids for success.
What kinds of things do parents do?
The run homework over to school if their kid leaves it at home. They call the teacher or the professor if their kid gets less than an A. They don't tell the child to study harder; they ask the school to change the grade. They get their kids tested and seek "accommodations" so they can take all their tests untimed, especially that big one at the end of the rainbow, the SATs. They hire $600 an hour tutors. They literally and figuratively wrap their kids in bubble wrap.
True Story #1. A couple flew out to Los Angeles from Nebraska with their toddler. On their way from the airport to the hotel, they asked their cab driver to stop off at the nearest Home Depot. There they ran in and came out with a roll of yes, bubble wrap. They checked into their hotel and proceeded to line the entire room with bubble wrap. Aside from the absurdity of it, and hotel rooms are not very dangerous places, do you know what message that delivers to a kid? The world is a dangerous place and you're too fragile to deal with it.
Are you saying the world is not a dangerous place?
It's not anywhere near as dangerous as parental anxieties have made it out to be. Many of the things parents are worried about are not the things parents need to be concerned about. Just take one example. If you ask parents why they don't let their kids go out and play, they'll look at you in horror and say it's because of all the sexual predators out there. You know all the laws we've enacted about registering sexual offenders. I won't go into the unenforceability of most of them. But in fact, even before the hysteria was escalating, sexual crimes against children were dropping dramatically; we're talking in the last two decades. A child is much more at risk of sexual victimization from a member of the family, especially a stepparent, than a stranger. Another example, why do parents suddenly feel the need to use padded cotton liners before parking their kids' butts in the seat of a shopping cart? Shopping carts are just not great vectors of disease. But parents today see danger everywhere outside the home. It's their own anxiety speaking.
Why is overprotection bad? What are the effects?
Let's take the example of the shopping carts. The world we inhabit is full of germs. On shopping carts. On doorknobs. On telephones. This isn't generally cause for alarm. You actually need exposure to a wide array of them because they keep the immune system stimulated and it has a memory for that particular kind of bug. So you're protected when you face a much greater exposure. But if you're overprotected with liners and sanitizing gels, you're not exposed to the few germs that might be on a shopping cart, and so you're made more susceptible to every serious bug that crosses your path. Without behavioral coping skills, every little challenge becomes insurmountable and you get depressed or you panic or you don't even have words to express your inner alarm so you cut yourself. And you become risk-averse, because you can't handle uncertainty. Or difficulty.
How is that those who mean only the best bring for their kids wind up bringing out the worst in them?
It's always been terribly hard for a parent to watch a child struggle with something. When you throw into the mix parental anxiety for the success of their children, parents wind up taking over tasks or doing things for their kids because they want their kids to achieve and to be happy. But that grossly misunderstands happiness. You don't become happy by the absence of difficulty. The greatest satisfaction come from setting a challenging goal, being engaged in pursuing it, not being sure you can reach it, and summoning up all your resources to stretch towards it. You're never so happy as in that last final sprint towards a challenging goal, when you can almost taste it but still have to reach a bit more for it. That's how the brain creates positive states of mind and a sense of satisfaction that has far more staying power than buying the latest gizmo.
The achievement pressures put on kids by schools and parents is leaving them with fewer opportunities for play. Why is that so bad?
Because play looks like a waste of time, but it does great things for the development of the nervous system. It stimulates brain development in the areas of the brain where we eventually gain self-control. It plays a trick on us play is behavior that's not goal-directed but that gives us the ability to become goal-directed. We live in a fast and fluid worked with much uncertainty. Who knows what the world is going to be like 10 years from now? Play creates behavioral flexibility, gives us the ability to adapt. It makes us psychologically nimble. It is the perfect preparation for a world that is fast-moving and uncertain. Play is the future with sneakers on.
Why are you worried about a nation of wimps?
These kids will be the next generation of adults and as the educated ones, our leaders will be drawn from them. If you have a whole generation that has grown up not having to make decisions for themselves, you have a generation that has no experience with the basic requirements of democracy. How do they stand on their own two feet? The amazing thing is how compliant these kids are, in the classroom, with their parents. They talk to their parents constantly by cellphone. They are not problem-solvers and risk-takers, so how will they sustain the economy in the years ahead, when we will need innovation even more than we do now? To be an innovator you have to not only know how to solve problems but you have to have perseverance and persistence. These are all the traits that are being bred out of this generation.
Is there anything parents can do?
Well, they can begin by backing off and keeping their anxieties to themselves. They need to understand that kids are naturally equipped with curiosity and want to do well; they don't have to push them an hover over them to cram it all in. They can let their kids play. They can pay some attention to their own adult relationships and they can nurture their marriage, which is the best way to protect kids. They can learn how to praise kids: not tell them how brilliant they are but ask them what made them think about something the way they do. And they can learn how to criticize kids: not tell them that second best is good enough but ask them whether they're satisfied with their own performance and what they think they need to do as well as they want. That way kids get the keys to their own motivation and their own mental health.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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