Wake up, America: We’re raising a nation of wimps.
Hara Marano, editor-at-large and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, has been watching a disturbing trend: kids are growing up to be wimps. They can’t make their own decisions, cope with anxiety, or handle difficult emotions without going off the deep end. Teens lack leadership skills. College students engage in deadly binge drinking. Graduates can’t even negotiate their own salaries without bringing mom or dad in for a consult. Why? Because hothouse parents raise teacup children—brittle and breakable, instead of strong and resilient. This crisis threatens to destroy the fabric of our society, to undermine both our democracy and economy. Without future leaders or daring innovators, where will we go? So what can be done?
kids would play in the street until their mothers hailed them for supper, and unless a child was called into the principal’s office, parents and teachers met only at organized conferences. Nowadays, parents are involved in every aspect of their children’s lives—even going so far as using technology to monitor what their kids eat for lunch at school and accompanying their grown children on job interviews. What is going on?
Hothouse parenting has hit the mainstream—with disastrous effects. Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the lumps and bumps out of life for their children, but the net effect of parental hyperconcern and scrutiny is to make kids more fragile. When the real world isn’t the discomfort-free zone kids are accustomed to, they break down in myriad ways. Why is it that those who want only the best for their kids wind up bringing out the worst in them? There is a mental health crisis on college campuses these days, with alarming numbers of students engaging in self-destructive behaviors like binge drinking and cutting or disconnecting through depression.
A Nation of Wimps is the first book to connect the dots between overparenting and the social crisis of the young. Psychology expert Hara Marano reveals how parental overinvolvement hinders a child’s development socially, emotionally, and neurologically. Children become overreactive to stress because they were never free to discover what makes them happy in the first place.
Through countless hours of painstaking research and interviews, Hara Marano focuses on the whys and how of this crisis and then turns to what we can do about it in this thought-provoking and groundbreaking book.
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Hara Estroff Marano is an award-winning writer and editor-at-large for Psychology Today. Her articles have appeared in many other publications including, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, Wilson Quarterly, USA Today, Smithsonian, and Ladies’ Home Journal. She writes a regular advice column for Psychology Today, called Unconventional Wisdom, and is a columnist for msn.com and an international edition of Marie Claire. She is also the author of Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me?: A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids. Marano sits on the board of the Bringing Therapy to Practice Project. The mother of two grown sons, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Welcome to the Hothouse
I've just been in the emergency room for two and a half hours," Sarah announced, pushing on as we passed on the street, "and I've got to see my daughter." I had seen Sarah, the daughter of a neighbor, grow up, a few years ahead of my two children, and nowadays run into her only when she comes to visit her parents with her own family. Her right foot was freshly cradled in the clunky contraption doctors call a walking boot but is more accurately a limping boot.
"How old is your daughter now?" I asked.
"Almost four," she said. "And," she added, her voice suddenly shaky with panic, "I've never been separated from her this long before. And she's never been away from me."
There was a time when two and a half hours away from one's four-year-old would not have been seen as a separation. It would have been sought after and thought of as a respite, a reprieve, a welcome break for both mother and child. It would have been seen as a small but necessary step on the long march toward independence, toward a child's adaptation to a world composed of people who are not biologically devoted to satisfying her every wish and making her happy. And it would have been seen as a chance for a parent to reconnect, however briefly, with interests in the world at large.
But this is 2008 and the children—or at least many of them—are never safe enough, never happy enough, unless they are directly in the laser sights of Mommy, and sometimes Daddy. The perpetual presence of Mom is supported by a burgeoning belief that only she is competent enough, that no one can provide care for the children or meet their needs as well as she can, that depriving the child of her direct attention in the first few years could, in fact, cause psychological damage for life. For this, a growing number of successful women are giving up significant careers to stay at home with the little ones, demographers report. It seems that to justify such application of their skills and education, they have to elevate child rearing to a challenge worthy of their time.
Parental hyperconcern about safety and well-being turns a two-and-a-half-hour interlude of what once, in calmer days, may have been looked on as a break from the kids into a window of intense worry. Hyperattendance to children falsely breeds a sense of control and erroneously endows every action of the child with an importance it does not have. It also violates a cardinal rule of development: attentive and responsive care to an infant is absolutely necessary, but there comes a point when it is oppressive, robbing children of the very thing they need for continued growth. In small doses at first, and larger ones later, separation is essential to activate the system the infant will call on for exploring the world and mastering inner and outer life. Buried in overattachment and overinvolvement is an assumption of fragility, the belief that by not having some nuance of need met, the child will be irrevocably harmed. The paradox of parenting is that the pressure to make it perfect can undermine the outcome.
Parents, nevertheless, will not have to relinquish scrutiny of their children to others, even trained professionals, when the kids enter school. Many live in a school district that maintains a Web site just for parents and runs a computer program that allows them to keep an obsessive eye on their kids throughout the school day, from the minute they enter kindergarten to the day they graduate from twelfth grade. Zangle is one such program favored by a number of midwestern school districts. Parents in affluent areas like Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, Michigan, where up to 70 percent of the highly educated mothers may be stay-at-home moms, are so tickled by the remote control it provides them that they spend hours "zangling" their kids--and comparing the results with other parents passing their days the same way. With a secret password, they log on and check whether their kids have turned in their homework assignments, review the grades they are getting on tests and reports and daily homework assignments, discover whether there have been any "behavioral incidents," and even find out whether their kids chose chocolate milk or Pepsi with their burger and fries in the school cafeteria.
Programs like Zangle are "feeding parental obsessiveness," insists a parent of two young girls in Birmingham, Michigan, who "forced myself to pull back and not do what everyone else does—because I'm not the one who has to prepare for college. The parents spend all day checking in on their kids. They demand to see all their kid's assignments. Sometimes the teachers are forced to say, 'It's your son's homework, not yours.' "
"Do We Need a Speech Therapist?"
Parental pushiness and protectionism gain momentum as children move from preschool to primary school to high school. Not long ago, parents might have thought their function was, say, to provide good nutrition at home, recognize that direct parental control extends only so far, and, on a sliding scale from begrudgingly to confidently, grant their kids increments of freedom along with allowance money to make choices on their own outside the house, even if the choices were sometimes less than perfect. Zangle and other monitoring programs beginning with kindergarten train parents in intrusiveness and normalize it, even celebrate it, without accommodating so much as a whimper of protest—all the while disrupting the fragile flow of trust that development toward independence has always required and still does.
"I noticed it immediately with my then-one-year-old when we moved to suburban Connecticut from a more alternative community in the Southwest," reports the mother of a four-year-old boy and a seventeen-month-old daughter. "How many words was my child saying? Did he know his alphabet? When could he write his name? Do we need a speech therapist? I know parents of a three-year-old who monitor their child so obsessively they send him to an occupational therapist two times a week to work on scissor skills—for no discernible reason." The mother of two confesses that she herself "took my son in to the occupational therapist to be evaluated after his preschool teacher said something about his fine motor skills. Now, mind you, he is highly verbal, he can read, he is a fine artist. But I took him in for an evaluation. I'm not proud of it. It forced me to do some soul-searching, and we never went back."
The push for achievement in all quantifiable realms, especially the academic, begins so early that preschools all around the country are focusing less and less on the development of social skills and self-regulation and more and more on academics. However, children of that age are so unready for curricular focus that preschools report a rising tide of behavioral problems—-and wind up expelling six out of every thousand students. Imagine: expelled from preschool! With so much expected of them when they have not yet mastered socialization and self-regulation—two skills that are intricately interconnected and both of which foster academic excellence—more of them are acting out. Expectations for children have gone completely haywire, untethered from any reference to children's developmental needs, referenced only to deep adult anxieties. "The great effect of Head Start was to convince the upper middle class that their children need a head start and they could do it better," says the historian Steven Mintz, professor at the University of Houston and author of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood.
Inside the Hothouse
Childhood under the constant gaze of adults is a new and growing phenomenon. The idea that a life—anyone's life—is on some precise schedule amenable to control is a by-product of the syllogisms of success that parents today are frenetically writing for their children.
The giant Citigroup company was rocked by scandal in 2002 when one of its superstar stock analysts, Jack Grubman, bragged in an e-mail that he had upgraded the rating of then-flagging AT&T stock to curry favor with Citigroup's then chairman, Sanford Weill. Grubman's overarching goal was to get Weill, a prominent New York figure, to exert his influence to get Grubman's twin toddlers into one of New York's prestigious preschools. (AT&T's chairman sat on the board of Citigroup and was a client of Citigroup, and Weill sat on the AT&T board.) What made the preschool so essential, apparently, was its track record in sending its graduates to the elite private grammar schools that in turn feed the prestigious prep schools which in turn dump their graduates into the Ivy League. It was the first logical step in the syllogism of academic success that parents construct for their children: if this is the right kindergarten for Harvard and Elijah gets into it, then he will be on track for Harvard. In the hothouse that child raising has become, nothing is left to chance. (Weill made the call, and the Grubman twins were admitted, once Citigroup pledged a million dollars to the school's umbrella organization.)
In the hothouse, parents plan out the lives of their children and propel them into a variety of programmed activities that are intended to have Ivy League appeal; they then ferry the kids around to classes and activities. The critical element in this setup is not that it leaves the kids with little unstructured time but that there is no way of opting out. Someone is always there to see that they get to the next stop in the circuit of activities. Playing hooky, daydreaming, or just kicking back is out of the question, and the programming starts early in order to carve the groove as deeply as possible. "My neighbor's boy goes to karate, soccer, swimming, and baseball after going to school four days a week from 8:30 to 2:30," says...
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