The "Failure to Launch" Epidemic (Continued)
Written by At The Crossroads,
Posted on , in Section Parent Resources
DL: A pretty significant one is an effect on the economy. At every level of the economy today, there are shortages of adequately trained workers. Part of the blame is that we make so few demands on children, remove all the obstacles from their lives, and keep telling them how wonderful they are. Further, the whole mental health issue and prescription of psychotropic drugs is spiraling out of control. Again a vicious circle: We're overreacting, overmedicating, which in turn just keeps growing. There's no negative feedback mechanism by which to say, wait a minute, we need to raise the bar a little higher here before we start giving kids drugs. Parents more and more are so anxious about their children being contaminated, polluted by other children who perhaps don't share the same taste and values. So there's increasing segregation, and more parents are spending so much time picking the right soccer club and the right magnet school, charter school. To me a lot of that is making sure they're associated with the right children and not exposed to influences from other perspectives. That reduces diversity because children are brought up with the idea that they're part of a very special group, a very elite group typically, and that's where they belong. They're not there duking it out or interacting with the whole world.
HEM: One of the values of anthropologic research is you get to see that kids can be raised in a whole variety of ways and come out just fine.
DL: We grew up in an era when parents had the attitude that as long as the kids are healthy and decently put together and seem to be OK, leave them alone, they're fine, they'll turn out just fine. Turning out just fine is not a satisfactory objective for middle and upper middle class parents today. The kids have to be optimized. They must achieve everything they're capable of achieving. That's a hell of a burden to put on the kids and the parents too; it's unrealistic. And it's not clear that in the process they aren’t doing some damage to their psyche that can have serious consequences. I was heartbroken when I read in your PT article Crisis U about the University of Pennsylvania student who jumped to her death. She just couldn't cope with being less than top of the class, perfect. She didn't know how to do that. Here she is 17 years old and at no point in her life was she ever in second place.
HEM: So many parents aspire to an elite education for their kids and start early to prepare them.
DL: Pushing your kids to Harvard means simplifying the world for them by having a very limited set of objectives. They need to be popular all around, they need to be president of the student body, they’ve got to be on the varsity soccer team. There's a checklist of what they have to achieve, and it's all extremely focused. We're teaching them to actually screen out all the other stuff going on in the world as background noise. We're not preparing them for the greater complexity of the world. They don't want to deal with complexity.
HEM: Talk more about that.
DL: I'm a great believer in dinner-table conversations, where you get wide-ranging discussions between a concerned parent and a curious child eager to learn There's more than a little empirical support for the idea that engaging children with their parents or older siblings in a meal ritual provides enormous benefits in terms of language development. But it’s also a marvelous place for developing the capacity for complexity, for learning to look at an issue from many sides. A child gets to bring forward an issue, maybe about some kids in the class who are bullying. Maybe it's about not understanding something in social studies. A well-educated parent, automatically, without thinking, lays out the background and shows there’s not a snap answer or a simple solution, but that several elements have to be taken into account. This happens naturally at dinner conversations, or in the van to and from piano lessons. But such conversations are disappearing. Soccer practice, homework intrude. So do prepared foods, which make it so much easier for everybody to eat their own food at their own time.
HEM: You mention the curious child. Are we in danger of losing curiosity in children?
DL: I'll answer that obliquely. We have this idea now that kids have to be kept constantly busy or else they'll get bored and that's a really bad thing. That should be the kid's problem. The kid should have sufficient autonomy that if they're not working on a school assignment or some specific task they've been allocated, they've got to figure out what to do with themselves. One example that illustrates the divide is what has happened to Legos. They were once very open-ended construction units; you could build anything with them. Now, with Millennium Legos, there's only one thing you can do with the set. There’s no fun. It's like a lesson in school: Stay within the lines. They bring out a new batch with every blockbuster movie. It's all driven by marketing; it has nothing to do with what's good for children. It's an intellectual straightjacket.
HEM: In looking at the U.S., have we been on a gradual path to failure-to-launch or do you see any particular turning points?
DL: In reviewing my experience as a college teacher I'm not aware of any particular turning point. The changes seems imperceptible. Then one day you wake up and say, “whoa, when did this happen?” In 1990 I was teaching in Toledo and students would come to see me and share their life history with me. They’d pour their hearts out to me, seeking sympathy, and by the way could I get a two-week extension on the paper because my boyfriend beat me up. They were crossing a divide that students never had done before that. But in 1990, those undergraduates were pleading. The students today are demanding. They expect that they're right. They inform me why their work wasn't done on time or why they should have gotten a higher grade than I gave them, but now it's more an expression of a right. It's not a pleading anymore; there’s no sense of apology or embarrassment.
HEM: Can we assume that changes in childrearing are always purposeful and for the better?
DL: I don't think parenting is a rational process anymore.
HEM: Is there a direction to the changes that have been occurring?
DL: Everybody is going to have a therapist.
HEM: You have used the phrase enforced emotional retardation about children today.
DL: This is a very strong phenomenon that I see. I am in Utah, where Mormon fundamentalism is the dominant religion, but culturally it's not so unique. A local high school class had a blood drive. A screening questionnaire was required by law to eliminate potential HIV carriers. It asks about sexual partners and unprotected sex. This became headline news in Utah; a mother objected violently because it exposed her 18-year-old daughter to knowledge she wasn't supposed to have yet. Sexual partnerships, protected sex—to her those are taboo subjects until after marriage. That's an example of what I call emotional retardation. There's a deep desire to keep children innocent as long as possible. When we overprotect them, we're protecting them from emotional upheavals of various kinds, and the easiest way to do that short of giving them drugs is to keep them in a bubble. That's all about keeping them emotionally young; of course, the kids are tugging as hard as they can in the other direction.
If you talk to people in schools and social services, they will tell you that middle school kids are having sex rampantly and don't know what the hell they're doing because we refuse to talk openly about what's involved. If anything, I say we should be accelerating our children's emotional development, toughening them that way, exposing them to a rough childhood. I think the protection is not helpful at all. The dinner table is the place for this sort of frank discussion about divorce and adultery and so on.
HEM: This isn't something kids can recover from once they're out of the house.
DL: It gets them in trouble. Kids here in Utah are so incredibly naïve, and it gets them into trouble. They're unprepared for the real world.
HEM: Let’s talk about play.
DL: For years you and I have been talking about the diminishing opportunities today’s children have for play. But now there are all kinds of pro-play movements coming from different bodies of research. I think schools are starting to wake up to the fact that it really is harmful to the kids academically and socially to deny them recess and play opportunities. We did go in the wrong direction for a long time. Play has lots of benefits. I know from anthropology that it's a critical part of children's development and they learn a lot through it, and if you subtract it from the experience of childhood, there are long-term negative consequences.
So there is that one ray of hope, although there are still a lot of forces working against it. Parents fear that children will be injured or contaminated by other children. Also, the initiatives taken to create play experiences are still very heavy-handed in terms of management of the children and supervision. At least it's a conversation. An international conversation.