Death by coddling

I believe this article (via an IM by Greg) offers a good explanation for the weaknesses of SPU’s, my old college, student body. I was fairly involved in my time at SPU with many extra-curricular activities, and I think it’s safe to say I stirred up more than my fair share of trouble while there. So, I think I have a fairly well-informed opinion of the SPU student body. Generally, I think SPU students share three negative characteristics: unduly passive, overly sensitive, and highly intolerant of “bad behavior.” I think all three of these characteristics could be the result of the coddling parenting the article describes. Here are a few noteworthy snippets from the article.

The beginning of the article frames the problem well:

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.

These wimpy kids face a plethora of problems once they hit college including mental fragility, increased psychological stress, more reliance of binge drinking, and even 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.

The article also argues cell phones form a new kind of umbilical cord:

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.

. . .

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.'”

Many people I knew at SPU were in constant contact with the parents. Especially in comparison to how much contact I had with my parents, which usually was a brief phone call once every month and a half. I always appreciated my parents’s mentality that I was to be largely independent and the ties to home were being cut. I was still their son, but I was to be a son on my own.

The article also discusses how parental hovering may lead to an intensely ironic attitude, depression, an extended adolescence, aversion to challenges, and a stressful parenthood. I thought this was some good advice, “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.”

I can imagine the desire to coddle and fret over one’s children is natural. After all, we all want the best for our progeny, giving them every advantage possible over the other little snots running around. It just seems many parents get carried away, and the advantages they think they’re conferring are really just stunting the growth and strength of their child.

One thought on “Death by coddling

  1. i heard about this a little while ago, and was also reminded of SPU. especially coming from public high school, that environment was very strange. i think it’s fair to say that i was expecting sheltered girls, but the boys in many ways far surpassed… i remember one person telling me that he was initially ‘scared’ of me because i dyed my hair. um, what?!

    also, a bunch of the girls on my floor were scared to ride the bus downtown for any reason. i debated telling them we were going ‘the long way’ to the 7-11 and leaving them in pioneer square at 3am. 😉

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