Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Are America's Schools Wimp Factories?

A couple of articles and blog entries are shockingly honest about the predicament of today's youth culture.

Months ago, the New York Times reported a phenomenon in Japan that talked about Japanese boys who refused to leave their rooms because they saw no future outside that domain. In Japan, families hire young girls to keep these shut-ins company.

Psychology Today's article articulates an old theme that adolescence is being denied and delayed.

A Nation of Wimps
Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children. However, parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile; that may be why they're breaking down in record numbers.
By: Hara Estroff Marano

From Scrutiny to Anxiety... and Beyond

The 1990s witnessed a landmark reversal in the traditional patterns of psychopathology. While rates of depression rise with advancing age among people over 40, they're now increasing fastest among children, striking more children at younger and younger ages.

In his now-famous studies of how children's temperaments play out, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences. About 20 percent of babies are born with a high-strung temperament. They can be spotted even in the womb; they have fast heartbeats. Their nervous systems are innately programmed to be overexcitable in response to stimulation, constantly sending out false alarms about what is dangerous.

As infants and children this group experiences stress in situations most kids find unthreatening, and they may go through childhood and even adulthood fearful of unfamiliar people and events, withdrawn and shy. At school age they become cautious, quiet and introverted. Left to their own devices they grow up shrinking from social encounters. They lack confidence around others. They're easily influenced by others. They are sitting ducks for bullies. And they are on the path to depression.

While their innate reactivity seems to destine all these children for later anxiety disorders, things didn't turn out that way. Between a touchy temperament in infancy and persistence of anxiety stand two highly significant things: parents. Kagan found to his surprise that the development of anxiety was scarcely inevitable despite apparent genetic programming. At age 2, none of the overexcitable infants wound up fearful if their parents backed off from hovering and allowed the children to find some comfortable level of accommodation to the world on their own. Those parents who overprotected their children—directly observed by conducting interviews in the home—brought out the worst in them.

A small percentage of children seem almost invulnerable to anxiety from the start. But the overwhelming majority of kids are somewhere in between. For them, overparenting can program the nervous system to create lifelong vulnerability to anxiety and depression.

There is in these studies a lesson for all parents. Those who allow their kids to find a way to deal with life's day-to-day stresses by themselves are helping them develop resilience and coping strategies. "Children need to be gently encouraged to take risks and learn that nothing terrible happens," says Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute. "They need gradual exposure to find that the world is not dangerous. Having overprotective parents is a risk factor for anxiety disorders because children do not have opportunities to master their innate shyness and become more comfortable in the world." They never learn to dampen the pathways from perception to alarm reaction.

Hothouse parenting undermines children in other ways, too, says Anderegg. Being examined all the time makes children extremely self-conscious. As a result they get less communicative; scrutiny teaches them to bury their real feelings deeply. And most of all, self-consciousness removes the safety to be experimental and playful. "If every drawing is going to end up on your parents' refrigerator, you're not free to fool around, to goof up or make mistakes," says Anderegg.

Parental hovering is why so many teenagers are so ironic, he notes. It's a kind of detachment, "a way of hiding in plain sight. They just don't want to be exposed to any more scrutiny."

Parents are always so concerned about children having high self-esteem, he adds. "But when you cheat on their behalf to get them ahead of other children"—by pursuing accommodations and recommendations—you just completely corrode their sense of self. They feel 'I couldn't do this on my own.' It robs them of their own sense of efficacy." A child comes to think, "if I need every advantage I can get, then perhaps there is really something wrong with me." A slam-dunk for depression.

Virginia's Portmann feels the effects are even more pernicious; they weaken the whole fabric of society. He sees young people becoming weaker right before his eyes, more responsive to the herd, too eager to fit in—less assertive in the classroom, unwilling to disagree with their peers, afraid to question authority, more willing to conform to the expectations of those on the next rung of power above them.

While this article concentrates largely on parents being overprotective, clearly the continuous, systematic scrutiny of legislation like NCLB is a subtext. NCLB is nothing less that the institutionalized desire to make every kid the same uniform ideal humanoid. Please read the entire article, it is essential reading for all of us.

And on the DailyKos website, I found this great, introspective political diary entry by a person trying to rationalize the ubiquitous apathy of students,
The Middle Children of History (w/ poll)
by VoteHarder

[-snip-]

So here's a partial list of reasons my generation hasn't directly confronted Bush the way the `60s generation confronted LBJ and Nixon... feel free to pick and choose the ones you like.

[-snip-]

C. COLLEGE

1. College students nowadays have to pay more to attend major universities... so you pretty much HAVE to work if you're going to keep up with tuition/expenses. It's hard to work, go to school, AND be an activist. For most people, sleep > activism.

2. Some students view college activists as cliche and annoying, an invasion of their space... for some, this is rooted in the fact that we're superficial and used to being sheltered. Others have just been conditioned with a South Park conservative knee jerk hatred for people they suspect might hold liberal beliefs. These are the people who disturb me the most, because they're the ones whose ideals have been broken beyond all possibility of repair; these are the people glare at you and tear up the fliers you hand them. They are what I call "hostile apathetics" and they make up a sizable portion of the student population. What I really don't like about them is that they intimidate good people; a lot of activists in orgs I've been involved with don't like tabling because of the mean people who don't like getting handed fliers.

3. Some students are too busy to even listen, stemming from the fact that they are working 40 hours a week and holding down a full load of classes [...snip...]

4. The media insulates us from real world events, instead showing us shiny objects... so most young'uns know more about Paris Hilton than Darfur... again, we've been sheltered (see A1, A2). This is partly our fault, but the corporations get blame points for being such eager and greedy enablers... and for crafting the culture that perpetuates this dangerous bit of apathy.

5. [...snip...]

6. Kids have been conditioned so that they care more about grades and resumes than ideals and social justice. [...snip...]

7. Of the activism that does go on at elite campuses, a solid proportion [...snip...] are not willing to take risks. [...snip...]

8. It's hard to raise money. And to get anything done in America in 2006, you NEED money. [...snip...]

9. Some fine student activism DOES go on at college campuses, but it is often locally focused. [...snip...] The sad truth is that most people feel incredibly disempowered and timid when you ask them to do something about the jerks in D.C. They think it's crazy to even think of launching a direct attack on the status quo in filthy, detached, money-driven, arrogance-laden, faraway Washington. Which takes me to our next culprit...


What are we to make of all this? We preach democracy as a nation and yet our children are incapable of being anything more than passive, powerless consumers who trust no one because no one trusts them.

Today laws like NCLB enable and encourage schools and parents to embrace the political and educational strait-jacket of conformity. Individuality is not allowed in America - at least not in the school systems. Aren't schools responsible for creating informed, engaged citizens? If so, we're failing miserably, the evidence is piled high all around us like garbage bags lining the streets of New York City during a sanitation worker's strike.

But failure is the least of our worries. The American Dream is a uniquely personal call to each individual to reach for their bliss. If personal bliss is nothing more than mom and dad's recipe for success or strategy for beating the system, should school's remain nod and wink enablers of this phenomenon?

Years ago, Casey Stengel, manager of the Amazin' Mets - Amazin' because they found new ways to lose record numbers of games - sighed in frustration, "Doesn't anybody here know how to play this game?" Those of us concerned about a dying democracy at home are asking the same thing.

Tags: Psychology, depression, adolescence, NCLB, culture, education

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