CHICAGO — American parents seem to be producing three different and fundamentally broken childhood experiences by pushing, coddling or shrugging off their kids.
The 2010 film “Race to Nowhere,” which was screened at high-performing school districts across America, captured the angst of the pushed. The movie describes itself as “featuring the heartbreaking stories of students across the country who have been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing and the relentless pressure to achieve.” Calling this rat race a “silent epidemic in our schools,” the film “reveals an education system in which cheating has become commonplace; students have become disengaged; stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant; and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.”
‘Intense Social Insecurity’
Though also afflicting select students who see academic achievement as their lifeline out of poverty, it’s most often thought to be an issue of affluence. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “We live at a time of intense social insecurity ... living during an epidemic of conditional love. Many parents bestow or withdraw affection depending on how well their children are achieving, producing millions of young people without secure emotional foundations, who pine for any kind of approval.”
Then there are the coddled kids growing up around adult devotees of the modern self-esteem movement. This philosophy convinced well-meaning people that self-acceptance was the root of success, inspiring parents and educators to start treating kids as if they were perfection itself.
This center-of-the-universe mentality gave rise to everything from no-loser team sports to teachers who refuse to use a red pen to correct papers (my graduate-level teacher training program taught me to use green or purple ink because red might hurt students’ feelings) to helicopter parents who end up stalking college professors and employers on their kids’ behalf. Needless to say, this is already producing adults who have a hard time fully growing up. Finally, there are the disregarded.
Though popularly portrayed as low-income, minority or immigrant, what these children really have in common is the bad luck to have fallen through the cracks.
These are the children who were born into families that don’t provide language-rich environments for any number of reasons. Their parents either can’t afford or don’t understand the value of enrichment activities, or don’t know that academic potential is malleable and not an inherited trait. Some kids have parents who just don’t have the time or skill set to nurture - a situation that plays itself out across income brackets.
These three childhood experiences are what you get in a society that puts an obsessive focus on kids (either how wonderful or how downtrodden they are) and equal fanatical attention to parents (what their marital status is, whether moms work and how much money they make) but no emphasis on the discipline of parenting.
Imagine if as much attention were given to the topic of how to develop a highly functioning family as to the tired argument about whether women can or cannot “have it all.”
It’s been about a year since Bruce Feiler, in his excellent book “The Secrets of Happy Families” noted that “the last decade has seen a stunning breakthrough in knowledge about how to make families, along with other small groups, run more smoothly. Myth-shattering research from neuroscience to genetics has completely reshaped our understanding of how parents should discipline their children, what to talk about at family dinner, and how adult siblings can have difficult conversations.”