Are we raising wimpy kids?

Sitting in the urgent care waiting room this weekend, I had some time to read part of an article in a back issue of “Psychology Today” about whether over-parenting is resulting in “wimpy” kids. I didn’t get to read the whole article (it was rather lengthy), but the jist of it was that by over-protecting our kids, we may make them rely on us too much and result in “wimps.”

The summary of the article, called “A Nation of Wimps,” is as follows: “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.”

It talked about how many parents today start their kids wearing helmets as soon as they are old enough to ride a tricycle; how many kids don’t know how to play by themselves because their parents are always right there showing them what to do, what not to do, etc.; how sports are so organized and kids are so used to having someone tell them what to do that many kids don’t even know how to start a pick-up game of softball or basketball on their own. We could be raising kids that don’t really know how to play?

Another point was that there are many cases of grade inflation going on in schools across the country – from elementary to university. Parents don’t like to see their kids do poorly so they call and complain when Jr. gets a “C” in math. When enough parents complain, the teacher or school may feel pressured into padding the grades so that it looks like everyone is doing well. The article said that of a recent graduating class from Harvard, 94% graduated with honors. I know it’s Harvard, but still that number seems awfully high. Kind of scary to think that even a school as prestigious as Harvard may be guilty of grade inflation.

It also focused heavily on the use of cell phones in children and adolescents and hypothesized that the use of cell phones means that kids don’t need to learn to plan ahead. If they get out of class and feel like hooking up with a friend, they call them on their cell phone. If they forget their homework at home, they can call mom on their cell phone. The point was that these kids are then used to instant gratification and expect results right away. When they don’t get results right away, it can lead to depression.

Another topic of the article was that when these children – who are so used to being coddled and told what to do – go off to college, they don’t know what to do with their new-found freedom. “The perpetual access to parents [via the cell phone or, as the author says, ‘eternal umbilicus’] 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.”

“What’s more, cell phones–along with the instant availability of cash and almost any consumer good your heart desires–promote fragility by weakening self-regulation. ‘You get used to things happening right away,’ says Carducci. You not only want the pizza now, you generalize that expectation to other domains, like friendship and intimate relationships. You become frustrated and impatient easily. You become unwilling to work out problems. And so relationships fail–perhaps the single most powerful experience leading to depression.”

What happens to kids who are suddenly set free after having been controlled for so long? Along with depression, other problems affecting college students are binge drinking; substance abuse; an increased number in cases of obsessive pursuit, otherwise known as stalking, leading to violence, even death; and an increase in cases of eating disorders in women.

The connections between all of these things makes a lot of sense to me. Of course we want to keep our kids as safe as possible, hence the helmets, supervised play, etc., but what happened to harmless bumps and bruises, letting kids use their imaginations and come up with their own games, an occasional bad grade and letting kids learn from their mistakes? The psychologists in the article argue that letting kids make mistakes and fail builds character and helps children learn independence. Whereas if they constantly have things handed to them or are told how to do everything, they aren’t going to learn how to fend for themselves, and they won’t know how to deal with disappointment.

It’s something I definitely want to keep in mind as my child gets older. Sure I want to keep her safe, but I also realize that she can’t live and thrive in a bubble. I don’t know if this means I will pass on the bicycle helmet or not, but I do hope to be aware that as much as it will be hard for me to see her in pain over a scraped knee or disappointed because she didn’t get an “A” in biology, it will make her a stronger person. And the jury is still out for me regarding whether or not she will have a cell phone (and at what age). I definitely like that I’d have access to her whenever I want, and she access to me, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing. Like most everything in life, I believe moderation is the key.

The article ends with the following: “Parental anxiety has its place. But the way things now stand, it’s not being applied wisely. We’re paying too much attention to too few kids–and in the end, the wrong kids.”
“There are kids who are worth worrying about–kids in poverty, stresses Anderegg. ‘We focus so much on our own children,’ says Elkind, ‘It’s time to begin caring about all children.'”

I think that’s an excellent point. We as parents spend so much time worrying about our own children, yet there are so many out there slipping through the cracks who need our attention much more desperately.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Side note: For those of you wondering why I was in urgent care this weekend, it was because Ava was running a really high fever (over 104 at one point), crying inconsolibly and then her knee started popping out. (When it rains, it pours, eh?!) Anyway, it seems to be just a cold and she’s doing a bit better today. And as for the knee, the doctor thought it was a fluke thing since it was fine when he examined her, but it’s popped out a few times since we left there so I’ll be making an appointment with her ped to have it checked out.