[11 June 2008]
Consider the psychological trauma of little league. At age 11 I was baseball-obsessed: card-collecting, boxscore-mulling, sportscenter-absorbing. Advancing from neighborhood pick-up games to organized action was a natural progression—too bad for me that I could barely play ball to save my life. I so feared the leather hurled at me in the batter’s box I begged silently for a walk, but sometimes I managed the gumption to attempt a gangly swing that never hit anything but hot air. The glove on my hand seemed an awkward appendage that stifled athletic feats instead of energizing them. I understand it clearly now, but it was hard to fathom the truth at the time: I sucked at baseball.
What was my coach to do? Bewildered by my poor athleticism, he stuck me in right field and buried me at the bottom of the batting order—in short, made me feel worthless and miserable, a young fan spurned by the game’s cruel fate. Better question: what was my father, who had helped develop my love for baseball, to do? It might be shocking to learn that he did hardly anything besides gently encourage me to practice, continuing our evening catch sessions at an even keel. I finished the season without a hit, scarred by my failure but resolute that I was not meant to be a ballplayer. Nerddom, not jockdom, suited me much better.
These days it is rare for a parent to sit by patiently and watch their kid fail, as my dad did (and for which I am grateful). There are academic tutors, personal athletic trainers, and summer camps to hone skills in everything from math to lacrosse. In varsity sports and college admissions, mediocrity is becoming less of an option, to say nothing of outright failure. Parents, supremely flustered by a culture of anxiety, economic instability, and a wrenched social fabric, are becoming ever-more invested in their children’s success, and their kids are none the better for it—mental sickness at colleges and universities, just one indicator of the effects of obsessive parenting, is alarmingly widespread. Longtime journalist and Editor-at-large at Psychology Today Hara Estroff Marano has dubbed the situation “hothouse parenting”, and chronicles the psychological pitfalls of the current child-rearing environment in A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.
The objective for approximately two decades spent parenting should be a well-balanced, independent adult. Marano shows how many things in young people’s lives get in the way of this quite reasonable goal (as if we did not already need showing, but her voluminous itemizing is harrowing, nonetheless): television, which saturates children’s lives with consumer advertising and discourages imagination in favor of spoon-fed entertainment; pharmaceutical-company marketers, out to convince parents that every behavioral, academic, and social problem can be solved if the right pill, or cocktail of pills, are put down that child’s throat; most school districts, which are bound rigidly to curricula that advocates information regurgitation and quantitative skills to the detriment of innovative thinking and critical analysis; and finally, parents themselves, either too unstable emotionally so that they fail to be good examples of maturity, or too at a loss for meaning in their own lives so that they put undue pressure on their children to provide purpose to their otherwise vacuous existence.
As the above and most of Marano’s book demonstrates, there are plenty of places to direct the blame for 20-year-olds who can’t seem to get it together, who as college students phone their parents daily (as a student in the present decade I saw plenty of this myself among my colleagues), or as new graduates who take their parents along on job interviews (thankfully, I’ve never heard of any of my peers doing such a pathetic thing). By focusing on parenting, and more specifically the psychological aspects of parenting, Marano smartly limits herself in what could be an infinitely expanding attack on a culture ridden by sexualization, fetishization, and infantilization (besides, that book has already been written — pick up a copy of Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole ).
Marano shows how needy, obsessive parents (of the middle and upper classes only, it should be noted) are nearly ruining their children’s lives. No doubt terrified by a television media that wildly exaggerates the dangers posed by pedophiles and kidnappers, parents over-protect their children and produce fragile, unsure beings that are afraid of the real world. Meanwhile, Marano reports that sexual crimes against children have actually decreased in the past decade, which might be shocking if you get your news from CNN. The fluctuating economy, too, leads parents to berate their children into being academic all-stars, intimidating them with visions of impending poverty.
Although she sometime strays by criticizing wider societal trends, Marano is at her best when illuminating the early years of a human’s development and how parents and caregivers can provide the best guidance. The discussion of the importance of play is fascinating. Educators who would turn recess into regulated exercise seriously hinder development, for unstructured playtime in which kids create their own structure, roleplay, and most ways mimic adults is crucial preparation for adulthood. A description of attachment and separation stages between infants and mothers yields this kernel of wisdom: “The cost of such possessiveness is likely to be high, setting a child up for experiencing distress on separation…Parental intrusiveness breeds anxiety and depression because it carries the implicit message ‘You are fragile and need continuing help.’” A chapter devoted to perfectionism proves much we actually learn from our mistakes.
A Nation of Wimps is much diagnosis without enough prescription. Only a concluding chapter devotes itself to telling how parents can avoid the childhood-blitzing zeitgeist, with some solutions vague and unsurprising if pertinant:“Eat dinner together at least five nights a week.”, “Keep your professional values at the office, where they belong. Stop turning parenthood into a profession.”. Other suggestions are a little more thought-provoking: “Go all the way and help your kids fail. Allow your kids to mess up, to experience a little bit of failure, to experience discomfort, boredom”.
As a reasonably well-adjusted, independently employed childless adult who considers himself the product of top-notch parenting if at the same time the offshoot of a largely immoral, grossly materialist society, I came to A Nation of Wimps hoping to learn useful strategies, should I be fortunate enough to have children of my own, some day. I thought it might help the future father in me combat the excesses of our society without reverting to fearmongering or even “hovering”, as Marano describes total-surveillance parenting.
I could see myself fretting that sending my child out for unsupervised “play” might only lead them into a neighbor’s basement and hours of video games. or an afternoon wasted watching the Suite Life of Zach and Cody. The Internet is a treasure trove of educational information, but also an easy source for pornography and sadism—how best to censor, or guide, the pre-teen web surfer? Mano does not provide enough answers to such questions in A Nation of Wimps, though it provides plenty of interesting scenarios and arguments.
The world needs more good parents, of that much we are sure. The definition of what exactly constitutes a good parent remains murky.