We've all heard about the "underprivileged" child: often neglected or abused, angry or indifferent, walking into a dangerous future. But school counselors in more affluent neighborhoods have become increasingly familiar with the "overprivileged" child: shielded and flattered, anxiety-ridden or passive-aggressive, walking into a future of inflated fears. We hear of children who aren't allowed to pass out birthday party invitations in class unless everyone is invited, junior sports leagues where everyone gets a trophy just for showing up, papers graded in blue or purple ink rather than red.
All disturbing indications, according to a recent article in Psychology Today, of "A Nation of Wimps." Setting aside the irony that the therapy culture (represented by Psychology Today) had a hand in developing said nation, the article highlights some unsettling trends. For example: The fastest rise in rates of depression since the 1990s is among children, at younger and younger ages. Mental health problems in college students have been rising since 1988, and in 1996 anxiety replaced relationships as the main source of student angst. Less than a third of adult males now reach responsible adulthood (indicated by a steady job, marriage, and children) by age 30.
The "fragility factor" indicated by these trends is attributed to overprotection in the home. Parents who hover over their toddlers on the playground and structure their 4-year-old's time with tee ball and art class may later be calling up a teacher during the dinner hour to protest a "C" grade, or claiming a learning disability for their teenager to take untimed SATs. Children whose parents constantly run interference for them may never develop the skills necessary to cope even with small frustrations. (Ironically, it's often the same parents who assume the kids will be able to adjust to a family breakup and joint custody.)
At the bottom of this hyper-vigilance is a shift in our understanding of what childhood is. As child psychologist David Elkind puts it, "Parents and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they're geared to academic achievement." But any real achievement is a process of development, which requires a certain degree of failure. Too much emphasis on success produces kids who are afraid to fail.
But a child's calling is not to make his parents look good. A child's calling is to grow up. A culture that fails to appreciate its children as children may be saddled with childish adults far into the future.