14 July 2011

Lori Gottlieb and the Collapse of the American Empire

The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life—that, as Dan Kindlon, the psychologist from Harvard, puts it, “if they ever feel a twinge of non-euphoria, there should be another option.” Mogel puts it even more bluntly: what parents are creating with all this choice are anxious and entitled kids whom she describes as “handicapped royalty.” _Lori Gottlieb

Pity meek and mild Lori Gottlieb, an intern in family counseling who has made some interesting observations in the course of her work. Gottlieb discussed her observations in a recent piece in the Atlantic. The piece has raised a firestorm of online debate, snark, and condemnation, almost entirely undeserved. The fault in Gottlieb's piece lies not in what she says, but in what she leaves out -- what these disturbing findings imply for the future of the American empire.
...Here I was, seeing the flesh-and-blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids, precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day. We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids—yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious. Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids?

...Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, they won’t develop “psychological immunity.”

“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle...

...Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who, after the publication of her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee a decade ago, became an adviser to schools all over the country. When I talked to her this spring, she said that over the past few years, college deans have reported receiving growing numbers of incoming freshmen they’ve dubbed “teacups” because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way. “Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods,” Mogel said of these kids, “so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”

...A few months ago, I called up Jean Twenge, a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has written extensively about narcissism and self-esteem. She told me she wasn’t surprised that some of my patients reported having very happy childhoods but felt dissatisfied and lost as adults. When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance.

...This same teacher—who asked not to be identified, for fear of losing her job—says she sees many parents who think they’re setting limits, when actually, they’re just being wishy-washy. “A kid will say, ‘Can we get ice cream on the way home?’ And the parent will say, ‘No, it’s not our day. Ice-cream day is Friday.’ Then the child will push and negotiate, and the parent, who probably thinks negotiating is ‘honoring her child’s opinion,’ will say, ‘Fine, we’ll get ice cream today, but don’t ask me tomorrow, because the answer is no!’” The teacher laughed. “Every year, parents come to me and say, ‘Why won’t my child listen to me? Why won’t she take no for an answer?’ And I say, ‘Your child won’t take no for an answer, because the answer is never no!’”

... _theAtlantic
And so on... An interesting glimpse into the modern state of child-raising in the US from someone on the front lines of family therapy.

If Americans truly are raising generations of fragile, entitled children, who is going to do the hard work that needs to be done? As long as the US economy was doing well, America could import its hard workers and many of its hard thinkers, so as to keep the wheels of commerce and invention moving along. But with the rapid emergence of crisis levels of debt and demography, the US economy may not be able to import so much of its needed human capital -- to compensate for the disastrous failures of its parents and educational system.

Children need to learn practical competence in a wide range of skills. They need to learn to focus on a difficult task, and learn to work hard at it until it is done. Children must not be age-segregated in prison schools for so many of their formative years, kept away from any responsibility or opportunity to explore the real world.

The Roman Empire collapsed over a few centuries for many of the reasons the American empire is threatened: debt, demography, social problems that were swept under the rug, entitled and abusive ruling classes, etc.

American parents have only one or two children, on average, and far too many of them are being raised as "trophy children," pampered perpetually childish pets rather than skilled, competent, and responsible proto-adults. This failure to reproduce -- and failure to competently raise the meagre progeny which they do produce -- is what truly threatens the collapse of the American Experiment (not actually an empire in the Roman sense at all).

Gottlieb was actually rather tentative and modest in her conclusions -- not taking them as far as she perhaps should have. Yet she was widely castigated by the "pampering nannies" of modern academia, journalism, and the blogosphere. The dysfunction can probably not be reversed before catastrophe ensues, at least not in the many strongholds of the destructive philosophy.

It is up to parents who wish to raise competent and functional children to structure an environment around the child which facilitates the acquisition of skills and an ongoing successful adaptation to adult world responsibilities.

Previously published at Al Fin, The Next Level

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

But the social science research indicates that parents have little influence on how their kids turn out.

Thursday, 14 July, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

SN: I understand what you are saying. But there is no such thing as "the social science research." Not as a convergent body of work which is capable of "indicating" anything of significance.

It is true that children are to some extent "ready-made" and "prepackaged" with potent genetic programs of personality, character, preferences, and drives.

On the other hand, parents have a great deal to do with the range of opportunities which the child is exposed to, both good and bad.

In other words, while most gang-bangers would never have ended up as Nobel Prize-winning physicists, they could have been given the opportunity for a future better than "dead before 21."

Thursday, 14 July, 2011  
Blogger LarryD said...

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids
"Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.

"Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.

"Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, ..."

Friday, 15 July, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

LarryD: Did you cull that link from an Al Fin article from a few years back?

Follow the "self esteem" label back and you will find the posting that references -- and helps to clarify -- the SciAm article. ;-)

Friday, 15 July, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

I'll make it easy for you:

Teach a Child to Enjoy a Challenge!

Friday, 15 July, 2011  
Blogger Randall Parker said...

At the level of groups IQ is a powerful predictor of educational attainment, income, and even life expectancy. Not everyone lives up to their intellectual potential but intellectual ability is very important. I doubt modern parenting is having much of an impact to undermine the achievements of higher IQ kids.

Saturday, 23 July, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

Randall Parker: I doubt modern parenting is having much of an impact to undermine the achievements of higher IQ kids.

That is a bit of a non sequitur, in terms of the main thrust of the article, Randall. Gottlieb's article talks about parents landing their children in therapy, which is a bit different than parents blunting a child's achievements.

The Al Fin commentary on Gottlieb's article focuses on childhood competence -- both emotional and physical competence. Specifically, how to keep your child from growing up to be a lifelong adolescent incompetent.

Educational attainment and income -- even life expectancy -- will not be of much comfort if the adult behaves like and adolescent, is functionally helpless in a wide array of life situations, and is unable to tolerate criticism and correction.

Sunday, 24 July, 2011  

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