The Eternal Umbilicus
It’s bad enough that today’s children are raised in a psychological hothouse where they are overmonitored and oversheltered. But that hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that you can thank the cell phone. Even in college—or perhaps especially at college—students are typically in contact with their parents several times a day, reporting every flicker of experience. One long-distance call overheard on a recent cross-campus walk: “Hi, Mom. I just got an ice-cream cone; can you believe they put sprinkles on the bottom as well as on top?”
“Kids are constantly talking to parents,” laments Cornell student Kramer, which makes them perpetually homesick. Of course, they’re not telling the folks everything, notes Portmann. “They’re not calling their parents to say, ‘I really went wild last Friday at the frat house and now I might have chlamydia. Should I go to the student health center?'”
The perpetual access to parents 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.
Think of the cell phone as the eternal umbilicus. One of the ways we grow up is by internalizing an image of Mom and Dad and the values and advice they imparted over the early years. Then, whenever we find ourselves faced with uncertainty or difficulty, we call on that internalized image. We become, in a way, all the wise adults we’ve had the privilege to know. “But cell phones keep kids from figuring out what to do,” says Anderegg. “They’ve never internalized any images; all they’ve internalized is ‘call Mom or Dad.'”
Some psychologists think we have yet to recognize the full impact of the cell phone on child development, because its use is so new. Although there are far too many variables to establish clear causes and effects, Indiana’s Carducci believes that reliance on cell phones undermines the young by destroying the ability to plan ahead. “The first thing students do when they walk out the door of my classroom is flip open the cell phone. Ninety-five percent of the conversations go like this: ‘I just got out of class; I’ll see you in the library in five minutes.’ Absent the phone, you’d have to make arrangements ahead of time; you’d have to think ahead.”
Herein lies another possible pathway to depression. The ability to plan resides in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the executive branch of the brain. The PFC is a critical part of the self-regulation system, and it’s deeply implicated in depression, a disorder increasingly seen as caused or maintained by unregulated thought patterns—lack of intellectual rigor, if you will. Cognitive therapy owes its very effectiveness to the systematic application of critical thinking to emotional reactions. Further, it’s in the setting of goals and progress in working toward them, however mundane they are, that positive feelings are generated. From such everyday activity, resistance to depression is born.
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.
From Scrutiny to Anxiety… and Beyond
The 1990s witnessed a landmark reversal in the traditional patterns of psychopathology. While rates of depression rise with advancing age among people over 40, they’re now increasing fastest among children, striking more children at younger and younger ages.
In his now-famous studies of how children’s temperaments play out, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences. About 20 percent of babies are born with a high-strung temperament. They can be spotted even in the womb; they have fast heartbeats. Their nervous systems are innately programmed to be overexcitable in response to stimulation, constantly sending out false alarms about what is dangerous.
As infants and children this group experiences stress in situations most kids find unthreatening, and they may go through childhood and even adulthood fearful of unfamiliar people and events, withdrawn and shy. At school age they become cautious, quiet and introverted. Left to their own devices they grow up shrinking from social encounters. They lack confidence around others. They’re easily influenced by others. They are sitting ducks for bullies. And they are on the path to depression.
While their innate reactivity seems to destine all these children for later anxiety disorders, things didn’t turn out that way. Between a touchy temperament in infancy and persistence of anxiety stand two highly significant things: parents. Kagan found to his surprise that the development of anxiety was scarcely inevitable despite apparent genetic programming. At age 2, none of the overexcitable infants wound up fearful if their parents backed off from hovering and allowed the children to find some comfortable level of accommodation to the world on their own. Those parents who overprotected their children—directly observed by conducting interviews in the home—brought out the worst in them.
A small percentage of children seem almost invulnerable to anxiety from the start. But the overwhelming majority of kids are somewhere in between. For them, overparenting can program the nervous system to create lifelong vulnerability to anxiety and depression.
There is in these studies a lesson for all parents. Those who allow their kids to find a way to deal with life’s day-to-day stresses by themselves are helping them develop resilienceand coping strategies. “Children need to be gently encouraged to take risks and learn that nothing terrible happens,” says Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute. “They need gradual exposure to find that the world is not dangerous. Having overprotective parents is a risk factor for anxiety disorders because children do not have opportunities to master their innate shyness and become more comfortable in the world.” They never learn to dampen the pathways from perception to alarm reaction.
Hothouse parenting undermines children in other ways, too, says Anderegg. Being examined all the time makes children extremely self-conscious. As a result they get less communicative; scrutiny teaches them to bury their real feelings deeply. And most of all, self-consciousness removes the safety to be experimental and playful. “If every drawing is going to end up on your parents’ refrigerator, you’re not free to fool around, to goof up or make mistakes,” says Anderegg.
Parental hovering is why so many teenagers are so ironic, he notes. It’s a kind of detachment, “a way of hiding in plain sight. They just don’t want to be exposed to any more scrutiny.”
Parents are always so concerned about children having high self-esteem, he adds. “But when you cheat on their behalf to get them ahead of other children”—by pursuing accommodations and recommendations—you just completely corrode their sense of self. They feel ‘I couldn’t do this on my own.’ It robs them of their own sense of efficacy.” A child comes to think, “if I need every advantage I can get, then perhaps there is really something wrong with me.” A slam-dunk for depression.
Virginia’s Portmann feels the effects are even more pernicious; they weaken the whole fabric of society. He sees young people becoming weaker right before his eyes, more responsive to the herd, too eager to fit in—less assertive in the classroom, unwilling to disagree with their peers, afraid to question authority, more willing to conform to the expectations of those on the next rung of power above them.
The end result of cheating childhood is to extend it forever. Despite all the parental pressure, and probably because of it, kids are pushing back—in their own way. They’re taking longer to grow up.
Adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends, according to a recent report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg and colleagues. There is, instead, a growing no-man’s-land of postadolescence from 20 to 30, which they dub “early adulthood.” Those in it look like adults but “haven’t become fully adult yet—traditionally defined as finishing school, landing a job with benefits, marrying and parenting—because they are not ready or perhaps not permitted to do so.”
Using the classic benchmarks of adulthood, 65 percent of males had reached adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960. By contrast, in 2000, only 31 percent had. Among women, 77 percent met the benchmarks of adulthood by age 30 in 1960. By 2000, the number had fallen to 46 percent.
Boom Boom Boomerang
Take away play from the front end of development and it finds a way onto the back end. A steady march of success through regimented childhood arranged and monitored by parents creates young adults who need time to explore themselves. “They often need a period in college or afterward to legitimately experiment—to be children,” says historian Stearns. “There’s decent historical evidence to suggest that societies that allow kids a few years of latitude and even moderate [rebellion] end up with healthier kids than societies that pretend such impulses don’t exist.”
Marriage is one benchmark of adulthood, but its antecedents extend well into childhood. “The precursor to marriage is dating, and the precursor to dating is playing,” says Carducci. The less time children spend in free play, the less socially competent they’ll be as adults. It’s in play that we learn give and take, the fundamental rhythm of all relationships. We learn how to read the feelings of others and how to negotiate conflicts. Taking the play out of childhood, he says, is bound to create a developmental lag, and he sees it clearly in the social patterns of today’s adolescents and young adults, who hang around in groups that are more typical of childhood. Not to be forgotten: The backdrop of continued high levels of divorce confuses kids already too fragile to take the huge risk of commitment.
Just Whose Shark Tank Is It Anyway?
The stressful world of cutthroat competition that parents see their kids facing may not even exist. Or it exists, but more in their mind than in reality—not quite a fiction, more like a distorting mirror. “Parents perceive the world as a terribly competitive place,” observes Anderegg. “And many of them project that onto their children when they’re the ones who live or work in a competitive environment. They then imagine that their children must be swimming in a big shark tank, too.”
“It’s hard to know what the world is going to look like 10 years from now,” says Elkind. “How best do you prepare kids for that? Parents think that earlier is better. That’s a natural intuition, but it happens to be wrong.”
What if parents have micromanaged their kids’ lives because they’ve hitched their measurement of success to a single event whose value to life and paycheck they have frantically overestimated? No one denies the Ivy League offers excellent learning experiences, but most educators know that some of the best programs exist at schools that don’t top the U.S. News and World Report list, and that with the right attitude—a willingness to be engaged by new ideas—it’s possible to get a meaningful education almost anywhere. Further, argues historian Stearns, there are ample openings for students at an array of colleges. “We have a competitive frenzy that frankly involves parents more than it involves kids themselves,” he observes, both as a father of eight and teacher of many. “Kids are more ambivalent about the college race than are parents.”
Yet the very process of application to select colleges undermines both the goal of education and the inherent strengths of young people. “It makes kids sneaky,” says Anderegg. Bending rules and calling in favors to give one’s kid a competitive edge is morally corrosive.
Like Stearns, he is alarmed that parents, pursuing disability diagnoses so that children can take untimed SATs, actually encourage kids to think of themselves as sickly and fragile. Colleges no longer know when SATs are untimed—but the kids know. “The kids know when you’re cheating on their behalf,” says Anderegg, “and it makes them feel terribly guilty. Sometimes they arrange to fail to right the scales. And when you cheat on their behalf, you completely undermine their sense of self-esteem. They feel they didn’t earn it on their own.”
In buying their children accommodations to assuage their own anxiety, parents are actually locking their kids into fragility. Says the suburban teacher: “Exams are a fact of life. They are anxiety-producing. The kids never learn how to cope with anxiety.”
Putting Worry in its Place
Children, however, are not the only ones who are harmed by hyperconcern. Vigilance is enormously taxing—and it’s taken all the fun out of parenting. “Parenting has in some measurable ways become less enjoyable than it used to be,” says Stearns. “I find parents less willing to indulge their children’s sense of time. So they either force-feed them or do things for them.”
Parents need to abandon the idea of perfection and give up some of the invasive control they’ve maintained over their children. The goal of parenting, Portmann reminds, is to raise an independent human being. Sooner or later, he says, most kids will be forced to confront their own mediocrity. Parents may find it easier to give up some control if they recognize they have exaggerated many of the dangers of childhood—although they have steadfastly ignored others, namely the removal of recess from schools and the ubiquity of video games that encourage aggression.
The childhood we’ve introduced to our children is very different from that in past eras, Epstein stresses. Children no longer work at young ages. They stay in school for longer periods of time and spend more time exclusively in the company of peers. Children are far less integrated into adult society than they used to be at every step of the way. We’ve introduced laws that give children many rights and protections—although we have allowed media and marketers to have free access.
In changing the nature of childhood, Stearns argues, we’ve introduced a tendency to assume that children can’t handle difficult situations. “Middle-class parents especially assume that if kids start getting into difficulty they need to rush in and do it for them, rather than let them flounder a bit and learn from it. I don’t mean we should abandon them,” he says, “but give them more credit for figuring things out.” And recognize that parents themselves have created many of the stresses and anxieties children are suffering from, without giving them tools to manage them.
While the adults are at it, they need to remember that one of the goals of higher education is to help young people develop the capacity to think for themselves.
Although we’re well on our way to making kids more fragile, no one thinks that kids and young adults are fundamentally more flawed than in previous generations. Maybe many will “recover” from diagnoses too liberally slapped on to them. In his own studies of 14 skills he has identified as essential for adulthood in American culture, from love to leadership, Epstein has found that “although teens don’t necessarily behave in a competent way, they have the potential to be every bit as competent and as incompetent as adults.”
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. As with the girl whose parents bought her the Gestalt-defect diagnosis, resources are being expended for kids who don’t need them.
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.”
If you have a child who is struggling with growing up call Tamara Ancona, MA, LPC at (678) 297-0708 for an evaluation, and to discuss the best treatment options available.
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