School in and out (David Lancy)
What Price Happiness?
Three years ago, Michelle Cossey was arrested in the aftermath of her 14-year-old son Dillion's incarceration for planning a Columbine-style school massacre. When asked why she had purchased firearms to enable Dillion to assemble what police called an "arsenal of weapons," the mother replied, "He was unhappy." Presumeably, her solicitation was also responsible for the boy's all-too-evident obesity (1).
Ok, admittedly an extreme case, but I would argue that this episode signals a problem of national significance. American parents' pre-occupation with their children's happiness seems to be drawing a tidal wave of unintended consequences in its wake.
Historians note similar sentiments expressed by early writers on childhood. An archbishop in the late middle ages promised damnation for parents who might "serve their children like idols!" (5) In the 16th century, early childhood was described as a period of unalloyed misery due to high infant mortality, chronic illness, the child's dependency on others, lack of fluent speech, its inherent sinfulness and general uselessness. (6) However, it should be evident that tearful episodes and bouts of unhappiness inevitably give way to good cheer and mentally healthy adulthood. Indeed, Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son (1848) expresses the widely held view that "childhood, like money, must be shaken and rattled and jostled about a good deal to keep it bright."
Exaggerated concern for the child's happiness is thus a fairly recent idea which seems to be growing apace. (7) Americans who take their children abroad are quick to discover how thin-skinned they are. American youngsters suffer severe culture shock as they are exposed to the rowdier interactions of their foreign peers. In Japan, especially, children are toughened through rough physical play, endurance training and mutual teasing according to Daniel Walsh whose kids were "jostled" by but, ultimately, benefited from their encounter with Japanese peers. (8)
I'm not suggesting that children develop best in a state of misery, but our assumption that children's natural state is one of continual bliss and that any departure from this state requires remediation has led to a host of unintended but quite damaging consequences. These include the epidemic of child obesity (and accompanying need for blood pressure medication) brought on by indulging the child with snacks while accommodating their preference for video games over more active play. Heeding the unhappiness alarm has resulted in a tripling of youth on anti-depressants since 1993 and preschoolers comprise the fastest growing psychotropic-drug-using demographic in the United States. And we might want to add to the bill for damages the astronomical increase in ADHD and attendant use of pharmaceuticals. Isn’t it likely that if parents cannot bear their child’s unhappiness, even for a moment, then the parenting style adopted might just produce the proverbial “spoiled brat” and future ADHD diagnosis?
Our responsibility for our child's happiness extends well into adolescence, as titles like Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence suggest. (9) And while we readily accept that parents should meddle in their teenagers' social lives, Alexandra Robbins' recent expos?, The Overachievers, suggests that parents who facilitate their children's need for achievement are suspect. Even though there's no evidence that high achievers are at risk, Robbins would have us quail at the possibility of the potential emotional damage should these "over" achievers topple from their lofty perches. (10) On college campuses, personnel from dorm monitors to faculty to coaches are besieged by parents riding to the aid of their unhappy and evidently helpless offspring. (11)
We tolerate mediocre academic performance and rail against teachers who expose our children's failings. Schools in Connecticut have banned teachers from using red ink. Others are encouraging teachers to grade papers in "more pleasant-feeling tones" such as purple. These initiatives are part of a massive campaign to protect children's "fragile" self-esteem, a campaign that persists in spite of overwhelming evidence that, if anything, high self-esteem is associated with academic failure-especially among African American students. And, more recently, a large-scale study found that students who are indiscriminately praised and denied accurate feedback on their performance lose motivation and persistence. (12)
The social cost of inflating self-esteem may be reflected in several recent Cassandra-like reports decrying the poor international standing of US students and the growing gap between the academic attainment of high school students compared to the requirements of the college curriculum.
I think it is time we re-considered our assumptions about children's "natural" state. Should we expect them to wear a permanent smiley face? Might they be better off, especially in the long run, to experience the states of hunger, cold, frustration, failure, and the pain of a scraped knee? Is being "picked last" the same as being bullied? Should their wish-list be our shopping list? Must we monitor and strive to adjust their popularity, worry whether their clothes are in fashion, or insist that their teachers acknowledge their "specialness?" Perhaps we might emulate the Swedes, who, following the dictum that there's no bad weather (just bad clothing), send their kids out to play, every day, regardless of the weather? Go ahead, try it, they'll thank-you later on.
1. Dale, M. (2007). Mom of boy who planned school shooting arrested. The Salt Lake Tribune, October 13th, A11.
2. Montgomery, H. (2001). Modern Babylon: Prostituting Children in Thailand. Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books (p. 59).
3. Lutz, C. A. (1988). Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
4. Marlowe, F. W. (2010). The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
5. Cunningham, H. (1995). Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. New York: Longman.
6. Langmuir, E. (2006) Imagining Childhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
7. Stearns, P. N. (2010) Defining Happy Childhoods: Assessing a Recent Change. Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 3 (): 165-186.
8. Walsh, D. J. (2004). Frog boy and the American monkey: The body in Japanese early schooling, in Knowing Bodies, Moving Minds. Edited by Liora Bresler, Pp. 97-109. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
9. Wiseman, R. (2003). Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. New York: Three Rivers Press.
10. Robbins, A. (2006). The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. New York: Hyperion.
11. Merriman, L. S. (2007). It's your child's education, not yours. The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 23rd, B19.
12. Baumeister, Roy F., et al (2005). Exploding the self-esteem myth. Scientific American Mind, 16(4):50-57.
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