Monday, August 07, 2006

A Nation of Wimps

Apropos of my earlier post about growth in parents' obsessions about safety, my older sister pointed out a recent article in Psychology Today, "A Nation of Wimps" that describes the phenomenon and its disconcerting consequences in more detail:
No one doubts that there are significant economic forces pushing parents to invest so heavily in their children's outcome from an early age. But taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees. With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they're robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we're on our way to creating a nation of wimps.
While, unsurprisingly, the article includes a great deal of discussion about the psychological effects of obsessive parenting, throughout my reading I kept trying to figure out the source of the changes in parents' attitudes. In my previous post, I speculated that the classic quality-quantity tradeoff may be responsible -- parents with fewer kids have placed all their parental hopes in one (or a few) basket(s), so they tend to be very worried about them.

I still think this is important, but my new hypothesis is that some of this may be a consequence of growing income inequality. In a winner take all society, particularly one where small differences in ability or signaled ability determine who "wins", it is easy to see why parents (concerned that their kids are among the winners) become obsessive about their child's performance. Unfortunately, as the article points out, parents' efforts to make their kids "perfect" may actually screw them up.

I am curious if there is some clever way to show a causal relationship between growth in income inequality and parenting behaviors (particularly "destructive" behaviors). I am unlikely to get around to writing such a paper, but should an enterprising student decide to supply such an analysis I would gladly read it.

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