The Spreading Psychic Fault Lines of 21C Youth

Hara Estroff Marano published “Nation of Wimps” (Psychology Today, 2004) and cranked up her own website to cover the phenomenon of “helicopter parents.” This article is a great read and conversation piece just ahead of the return of students (and parents) for a new school year.

Armed with hyper-concern and micro-scrutiny, parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the lumps and bumps out of life for their children today. However well-intentioned, their efforts have the net effect of making kids more fragile.That may be why the young are breaking down in record numbers or staying stuck in endless adolescence.

Here are my notes from the introduction:

  • Few (parents) take it half-easy on the perimeter benches, as parents used to do, letting the kids figure things out for themselves.
  • “Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”
  • “Parents and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they’re geared to academic achievement.”
  • 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.

We hear so much about 21C kids today, and we often equate them solely with digital prowess. Marano claims we should be looking much deeper than that if we are truly to serve them and prepare them for the 21C. There’s an entire psycho-social domain emerging with challenges of its own.

This may be tough medicine, but who among us has not been guilty of over-parenting or over-engineering our children’s lives? (Am I the same parent who drew a referee’s warning at an 8-year-old girls soccer match?) We do it because we love them and we think we are doing what’s best for them.

The problem, according to Marano, is not how off-base helicopter parents can act . . . but rather how adverse the fallout can be on the children.

As the school year begins, we will see the return of the helicopters—who mean well and truly love their children. The phenomenon is especially prevalent in the area of school sports. But as these parents over-engineer their children’s very existence in schools, are they actually helping or hurting their children in terms of development of self?

If we truly believe Marano’s position, then we as education professionals have an obligation to confront with tact difficult parents. Otherwise, we are the wimps.

(I will cover the rest of this article in 7-8 more small chunks, and I have added it to my “21C Back-to-School Kit“.)


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