In a New Yorker cartoon a few years ago, a young boy of 4 or 5 is standing in the living room before his parents, struggling to hold a trophy at least as big as he is. The caption: “I lost!”
The cartoon captured my growing awareness of and dissatisfaction with the apparent confusion in our popular culture about self-esteem and competition. The implied equation is that self-worth depends on external achievements or failures, rather than coming from within an individual who is loved and valued for who he or she is. In reality, of course, you are no less valuable when you’ve lost a close athletic contest than you are more valuable for having won.
Fellow Bellarmine University staff member Carla Carlton is responsible, among many other things, for reminding me every so often to write something for this wonderful magazine. Her encouragement often comes in the form of a question: What are you thinking about these days? What are you reading?
Well, as my reference to the cartoon suggests, I’m thinking a lot about how we educators in the world – including parents, schools, churches, governments, communities, media – can best help our students to become strong, healthy, happy, effective, balanced and successful people. On this topic, I’m going to serve as an educator myself and bring three articles to your attention.
The first, “A Nation of Wimps,” originally appeared in Psychology Today in 2004. It was written by Hara Estroff Marano, the magazine’s editor-at-large, who eventually developed it into a book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.
Allow me to offer three quotes:
“Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children. However, parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile; that may be why they’re breaking down in record numbers. Maybe it’s the cyclist in the park, trim under his sleek metallic blue helmet, cruising along the dirt path… at three miles an hour. On his tricycle. Or perhaps it’s today’s playground, all rubber-cushioned surface where kids used to skin their knees.”
“In the hothouse that child raising has become, play is all but dead. Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess. And what play there is has been corrupted. The organized sports many kids participate in are managed by adults; difficulties that arise are not worked out by kids but adjudicated by adult referees.”
“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…. ‘But cell phones keep kids from figuring out what to do,’ says (child psychologist David) Anderegg. ‘They’ve never internalized any images; all they’ve internalized is “Call Mom or Dad.”’”
The next two articles appeared on May 12 (Mother’s Day), one in The New York Times, the other in The Courier-Journal.
The NYT article, “When Helping Hurts,” was written by Dr. Eli J. Finkel, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and Dr. Gráinne M. Fitzsimons, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
It begins: “American parents are more involved in our children’s lives than ever: we schedule play dates, assist with homework and even choose college courses. We know that all of this assistance has costs — depleted bank balances, constricted social lives — but we endure them happily, believing we are doing what is best for our children. What if, however, the costs included harming our children?”
And concludes: “So yes, by all means, parents, help your children. But don’t let your action replace their action. Support, don’t substitute. Your children will be more likely to achieve their goals — and, who knows, you might even find some time to get your own social life back on track.”
The article in the CJ, “Take a Break, Mom”, was written by Holly H. Schiffrin and Miriam Liss, psychology professors at the University of Mary Washington:
“Research has clearly established that it is beneficial for children when their parents are involved in their education and activities. Many studies have pointed to the benefits of parents talking to, reading to, playing with, and providing their children with activities that help them develop and learn. In fact, early intervention specialists teach these very behaviors to parents of at-risk children because children with more involved parents tend to perform better academically, have more friends and exhibit fewer behavior problems.
“But, just because some involvement is good does not mean that more and more involvement is better and better. We think the relationship of parental involvement to child outcomes is an inverted U-shaped curve. Too little involvement is associated with less than optimal child outcomes. As parental involvement increases, child outcomes improve; but at some point, the benefits of involvement reach their peak. Parental involvement in excess of this point may actually have a negative impact on children.”
So there you have it. I am concerned about balance in helping and in teaching and learning and parenting and coaching and so forth. How much is enough, how much is too much – that is up to each teacher and learner. But especially over the past 10 years or so, I must tell you that colleges and universities have seen compelling evidence that more and more students are presenting serious issues as far as anxiety and depression are concerned, and seem to lack a sense of resilience, independence and confidence in themselves and their ability to successfully manage difficulties and challenges. I have become increasingly convinced, therefore, that we educators, from parents on down, must start making some fundamental changes in the way we help and support and teach.
In the meantime, I hope that reading these provocative articles will encourage some reflection – and I welcome your thoughts at the email address above.
Dr. Joseph J. McGowan | firstname.lastname@example.org