Are You Turning Your Child Into a Wimp?

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Are American parents smothering their children? Hara Estroff Marano, an editor-at-large at Psychology Today magazine and the grandmother of three small children, is convinced that they are. In her provocative new book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (Broadway), she writes, "Behold the wholly sanitized childhood, without skinned knees or the occasional C in history! Kids need to learn that you need to feel bad sometimes. We learn through experience, and we learn especially through bad experiences. Through disappointment and failure we learn how to cope." TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs spoke with Marano:

TIME: How did you become interested in this subject?

HARA ESTROFF MARANO: I had done intensive reporting on what I call the crisis on the campus. Why were college kids breaking down now in record numbers? Genetically they're not different. My kids had gone to college not long before. This was not a problem when they went to school. So I began looking at why, and I began talking to everyone on the front lines. There were hundreds and hundreds of people who were treating these kids, and they all said the same thing: these kids lack coping skills because they've not been allowed to fully function. They are the products of parental anxiety and all the lumps and bumps have been taken out of life for them, so they have no idea how to manage the normal vicissitudes of life.

Why has that occurred?

The world has changed on our watch. I didn't grow up knowing how to use a computer. So that instrument alone is highly symbolic that the world has changed. It's very fast, very dynamic, very fluid. A kid in Bangalore can come up with a program that could make Microsoft obsolete in two years. This is scary. This makes for great uncertainty. So what we're really worried about is the success of our kids. That's why we push them to achieve. And that's why we're focused on the Harvard, Yale, Princeton brand-name education. In a world of uncertainty, a brand name carries some cachet and it's the closest thing you can get to a guarantee of some kind of success or achievement.

You consider medicating kids with drugs like Ritalin over-parenting.

Parents go out of their way to have their kids declared defective so that they can get the drug and so that they can also have "accommodations." This is a big deal. It has been going on for five or seven years now. Parents go out of their way and spend fortunes. Neuropsychologists do the testing. It's a huge business. "Accommodations" is not an informal word. It's a formal thing that schools do. Almost all of the accommodations are centered around prolonging the test time the kids have. It's no longer something that gets marked on your record. So colleges don't know if you had twice the time to take your SATs. That's why parents find it so highly desirable. But in the course of doing it, they have their kids tested to find some little quirk, some little vulnerability And that's a measure of parental anxiety. And the parental anxiety is willing to put a negative label on kids. That's really something very new. You don't boast your strengths. You boast your weaknesses.

You write about the importance of play and how it's not valued to the degree it should be.

Right. It's so counterintuitive. Play builds brains and gives children the ability to impose self-control and creates within brain circuitry the ability to pay attention. When you look at kids playing, adults see it as a waste of time. They have no clue what play does. Vigorous social play stimulates the growth of brain cells in the executive portion of the brain in the frontal cortex, and that lays the foundation for the circuitry of self-regulation, which is what you need to pay attention when you're at school. I'll just give you a very, very clear little example. We're talking about free play, not play that's monitored by adults. Because we know that when the adults are near kids, kids change what they talk about and change the content of their play. We've known that for a long time. But just picture two little kids in free play. They're inventing what they're going to do. Okay, we're going to play house. You're going to be the doggie and I'm going to be the mommy. So these kids, what are they doing? They're creating the rules that they then agree to subordinate their impulses to. I mean, that's extraordinarily powerful. But that doesn't hit you in the face when you see kids playing. It looks like, oh, we could use this time for workbook work.

Are parents over-involved in kids' sports?

Oh, absolutely. There is enormous difficulty of getting referees these days. Referees, especially in youth sports, are either paid minimally or are not paid at all. It's something they've done for the love of the sport. I wrote a piece about this, and the referee organization contacted me. They can't get referees because the referees now have to put up with the abuse of the parents and they just don't want to do it. It's not worth it to them. Parents push their kids to the point of... abuse. You have eight-year-old kids who have injuries that grown athletes, professional athletes don't get until their thirties or forties. Overuse injuries, repetitive strain injuries. That's a clear reflection of parental pushing of kids, and it's so wrong for so many reasons. Kids' bodies can't support that. Their bones are growing. It's the adult values, the adult psychological needs that are being met, not the kids' developmental needs.

There was recently an outcry in New York City when a journalist wrote about letting her son go on the subway at nine years old. What's your opinion about that?

You know, the kid was giving every sign in the world that he was ready. Here's the thing: What's the goal of raising kids? It's to produce an independent, autonomous adult, right? It doesn't happen overnight. There's a long march towards independence, and it begins at birth. Parents have to continually let out the leash. You quietly from the sidelines monitor your kids, see whether they're ready for the next step. That kid was giving every sign that he was ready for the next step.

But aren't deviant adults also ready to pounce?

I think the problem now is that the adults just totally unleash their anxieties on their children. There was a time not very long ago when you had the same worries. You just took the leap of trust, a very important word. You trusted your child to take the next step of growth. And I think it's really important because society is founded on trust. That's the glue of society, of culture, the glue of intimate relationships.

Don't urban parents need to be more protective of their children?

It could be argued that it's the other way around. There are many more people around to see if there is something untoward. Why would urban parents need to be more protective? My older son took the subway when he was about nine or ten years old by himself. We were sitting at the dinner table one night and we were talking. He said, "I've figured out that if it ever looks like there's going to be trouble on the subway, I act like I'm a little bit crazy and no one goes near me. Okay?" This is just a classic case of problem-solving which kids can do if they're given some lumps and bumps to cut their teeth on. He figured that out by himself.

But you see stories all the time on TV about the sexual abuse of kids.

That is so out of proportion to the reality. Parents think I'm a child molester when I say it, but the Department of Justice data for the last fifteen years is very clear on the subject. As parental hysteria has escalated due to anxieties, the actual data show that this is not a legitimate fear. When you look at the Department of Justice data, this is just not a major phenomenon. You've got to know the kids are in far more danger inside the home than outside the home. Stepfathers are a big problem. Sexual abuse happens in the home.

What is your main advice for parents?

One, back off and give kids some credit and some leeway to demonstrate their competence. Two, let kids play freely without monitoring. Three, eat dinner together at least five nights a week: aside from the sense of cohesiveness, it gives all that security that is the breeding ground for success. No matter where you are on the socioeconomic spectrum, it is more correlated with school adjustment and achievement than any other single thing that parents can do.