A news story reported that the Mercer Island School District in Seattle recently banned tag because it said the game is too dangerous for children.
The district announced: “... during recess and unstructured time, students are expected to keep hands to themselves ... to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all students.”
The wiseguy in me is clamoring to say, “Oh, thank God! Now, our children will be safe.”
However, a more learned voice can more sensibly speak to what policies such as this mean. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, professor at San Diego State University and a researcher-author who studies such behavior (the district’s and the kids’).
Social psychologizing is like forecasting the weather: You’ll never be out of work, because there’s always a new storm blowing in.
You couldn’t sew a quilt more carefully than Twenge qualifies her statements (“the data show” and “research indicates”). You get the idea. This is a scholar, not a bloviator. Her books are “Generation Me,” the “Narcissism Epidemic” and “The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant.” I’ll leave that last book on the shelf.
Twenge (pronounced “Twangy”) lives in Rancho Peñasquitos. She’s 44 and the mother of three small kids. In discussing children, that is a credential almost equal to her doctorate.
Seattle schools would ban the game of tag only because they know many parents guard children like Baccarat crystal in an earthquake. Imagine the storm at PTA if a child went home with an ow-ee inflicted during a playground game.
“Parenting styles have changed,” Twenge says. “We’re much, much more protective now. What we have is a generation where parents tell children how special they are and try to boost their self-esteem at home and at school. They’re likely to think of their children as above-average academically. However, objectively speaking, they are not. They are not actually smarter, it’s just that both parents and kids think they are.”
She says the increased emphasis on children’s individuality should lead to more independence, but it has not. It’s almost as though parents have become secretaries to their kids.
Question: Two theories have been offered to explain this: One, having fewer children makes each one more precious and the recipient of attention, and two, parents feel guilty for both having jobs and consequently giving kids less time.
Twenge says to the contrary, parents are spending more time with kids today than a few decades ago, and kids have far less unsupervised time.
“It’s thought that we shouldn’t just let kids just go and play by themselves. Instead, we need to send them to violin lessons,” she says.
There’s a perception that being in public alone is more dangerous for kids than ever, even though statistically it is not. Is that a factor?
“In Baltimore recently, a couple with a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old let them walk home alone from a park — and police picked the kids up! The parents were threatened by child protective services. That’s what it has come to.”
Is there now a disconnect between a coddled growing-up and the rough and tumble world they will eventually enter?
“Absolutely. That’s why in my view, we are doing this generation a disservice by treating them as younger than they are, by doing things for them to boost their self-esteem, by telling them they are special and by stepping in to solve their problems. That’s not what they need for their future.”
The self-esteem movement in schools ostensibly gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps due to the breaking down of social structures beginning in the ’60s, and also the ascendence of the less-restrictive baby boomer generation, Twenge says.
“A lot of this focus on self-esteem came from the idea that we could solve the problems of the world if everybody just felt better about themselves, a belief that low self-esteem causes problems in life. It was the idea that if you believe in yourself, anything is possible.”
(That sounds like a Julie Andrews song. “Wouldn’t it be lov-e-ly?”)
Twenge says lack of self-esteem is often diagnosed as a catch-all cause of kids’ problems. More likely, anxiety and depression are the true causes, and those are tied to relationships that emanate from the home. The issue isn’t lack of self-esteem; it’s what used to be known as a troubled childhood.
I say to her: More than one teacher has told me that if they give a low grade to a self-esteem-infused student, it’s almost predictable that a parent will come in to plead — or do battle — to have the grade improved.
Twenge says she has seen the long-term effects of this and has actually known of parents attempting to lobby for their adult children’s college grades.
Grade inflation is another indicator of hyped-up self-esteem. Twenge says one-third of high school students today graduate with a straight-“A” average compared with 17 percent in the mid-1970s. How then, she asks, do we recognize actual excellence if an “A” means nothing anymore?
“And it’s the same idea in children’s sports leagues,” she says. “You show up and you get a trophy, even if you lost every single game or you were the one who hardly ever played. That’s not preparing people for the real world. If you are telling them that they are great all the time, they aren’t learning how to get better.”
Twenge says the idea of receiving a participation trophy is now accepted by many kids as their rightful due. So to counter that perception, parents have to recognize the difference between encouraging children and puffing them up unrealistically.
“I think that’s one of the disservices that we are doing to this generation, not preparing them for inevitable failure and hardship once they hit adulthood. From my reading of the things this generation has written online, a theme that comes up over and over is: Nobody told me it was going to be this hard.”
Almost paradoxically, she says ethnic-group members in this country with the lowest self-esteem on average are Asian-Americans.
“These are the kids with the best academic performance and the adults who make the highest median income and get the most education. It’s a cultural thing, because theirs is a culture that is less individualistic. It places a lot more emphasis on hard work and what you can do for others rather than self-importance.”
(Surveys of teen- agers in the U.S. show high self-esteem scores for all groups. Blacks score highest, whites score slightly higher than Hispanics and Asian-Americans score lowest. Boys score slightly higher than girls.)
Traditionally, the main goal of school was to prepare for adulthood. Do you think there now is a disconnect between the coddling of youth and the adult world they will eventually enter?
“Absolutely. ... Self-esteem boosting is confused with encouragement, but it’s not the same. Encouragement that works is focused on actually doing something. Self-esteem boosting is based on the idea that I am good just because I feel good.”
Over-hyped self-esteem can lead to unrealistic or inflated goals. Twenge says research shows that almost 60 percent of high school students expect to get a graduate or a professional degree. In the mid-1970s, that number was about 30 percent. However, the outcome hasn’t changed: The percentage of those actually achieving those degrees has stayed at about 10.
Also, more than 80 percent of beginning college students identify becoming wealthy as an important life goal. In the mid-1960s, the percentage was half that.
Where does that goal come from?
“From TV, movies and online. For a lot of them, that’s where they’re spending their time, in front of a screen. In the ’70s, much of TV was about working-class families. Now, it’s about rich people, and those who are famous for just being famous.”
Has that damaged academic performance?
“Since the 1960s, test scores in math are about the same, but reading skills have declined quite a bit.”
“Because kids aren’t reading. Plain and simple.”
Accommodating children to an extreme also shows up in the lack of discipline in public, such as in restaurants, Twenge says. “It’s more likely to be upper-class people who let their kids run wild, oddly enough. I actually heard one parent say, ‘Oh, I don’t like to tell my kid ‘no.’ It never occurs to them that the kid needs to hear ‘no.’
“Sometimes people say to me, ‘What do you mean that we shouldn’t tell kids they’re special? Should we tell them they are not?’ No, you don’t need to do that. Instead, say ‘I love you,’ which is what you mean anyway, and that’s a much better message.”
I’m going to try my own hand at the ABCs of this: For young people, life is a laboratory. And what do you do in a laboratory? You experiment. And what happens with experiments? A lot of failures. And what do failures lead to? The path to success.
I deserve an “A” for that observation.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org