The results of over a decade of nonstop hand-holding and helicopter parenting are boomeranging back to parents and educators.
Many college students are showing themselves incapable of accessing even basic internal coping skills. As a result, today’s colleges and universities are becoming equal parts psychologists, in absentia parents, and even academic scapegoats (when students don’t get the grades they thought they would, for example).
“The idea of fragility is now an overarching theme in kids,” said Lenore Skenazy, founder of FreeRangeKids.com. “This comes from a society that makes adults fear everything, and constantly tells them they are not doing enough and not worrying about enough, so they parent their kids accordingly.”
In the continuing infantilizing of America’s young people, colleges report having to warn kids when they are going to talk about something that might be mentally troubling in class, with a so-called “trigger warning.” That way, in theory, a past victim of abuse or violence would be warned when graphic or violent material might be coming their way.
At the University of California, Santa Barbara, the student government recently passed a resolution that makes these “trigger warnings” mandatory. The warnings include cautions professors must add to their course syllabi, specifying which lectures will include films, readings or discussions that might prompt feelings of emotional or physical distress.
Oberlin College in Ohio even takes it a step farther, issuing official trigger-warning guidelines for professors that sound almost like “a parody of political correctness,” the Los Angeles Times said.
“Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct but also to anything that might cause trauma,” these guidelines read in part.
This isn’t that surprising, considering what is regularly happening: Students are swarming their campus counseling offices for once-trivial life occurrences, such as being made to feel bad by another student. In one “funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad” case, two students saw a mouse, dialed 911, and then sought counseling for the resulting trauma — an apparent case of rodent PTSD.
In the stampede to campus counseling offices, student also complain of anxiety over multiple issues.
“The mental health common cold for this generation of students is anxiety disorder, whereas for previous generations it was depression,” Kip Alishio, director of student counseling at Miami University, told USA Today.
What is happening to the youth of America? Why are they turning to Jell-O when faced with the slightest bump in the road?
“Students haven’t developed the skills to soothe themselves, because their parents have solved all their problems and removed obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations,” Dan Jones, a past president for the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Another troubling emergence in the psychology of today’s young adults is their fear of learning the lessons that failure offers. Failure, for young America and their parents, is the new taboo.
“I see an unwillingness in myself to let my sons fail, and I have to fight it,” one Boston dad told LifeZette. “You are swimming against the tide; everyone is smoothing the way for their kids. We’ve forgotten that failure is a spectacular teacher.”
Another mom from New York weighed in: “I don’t show confidence in my daughter’s capabilities when I constantly check in. I feel bad; her first year of independence at college was a bumpy one, and I was partly to blame. As a single parent, I was too involved in her every move.”
These major mental meltdowns impact college teachers, too. In a Psychology Today blog post entitled “Declining Student Resilience,” Boston College professor and author Peter Gray wrote, “Faculty at the meetings (of counselors) noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.”
Chinua Achebe’s celebrated novel “Things Fall Apart” is listed by Oberlin College in Ohio as a possible “trigger” book because of its themes of colonialism, racism, and religious prejudice, the Los Angeles Times reported. At Rutgers, an op-ed in the student paper suggested that the study of “The Great Gatsby” should require trigger warnings about violence and gore, Gray’s blog post noted.
A world without F. Scott Fitzgerald because students can’t handle imagery created in the 1920s? The revolving rotors of helicopter parenting are now scattering the benefits of great literary works like fallen autumn leaves.
A report drafted by a subcommittee of the American Association of University Professors and posted on its website begins, “A current threat to academic freedom in the classroom comes from a demand that teachers provide warnings in advance if assigned material contains anything that might trigger difficult emotional responses for students. This follows from earlier calls not to offend students’ sensibilities by introducing material that challenges their values and beliefs.”
It’s time that parents, after the proper guidance when their kids are young, to allow their kids to use their burgeoning capabilities in age-appropriate ways.
“We need to let go of constant hovering, and allow kids have independent experiences,” Skenazy said. “We need to resist the urge for omniscience in our children’s lives.”
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Controversies about “free-range parenting” illuminate today’s scarred cultural landscape. Neighbors summon police in response to parenting choices the neighbors disapprove.
Government extends its incompetence with an ever-broader mission of “child protection.” And these phenomena are related to campus hysteria about protecting infantilized undergraduates from various menaces, including uncongenial ideas.
The Meitivs live in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, which is a bedroom for many Washington bureaucrats who make their living minding other people’s business.
The Meitivs, to encourage independence and self-reliance, let their 10- and 6-year-old children walk home alone from a park about a mile from their home. For a second time, their children were picked up by police, this time three blocks from home.
After confinement in a squad car for almost three hours, during which the police never called the Meitivs, the children were given to social workers who finally allowed the parents to reclaim their children at about 11 p.m. on a school night.
The Meitivs’ Kafkaesque experiences concluded with them accused of “unsubstantiated” neglect.
Today’s saturating media tug children beyond childhood prematurely, but not to maturity. Children are cosseted by intensive parenting that encourages passivity and dependency, and stunts their abilities to improvise, adapt and weigh risks.
Mark Hemingway, writing at The Federalist, asks: “You know what it’s called when kids make mistakes without adult supervision and have to wrestle with the resulting consequences? Growing up.”
Increased knowledge of early childhood development has produced increased belief in a “science” of child rearing. This has increased intolerance of parenting that deviates from norms that are as changeable as most intellectual fads.
“Intensive parenting” is becoming a government-enforced norm. Read “The day I left my son in the car” (Salon.com), Kim Brooks’ essay on her ordeal after leaving her 4-year-old in the car as she darted into a store for about five minutes.
Writing in the Utah Law Review, David Pimentel of Ohio Northern University notes that at a moment when “children have never been safer,” government is abandoning deference to parents’ discretion in child rearing.
In 1925, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of parents “to direct the upbringing and education of children.” Today, however, vague statutes that criminalize child “neglect” or “endangerment” undermine the social legitimacy of parental autonomy.
It is, Pimentel says, problematic for the legal system to enforce cultural expectations when expectations, partly shaped by media hysteria over rare dangers such as child abductions, are in constant flux.
Time was, colleges acted in loco parentis to moderate undergraduates’ comportment, particularly regarding sex and alcohol. Institutions have largely abandoned this, having decided students are mature possessors of moral agency.
But institutions have also decided that although undergraduates can cope with hormones and intoxicants, they must be protected from discomforting speech, which must be regulated by codes and confined to “free speech zones.”
Uncongenial ideas must be foreshadowed by “trigger warnings,” lest students, who never were free-range children and now are as brittle as pretzels, crumble.
Young people shaped by smothering parents come to college not really separated from their “helicopter parents.” Such students come convinced that the world is properly devoted to guaranteeing their serenity, and that their fragility entitles them to protection from distressing thoughts.
As Penn State historian Gary Cross says, adolescence is being redefined to extend well into the 20s.
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cross says that “delayed social adulthood” means that “in 2011, almost a fifth of men between 25 and 34 still lived with their parents,” where many play video games: “The average player is 30 years old.”
The percentage of men in their early 40s who have never married “has risen fourfold to 20 percent.”
In the 1950s, Cross says, with Jack Kerouac and Hugh Hefner “the escape from male responsibility became a kind of subculture.”
Today, Oldies radio and concerts by septuagenarian rockers nurture the cult of youth nostalgia among people who, wearing jeans, T-shirts and sneakers all the way, have slouched from adolescence to Social Security without ever reaching maturity.