Challenging “A Nation of Wimps!”

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I was struck by my reaction to an article entitled, A Nation of Wimps, shared recently on Facebook.  While this article was published originally in Psychology Today in November, 2004, it was “last reviewed” in February, 2013.  The article highlights a seemingly then-current perception that “parental hyper-concern has the net effect of making kids more fragile,” and that “that may be why they’re breaking down in record numbers.”  I certainly understand – and to some extent, agree – with the notion that “parental hyper-concern,” itself a manifestation of parental anxiety, can have a deleterious effect on a child’s developing sense of identity and autonomy.  As a clinical psychologist, I have witnessed many times the degree to which anxious parents struggle with letting their children take even minor risks in their efforts to explore, and eventually, separate from home to live independent lives. Further, anxious parents often foster over-attached children who find it difficult, if not painful, to stray too far from the parental nest. I understand this dynamic and have dealt with it frequently in my pediatric psychology practice. While this dynamic can, indeed, be challenging for parents and children alike, labeling children of anxious parents as “wimps” seems a bit condescending, if not utterly disrespectful. 

The author, Ms. Hara Estroff Marano, highlights the fact that many parents seek educational assessments for their children in an effort to explore the possibility that they might qualify for various accommodations – such as extended time or taking tests in a distraction-free setting – claiming that these accommodations “sanitize childhood” and therefore, deprive children and adolescents of the psychological equivalent of “skinned knees or the occasional C in history.” To strengthen her case, Ms. Estroff-Marano even cites child psychologist David Elkind of Tufts University as having stated, “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.” I do not doubt that Professor Elkind uttered these words, and to some extent, I agree with him.  We do learn from “bad experiences,” but if these “bad experiences” are frequent, intense and/or enduring, the “learning” can take on a more negative and damaging quality.

When children and adolescents have repeated “bad experiences” in school, something is wrong.  Sometimes, students grapple with undiagnosed learning disorders – such as dyslexia or ADHD – and comprehensive assessments help to determine the causes of these difficulties.  In today’s world, some students experience so much pressure, from a variety of sources, so assessments and/or counseling can help to offset the anguish many of these students feel.  Essentially, when students’ repeated academic and/or emotional challenges outweigh the supports available to them, they often get anxious and depressed. Sometimes, these so-called “wimps” become so anxious that they develop chronic emotional problems that can lead to self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders, self-mutilation and even suicide.  

As an accomplished writer and journalist, even as Editor-at-Large of Psychology Today, Ms. Estroff-Marano could not have had the breadth and depth of clinical experience with the thousands of students who have sought evaluations, seeking the very accommodations she slights.  While malingering – fabricating or exaggerating mental or physical symptoms for an unfair advantage – can occur in any medical or educational context, the vast majority of patients and students who seek evaluations and therapeutic services do so for legitimate reasons.

It is noteworthy, though, that Ms. Estroff-Marano wrote A Nation of Wimps nearly a decade ago, before we knew what we know now relative to human brain development and the degree to which environmental influences (repeated experiences at home and school, for example) contribute to shaping the brain.  In fact, in addition to what he said ten years ago about “learning from bad experiences,” in his 25th Anniversary Edition of The Hurried Child (2007), David Elkind also wrote that “the brain is the ultimate scientific authority.” From this perspective, allowing children or teenagers to have repeated negative experiences…anywhere…could have lasting negative effects on their still-developing brains and their associated evolving identities. While A Nation of Wimps draws attention to the negative effects of “over-protective” parents, it still conveys an unsympathetic mindset as it generalizes these effects and seems to suggest that over-protective parents should – if they could – just stop being over-protective.  They’re anxious parents…for many legitimate reasons…and their anxiety needs to be named and understood. Criticizing “over-protective” parents as contributors to “a nation of wimps” without some empathy for the conditions that may have contributed to how these parents became so anxious is unfair. All parents, everywhere, want the best for their children. Furthermore, most parents will go out of their way to seek extra help and/or extra services if they’re worried about their children in a particular way.  If assessments can determine the causes of children’s academic and/or emotional difficulties, and can lead to clinically indicated modifications and/or accommodations that not only reverse students’ damaging conditions but also promote their healthier developmental trajectories, then go for it!  In the words of my colleague, Dean David Rost of Concord Academy, “We want our students to thrive, not just survive!” With appropriate assessment and responsive treatment – to include accommodations as indicated – more students can do just that.