American children are in trouble. Each day brings increasing evidence of peer aggression (the new documentary Bully), autism spectrum disorders (the report just released by the Centers for Disease Control), and serious dependency and helplessness issues (an ongoing U.C.L.A. study). The unsurprising conclusion of the director of the C.D.C. is that children and families “need help.”
But what kind of help? With the predictable failure of No Child Left Behind to conjure higher achievement out of thin air and news from the parental front that raising children is no longer joyous, those cultivating the young have again lost their way.
No, we don’t know what leads to stronger characters and successful individuals. Parents are being told that genetic deficiencies exonerate them (to some extent) from responsibility. Yet calling the problem hard-wired is little solace if it’s your wiring. Psychoactive drugs appeal to our wish for a quick fix, but symptom suppression only defers the necessary quest for solutions.
The causes of America’s child-rearing problem are more difficult to locate, but they’re actually right in front of us. Take the new blockbuster Hunger Games, superficially a teen adventure story but for the discerning viewer a graphic depiction of youthful distress. A craven and dissipated adult world has sought relief from boredom, hopelessness, and material glut by pitting its children against one another in wars of survival. Fearing youthful independence and dissatisfaction, the attributed causes of an earlier rebellion, society demands passive obedience and unquestioning commitment to triumph of the fittest. The psychic hunger produced by fatalism and fatality—extreme bullying, pandering for adult attention, posturing, inner terror and paralysis—now simply prepares them for adult submission.
Recoiling from such complexity, parents rush to embrace the latest cure-all. Disciplinarians ingest manuals on Chinese “tiger moms” like Chinese food and French parenting tips on producing miniature adults who sit quietly on their French provincial furniture. Others try to insulate their kids from the relentless competitive pressures and performance expectations. They hope that by giving kids free time to write on the walls they won’t notice the game plan to spawn effortless overachievers, what David Brooks in his study of Princeton undergraduates called “organization kids” or “power tools” for high-level information processing. That the costs of this regimen are borne by those who do not make it into honors programs, A.P. courses, and elite colleges should not be news, but the fact that even Ivy League students now feel like wind-up toys suggests the dangers ahead.
The middle path, what neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang call “the American way,” would avoid the extremes of coercive overcontrol and permissiveness by encouraging self-regulation. By “harness[ing] the child’s own drives” mobilized through play, building on interests, increasing challenges and responsibilities, and structured choices and rewards, parents will “enlist the child as an ally,” replacing “externally imposed pressure” with an “internally motivated approach” to self-management rooted in the child’s “own pursuit of happiness.”
Unaware that the novel problem of raising modern children for a post-traditional society was the foremost concern of the early republic, Americans are now embracing fashionable new solutions that happen to be nearly as old as the nation itself. The child-rearing crisis originated when post-revolutionary cultural leaders, facing social disorder, turned to socializing the young to stabilize the republic. Facing weak controls on the adult population, they mobilized communities and families to embed individual moral restraints and social regularity in children well before the age of independence and mobility.
Traditional external controls, like the Chinese and French systems of recent notoriety, only pushed youth into generational revolt and migration. Nor, with order so shaky, was permissiveness an option. Through trial and error (that is to say, after making many mistakes), child-rearing innovators discovered that a mobile society required children to become the eventual managers of their own discipline and punishment, as I trace in my most recent book, The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society.
Motherly love (replacing paternal authoritarianism), by fostering reciprocal obligation and commitment, would produce an internal(ized) wish to satisfy adult expectations. Through individualized and graduated challenges rooted initially in play and interest, increasing responsibility as reward for self-management, structured choices reinforced by discussion, and praise for growing accountability, youth would willingly undertake self-directed and self-regulated activity.
So what if the regimen now being touted by Wang and Aamodt shaped the classic American character and is going on two hundred years old? If not foolproof, isn’t the strategy that created the modern permissive family and common schooling at least tested and predictable?
Unfortunately, this strategy no longer works. In an age when building society coincided with personal goals, the internalized could be subtly conflated with the internal, the pursuit of individual happiness with the fulfillment of expectations. Personal dreams were thus harnessed to create a unique modern society and global power.
But the young in the affluent years after World War II began to see through the project of creating self-mobilized functionaries. A wide gap opened separating the imperatives of corporate and global growth from the promise of a more self-actualizing and meaningful life. Full social and emotional development no longer coincided with the social appropriation of personal motivations and wishes. A career in corporate law could no longer be assumed to yield “the world’s greatest fun.” The unrelenting pressure to perform and measure up according to narrow indicators of capacity now generates youthful depression and anger, fear of cooptation, and feelings of inadequacy, especially in those seeking to keep their own candle burning.
The erosion of this classic child rearing has, despite soothing rhetoric about the American way, left Americans floundering. As adults, we no longer know whether we are free or molded, citizens or functionaries, nurturers or prison guards. And we know even less about what we want for our children.
James E. Block is an Associate Professor of Political Science at DePaul University and the author of "The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society." He writes for History News Network, from where this article is adapted.