I read this article about the spoiled children in China that resulted from the one-child policy in the 1980s and 1990s, and I couldn’t help but see the comparisons to today’s children in the United States.
China’s children were described as “little emperors” who were “narcissistic and weak-willed children spoiled by parental attention and newfound material comfort.” As they grew into adults, they continued to struggle to mature and are now “self-centered and emotionally isolated, struggling to find independence and fulfillment in a fast-changing society.”
The author criticizes China’s “intensive parenting, rigorous education and consumerist culture.” This sounds exactly like most of America’s suburban, upper-middle class culture, too. I see parents hyper-involved in every aspect of a teenager’s life, from grades and activities, to what each friend is texting, or if they will make the softball team. I see teens spending 5 or 6 hours a day on homework, with no time for socializing, relaxing, or developing relationship skills. Parents do not require any involvement in household chores or require that teens get jobs for fear this will harm their grades, college chances and future financial success. That’s a lot of weight to put on a 14-year-old!
The article describes Chinese parents’ “unrelenting devotion to their offspring.” U.S. parents are doing the same thing with the same results. Of course, parents should provide emotional attention and affection, but I find it goes way beyond that. It shows up in little ways, with parents hanging intently on every word a child says and everything a child does. Children are to focus of most family activities. Children need space to develop their own personality. They need to feel that if they mess up, it can be done without the never-ending scrutiny of parents (or teachers or coaches). This level of scrutiny produces anxiety in children. Therapists are seeing more and more young adults paralyzed by social anxiety, likely because parents were over-involved, along with highly judgmental and critical.
Often, over-protective parents criticize, but also rush to the defense of their offspring against criticism from others, such as teachers or school officials. This is the parent who marches in to dispute a test grade or argues about the chid being cut from a sports team. The result is children who cannot tolerate failure or shame. This leads to a lack of accountability that is devastating to their own emotional health and to their future relationships. All relationships require the ability to own mistakes, admit fault, apologize and reconcile. Coddled and cosseted children do not learn these skills.
High levels of comparison and high expectations produce young adults who are self-critical and self-blaming. Some may go in the opposite direction and react by giving up and avoiding responsibility for fear of failure. Some react to potential shame and criticism by becoming highly narcissistic or sociopathic, what I call Other-Blamers, and handle criticism through defensive arguing, lying, justifying and lack of accountability.
It seems clear that this will lead to self-centered adults. U.S. culture has always favored a rough and rugged individuality, but we have also throughout history had a strong sense of patriotism, a sign that we cared about our society in general. I am concerned that individuality is winning out over concerns for the larger needs of our country, families, and towns.
Competition is a part of life, but it is ideally balanced by a sense of community and connection. Building community and relationships require pro-social emotions such as caring, empathy, altruism and reciprocity. Competition is all about the opposite — individuality and “I’ve got mine, screw you.”
The increase in consumerism in much of the world is also a concern. Research shows that the teen brain actually is in a phase of development that heavily favors worries about in-group acceptance: “Am I wearing the right brand clothes? Is my haircut like everyone else’s? Am I going to get invited to that popular party?” This need to fit in is normal in this age group, but cultural emphasis on consumerism gives additional weight to this concern. When I was in high school in the mid-70s, there were some fashion dos-and don’ts (bell-bottomed Wranglers or painter’s overalls?) But the range of choices was very limited and prices were not a barrier to purchasing most of these items, so this limited the pressure to conform. Today, I witness 13-year-olds who have the latest iPhone 7, $200 Hunter boots, $80 yoga pants with matching $80 top, highlights in their hair, acrylic nails, etc. Spring break trips in high school now go to luxe resorts in the Bahamas or Mexico, accompanied by social media posts about their adventures. Even in college I went only to Florida by car for a total price of $80 for a week’s trip. I could not have imagined going to the Bahamas as a young teen.
As a psychologist, I am very concerned about the psychological effects of this type of upbringing. The result is children and young adults who lack empathy for others and feel emotionally isolated. Loneliness is a major problem in today’s society, resulting in high levels of teen depression. Humans are social animals with an intrinsic need to feel a sense of belonging and importance to others: “Do I matter to you? Do you have my back?”
The emphasis on individuality that leads to disconnection can be traced to the competition for college entrance spots that starts in middle school and escalates during high school. These are developmental times when teens should be focusing on fine-tuning their social skills, making friends, dating, and learning the ins-and-outs of relationships — essentially learning the rules of building connection and community. Instead, they are engaged in a bloodsport of college entrance prep. Teens are propped up by self-esteem boosting comments by parents but then lashed by criticism for failures and pressure to succeed. Add in bullying due to social media and you have a formula for feeling confused, uncertain, and alone.
The article mentions China’s kids having difficulty forming lasting emotional bonds. In the U.S. I witness teens who have not learned to repair relationships, an essential skill for long-term success in friendships and romantic partnerships. They have arguments with friends and break up romantic relationships by text. Social shunning seems to be the main way they handle conflict. Friends appear to be disposable objects that rotate through the social sphere based on the whims of the dominating bully in the group. While these are all normal behaviors in humans (and primates of all types!) they should, by high school, be largely replaced by higher-level social and emotional skills that include empathy, compassion, and kindness. Teens should start to worry about and care about how their rejection of others feels to the harmed friend, and should start to behave in morally appropriate ways.
The solution is to improve empathy through teaching children to look beyond themselves and their own needs, to develop a sense of care about the larger community. This is done as simply as being more involved as a family in the community. Join a local volunteer group, be active in a religious organization, get active in politics at a local level, decide as a family to go pick up trash in the local park, or have your teens help out an elderly neighbor. Include language in your talks with children about giving back, caring for others and doing what is right just because it is right. The Golden Rule still holds true! Speak about patriotism as doing what is best for the country. Show concern for the planet and the creatures who live on it by reducing your carbon footprint and get your children involved in these activities. This can be as simple as not washing clothes that haven’t been worn, turning off lights that are not needed, making fewer unnecessary car trips to the store. Get your children of all ages involved in deciding ways they can give back to others and sacrifice for the greater good.
Emotional health requires a sense of “we-ness,” not just “me-ness.” Let’s help our children learn this very important lesson.