Saturday, August 6, 2011

Disempowering the children

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, writes that "we treat our kids like adults when they're children, and we infantalize them when they're 18 years old." I caught that quote from an article in The Atlantic this month, titled "How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids." But the cult of self-esteem is just one way we're ruining our kids.We're disempowering them, making them stupid, weak, and incompetent. Our children are being trained to be good consumers and unquestioning acceptors of the status quo, but they would be lost if the electricity went out.

There are lots of ways this is being accomplished. You can read about some of them in The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein, or the Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson, or The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, or any number of new studies that are sounding a generally-ignored alarm about our children. Many of these books describe the negative impact of digital immersion and consumerism on our children. Some of the results of contemporary "screen" living, for example, include the deterioration of social skills, lack of empathy, inability to sustain attention or read, and lack of impulse control.

Advertising and other consumerist media have changed our children's values and expectations. Kids expect life to be easy and are easily frustrated. Ease and comfort are such high values that hard work is denigrated. In fact, any effort at all is too much effort and this laziness is contributing to ill-health. Speed is a virtue and anything new demands their money and attention. Their understanding of the world has been truncated by media, and reality and fantasy have merged, so that every drive is a video game, houses  clean themselves at the snap of a finger, food comes in packages, wars are entertainments, and wealth and celebrity are right around the corner. Wealth and celebrity are what our children worship and adore, and many young people have grand expectations for a Mercedes-Benz kind of life . . . although they haven't the faintest idea how to get there.

I have a heightened awareness of this problem because I work with middle school children. Their arrogance is stunning, but I feel so sad for them. Their world has been reduced to the size of a two-inch screen, and they think that friendship is a click on facebook. They haven't the wherewithall to  educate themselves and what they're offered in school has no meaning or purpose that they can understand. They "do" school because it's expected of them but they learn from electronic media.

The flip side of this is our kids' incompetence. They can't peel a potato or tie a knot. Many 12 year olds can't write their own names—they use keyboards only—or read a face clock or care for a sick relative or mow a lawn. The shop teacher in my school talks about how every year fewer children know how to hold a hammer or screwdriver, and if a button falls off a shirt, they wouldn't know how to sew it back on. Technophiles and futurists tell us that kids don't need to know this stuff anyway. They can buy a new shirt if the button falls off. They don't even have to know how to read, since they can get any "information" they might need on youtube.

Considering the way our economy is heading, our children might, indeed, need to know this stuff in the future, but there's a greater loss than this, because if our youth don't know how to read, think, make decisions, bond in nurturing relationships, or work or wait, they will not be able to control their own lives. They will be at the mercy of the dominators . . . just the point of this dumbing down, I assume.

Our nation's youth are on my mind right now because of three stories I recently heard of college-age youth who were not able to cope. They all attempted college, but couldn't succeed and they came home, all three of them, and malingered. One has an illness of unexplained origin. She lies in bed and plays video games. The others simply hang out, eat and sleep and party. In all three cases, the parents simply enable them. Their parents have infantalized them, as Twenge describes. As children, these young adults were given infinite choice and abundance instead of discipline and skill, and now they are paying the price. True self-esteem comes from competence. We are raising a generation of incompetent, insecure, and unhappy adults.

I read a while back about an elderly American Indian in the early 20th century who described how the white people had destroyed his culture. "They took our children," he said, "and made them weak. Our children no longer walk without shoes because their feet are too soft. They cannot hunt or grow their own food. They are incompetent and depend on white people's business for everything. They destroyed us by destroying our children." I would say that this is as true today as it was then.


Anonymous said...

Being on the cusp of generation X and Y. I have noticed an influx of anti-intellectualism and overall distrust of poetry and fiction that scares me. I fear there is a massive attack on guanine cultural authenticity within our society.

Jack said...

Too true! The assault of so much media wherever you go seems to have numbed us as well as dumbed us down. In an effort to "protect" children, we have disabled them for the long-term. The short attention span, the low-frustration levels and the denigration of "hard work" not only prevents them from the intellectual side of life but, perhaps more importantly, leaves them lacking the skills for viable and long-term relationships. Ambivalence and nuance in human relationships are a difficulty requiring patience, attention and persistence in the face of frustration.

puny human said...

Yes to Fishbowl: that attack is on our genuine culture, the one rooted in our own human experience. It's being replaced with cultural content designed to manage the masses . . . talk about cultural colonization!

Yes to Jack: well said. Relationships, successful families, and communities, are also turned to rubble.