Much has been written recently about reports of an epidemic of anxiety afflicting young people and girls in particular.
Laura Perrins argues here the pressure ‘to have it all’ and to be it all – is driving girls to the brink.
Chris McGovern contends that a bit less of the ‘me’ culture and bit more of the ‘for you’ culture – valuing, serving and enriching others – would straighten these girls out. They are both right.
But it doesn’t explain quite what led to their malaise in the first place.
Social media and celebrity culture are also blamed for adding to the pressure on young people to become someone or something that they are quite unlikely to. How many Angelina Jolies with her retinue of designer-accessory adopted children and her living martyrdom body does the entertainment economy require after all? Not many.
Bald economic facts make a nonsense of the mantra that ‘you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself’ that is shoved down children’s throats everyday which imbues in young women (in particular) both a sense of entitlement and a lack of realism about what is likely or even possible. Disappointment and a sense of inadequacy ensue.
On top of this, girls, despite their privileged position in the education system, are encouraged by feminism to perceive themselves as victims. Here begins the vicious cycle of believing they deserve better, discontent and crossness (often accompanied by fatness) at not achieving it which are followed by loss of self esteem and even self loathing – not just at their own “failure” but at the negative response their behaviour and manner inevitably engenders in others. For this is hardly the basis for charm.
How did my generation of parents create this mess with all their worldly experience? So determined to provide their kids with everything they were not given – so determined to make them happier than they were. QED. Too much trying. Too much controlling. Too much living vicariously. Over fussing, over indulging and over pressurising, while exerting too little control over the peer / social media culture, does not constitute good parenting.
Boys, not withstanding the prejudice against them in the education system, have proved more resilient to this invasion of the parents. Active team sport helps them. It satisfies too some primal parental sense of their child’s well being and stimulates the right sort of parental endorsement.
Girls don’t get this protection. However much the Today programme promotes women’s football and cricket – sport is not central to girls’ lives. In fact it is largely irrelevant. So where does that leave the obsessive parent, but obsessing over their daughters’ qualifications and careers – competitively scoring their A* grades.
Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, confirms these highly educated parents and academic schools are turning out a generation of children with “perfect” academic scores who later struggle at college and in careers – and with themselves.
Highly educated mothers will schedule all their children’s waking hours with activities, never give up advocating and interceding for them even when they get to working age. No wonder these children lack confidence, become anxious or feel a failure.
Professor Dwek says she would have been humiliated if her parents had still been advocating for her as an adult. Indeed.
So why do parents do it today? Do they mistakenly think their children can inherit what they themselves earned the hard way, by managing and advancing their school success? Dweck diagnoses the problem but then she offers the wrong cure and reveals herself to be trapped in just the same culture.
Her advice for parents who want to have successful children is to praise them for showing “focus and perseverance” rather than for innate intelligence and talent.
No. She should tell parents to stop thinking about and ‘wanting’ success in these terms and to reject such tenets of the ‘me’ culture. Time spent cooking, cleaning, sewing, woodwork or playing the piano – simply imbuing kids with the virtues of activity and the Protestant work ethic would be time better spent.
It might result in less teen angst and less of the “I can’t tell you how much I loathe myself” confidence sharing, which is what I heard a young overweight, middle class girl say to her similar looking friend as I walked behind them in the street last week. It did not sound a throwaway statement to me.