The Anxious Generation: How Timidity Is Holding Our Kids Back
- Paul Coughlin Author, No More Jellyfish, Chickens, or Wimps
- 2007 9 Sep
Editor's Note: This article is one in a series of adaptations taken from the new release No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps: Raising Secure, Assertive Kids in a Tough World. Throughout the next few months, these articles will explore reasons why children are growing more and more timid - making them more susceptible to bullying - and provide practical advice on how to raise secure and assertive children.
‘‘My marriage is disintegrating, and my wife doesn’t respect me. She says I drain her of energy. Is it too late?’’
‘‘My husband is a nice man, but he’s not a good man. Our home is falling apart.’’
‘‘My daughter was a victim of cyber-bullying. She doesn’t want to go to school anymore.’’
“I don’t push back at work, and it ends up hurting me and my family. But I’m not supposed to push back . . . right?’’
‘‘My mother-in-law steamrolls me and then compliments me on behaving like a ‘nice Christian woman.’ I’m furious, but I don’t know what to do about it.’’
‘‘When I was young, Mom and Dad said to turn my cheek to all the bullying from the other kids. I can’t stand what my schoolmates did to me. I’m so angry that I let it happen, but nothing has changed—I keep letting similar things happen to me now.’’
‘‘When will I feel strong, like a man?’’
Why begin a series of articles about parenting with adult problems and adult complaints collected from years of being in ministry? Because for many their struggle with being timid and passive began during their childhood. They were told as children that nice boys and girls, especially Christian kids, don’t exert their will, don’t stand up and fight, and don’t do conflict. Their lives today are in various states of disarray and even ruin because of what they were taught (both intentionally and unintentionally). They’re soft, compliant, and pleasant instead of assertive, courageous, and virtuous.
Many of these adults, the ones making these statements and asking these questions, are just beginning to see how cautious living— solidified during their upbringing and fortified by messages they continue to receive—is holding them back. They’ve been stunted in marriage, in career, in child-raising; they’ve been stifled in their ability to understand God’s character and receive His love.
Their soul lacks backbone. For many, avoidance of life-affirming risk and terror of rejection makes them appear emotionally stilted and spiritually cold, even though, deep inside, they desperately want to know others and be known by them. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tapped into this hidden pain when he asked, ‘‘If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?’”
In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25), Jesus characterized fearful living as a kind of criminal behavior—as a crime against oneself, against one’s neighbor, and against that person’s ability to draw close to God. Henri Nouwen wrote, “You need a lot of trust to give yourself fully to someone else. . . . Many people . . . simply don’t want to make waves and instead go along with the trend. That is not obedience. That is adaptation.”
Refusing to make waves is not an indicator of a life well lived. Refusing to make waves is the state that precedes drowning.
Passing It On
The problem of timid living is perpetuated with the creation of timid children. Ominous research tells us that today’s kids are more timid, risk-averse, and anxiety-ridden than past generations. Fear, my fellow parents, is our newest baby-sitter, our most prominent child-care consultant. The reasons are many, but one of the most misunderstood and underreported is our nation’s most pervasive preoccupation: overprotective parenting.
We coaches call them ‘‘helicopter parents,’’ because they constantly hover, and man, do they know how to attack. Most have no idea how their micromanaging hurts their kids behind the scenes, in the locker room, and on the bench. By taking everything into their own hands and trying to make life smooth and painless, parents are preventing children from developing the abilities they need to actualize their potential. In the blunt words of Hara Estroff Maran:
“With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of the 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we’re on our way to creating a nation of wimps."
Ten years ago or so, college counseling centers primarily helped students cope with roommate conflict and adjustment to college life. No more. The vast majority of the nation’s college counseling centers report they are under siege, trying to meet the demands of unprecedented numbers of students with a range of serious psychological problems. From major and manic depression to eating disorders to self-harm to substance abuse, campus mental health centers are increasingly dealing with conditions that have life and death consequences.
Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, says today’s average child reports more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did fifty years ago. ‘‘These are not the children of Beirut, or Israel’s Haifa, or of Afghanistan,’’ writes Patricia Pearson of USA Today. ‘‘These are American kids being terrified of math tests and bicycles.’’
Today’s children are taking longer to become adults—creating a new term for us to ponder, ‘‘adultescence.’’ Some never do. In 1960, 77 percent met the benchmarks for adulthood by age thirty - such as living outside their parents’ home, achieving financial independence, and getting married. By 2000, the number had fallen to an alarming 46 percent. Kids today are more psychologically troubled than kids have ever been.
Why are the world’s most privileged kids running into unprecedented levels of mental illness and emotional distress? Could it be parental concern gone haywire? Psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege, explains:
"Parents are genetically programmed to protect their children from threats. . . . Thankfully, the more recent historical threats to our children’s well-being—malnutrition and devastating childhood illnesses—have been eradicated, or greatly reduced. Yet levels of parental anxiety remain extraordinarily high."
Fearful parents are raising fear-filled children, which yields anxiety-saturated households and worry-worn relationships. Small wonder then that studies, like the one reported in Time on Father’s Day 2006, show parents as less happy interacting with their own children than when ‘‘eating, exercising, shopping or watching television.’’ Sadly, ‘‘the act of parenting makes most people about as happy as an act of housework.’’
Next time: Author Paul Coughlin explores the “Christian” component to this growing problem.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book with his wife, Sandy, for married couples titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, Homeword, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, a faith-based response to school-based bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, and retreats that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.
Visit Paul's website at: http://www.theprotectors.org.
Visit Sandy's website for reluctant entertainers at: http://www.reluctantentertainer.com/