The Phenomenon

Something radically changed in American culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century. As a result of the economic shifts and the quickening pace of technological change, adult anxiety began skyrocketing and found a whole new arena for investment--the kids. Parents sought to give their kids every advantage in what they see as an increasingly competitive world.

Affluence encouraged many parents to leave the workplace and devote their formidable professional expertise to a whole new enterprise--perfecting their kids and smoothing the path to success for them. Right about then, cellphones became de rigeur for the young and radically altered the ability of parents to monitor their children--and children to call on their parents to solve their problems minute by minute.

It's no coincidence that at the same time, the incidence of mental health problems among the young, and especially the affluent young, began soaring. Mental health problems are becoming so prevalent that the provost of Harvard University finds them interfering with the core mission of the university: educating the students. It's hard to learn when the brain has been hijacked by anxiety.

In 2002, I documented the alarming rise in serious mental health problems on campus. By 2004, things had only gotten worse. I wanted to know why. My explorations led to a groundbreaking article, A Nation of Wimps, in the November/December 2004 issue of Psychology Today. In the hothouse that childrearing has become, parents not only have the definition of success exactly backwards, many of their attempts to encourage achievement (like removing play) actually wind up undermining their children's success and short-circuiting necessary brain development.

The best evidence suggests that parental invasiveness and overinvolvement are crippling children psychologically. Nor is such behavior good for parents. And it's definitely not good for the future of the country, which requires adaptability to uncertainty. In making life easier for their kids in the short term, adults are making it harder for them in the long term. In addition, they are depriving their children of meaning and a shot at deep satisfaction.

My book A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting documents not only why a nation of wimps is so dangerous, but what we can and must do to get America back on track.