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Has Coddling an Entire Generation of Children Set Them Up for Failure?

Research says we should let children do difficult things.

Key points

  • A better model for success than "self-esteem" may be the more dynamic sense of "status"—one's feeling of "okayness" relative to others.
  • An increase in status increases one's dopamine and serotonin levels (i.e., happiness) and decreases cortisol (i.e., stress).
  • Kids can grow in status and feel rewarded by doing difficult things and improving, not simply being told they're "special."

You've probably heard the phrase "helicopter parent" by now. It was coined by the authors of the popular book, Parenting With Love and Logic. A helicopter parent is one who hovers over their child's every move in an effort to protect them from pain, disappointment, and failure in the process of achieving success. This type of parent is especially prevalent in Western culture because we are so preoccupied with building our children's self-esteem.

A new French parenting book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,' has recently caught fire in the parenting world, and leading experts have reported a growing eagerness among mothers and fathers to return to the less-hovering style that was practiced by previous generations.

My thoughts on this? It's about time. Two years ago, a newspaper headline caught the attention of millions of parents including myself that read, "Helicopter parents not doing enough to let children fail." The controversial article received hundreds of comments. Why? Well because it explains how parents concerned about self-esteem are not letting their children do difficult things, and as a result, we are developing adults who expect a lot from life but may not be willing to give much. This of course does not bode well for the future of Western civilization, especially when you have other cultures instilling a mental model of the urgency of working hard and doing difficult things.

Ever since this article hit the media, I have been studying the way self-esteem works in the human mind and how millions of American families are still failing to approach their children's self-esteem in an appropriate way.

Humans have a habit of thinking psychological theories are "easy" and therefore don't matter. Yet sometimes a wrong theory about human nature can have terrible consequences. It may be that we have failed a whole generation of children by telling them how special and great they are, and coddling them from doing anything too difficult (or dangerous). We've done this because psychologists have told us that self-esteem is important.

When kids are praised for everything and told they are "special," it does two things: It reduces their desire to put in effort, and it reduces their ability to self-regulate because they don't get to challenge themselves. Yet self-regulation appears to be the dramatically central player in whether people succeed or not. Also, researcher Carol Dweck has shown that a "change" mindset versus a "set" mindset is central to learning. Trying to instill high self-esteem in kids without challenging them is likely to leave these future adults in a "set" mindset, less able to develop themselves.

Conversely, if kids are discouraged and are made to feel socially inferior, it can be highly detrimental to their ability to express their cognitive skills. Social context is very important when it comes to the development of one's esteem.

I believe it's time for a major overhaul in our thinking about self-esteem. Our model may simply be incorrect. The trouble is, while there's no question there is a deep human drive for a feeling of self-esteem or competence, this feeling of competence is almost never assessed on its own. We are social beings at the core, and as such our sense of competence appears to be deeply connected to others around us.

Self-esteem may not be the right way of understanding this feeling of "okayness" when we actually measure this constantly against others. Instead of self-esteem, we need to start thinking about the more dynamic sense of "status."

Here's a summary of my research on this issue, including links to many important neuroscience studies, all extracted from my new book Your Brain at Work. The writing is more focused on the workplace, but the issues are deeply pertinent to how we bring up kids. If you've ever watched a 6-month-old be jealous of their older sibling, you'll recognize how deeply hardwired this issue of status is.

Maintaining the status quo

Status means where we are positioned in relation to those around us; literally where we are in the "pecking order." Your perception of status, and any changes in it, can be a driver of what's called primary reward or threat. A sense of increasing status can be more rewarding than money, and a sense of decreasing status can feel like your life is in danger.

Status explains why people will queue for hours on a frosty morning to get a signed copy of a TV celebrity's new book, (a book they have no plan to read). Status explains why people feel good meeting someone worse off than themselves, the German concept of "Schadenfreude," with a study showing that reward circuits activate in this situation. Status even explains why people love to win arguments, even pointless ones. Status explains a tremendous number of strange occurrences in life.

Status is relative, and a sense of reward from an increase in status can come anytime you feel "better than" another person. Your brain maintains complex maps for the "pecking order" of the people surrounding you. These maps have a similar structure to how the brain processes numbers. Studies show that you create a representation of your own and someone else's status in the brain when you communicate, which influences how you interact with others. Any change in pecking order brings about changes in how millions of neurons are connected. If you have ever been in a relationship in which one partner unexpectedly begins earning more money than the other, you would have felt these wide-scale changes in brain circuitry take place and the related challenges.

Despite attempts by advertisers to make status about the size of your car, there's no universal scale for status. When you meet someone new and size up your relative importance, you might do so based on who is older, richer, stronger, smarter, or funnier. (Or if you live in some Pacific Islands, based on who weighs more.) Whatever framework you think is important, when your perceived sense of status goes up, or down, an intense emotional response results. As a result, people go to tremendous extremes to increase or protect their status. It operates at an individual and group level, and even at the level of countries. The desire to increase status is behind many of society's greatest achievements and some of our darker hours of destruction.

On the way down

As with all emotional experiences, with status, the threat response is stronger and more common than the reward response. Just speaking to someone you perceive to be of a higher status, such as your boss, can activate a strong threat response. A perceived threat to status feels like it could come with terrible consequences. The response is visceral, including a flood of cortisol in the blood and a rush of resources to the limbic system that inhibits clear thinking.

Naomi Eisenberger, a leading social neuroscience researcher at UCLA, wanted to understand what goes on in the brain when people feel rejected by others. She designed an experiment that used fMRI to scan the brains of participants as they played a computer game called "Cyberball." Cyberball harks back to the nastiness of the school playground.

"People thought they were playing a ball-tossing game over the internet with two other people," Eisenberger explained during an interview down the road from her lab. "They could see an avatar that represented them, and avatars for two other people. Then, about halfway through this game of toss between the three of them, they stop receiving the ball and the other players throw the ball only to each other."

This experiment generates intense emotions for most people. Eisenberger says, "What we found is that when people were excluded, you see activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the neural region that's also involved in the distressing component of pain, or what sometimes people call the "suffering component" of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region."

Exclusion and rejection are physiologically painful. A feeling of being less than other people activates the same brain regions as physical pain. Eisenberger's study showed five different physical-pain brain regions lighting up under this social-pain experiment. Social pain can be as painful as physical pain, as the two appear synonymous in the brain.

The real trouble with feedback

The problem with feedback is that those who are sensitive to receiving any sort of feedback concerning their status are profoundly impacted in many ways. Not only does this hurt your intellectual performance, but it defeats your self-esteem as well—and this puts you in defense mode.

Think of the drop in your stomach when someone says to you, "Can I give you some feedback?" It's a similar feeling to walking alone at night and sensing that someone is about to attack you from behind: perhaps not as intense but it's the same fear response. This discovery about the brain explains why people sometimes react with the human equivalent of a dog baring its teeth and growling when you tell them they've done something wrong: Their brain thinks someone is about to hit them.

Because of the intensity of the status-drop experience, people go to great lengths to avoid situations that might risk their sense of status. This includes staying away from any activity they are not confident in, which, because of the brain's relationship to novelty, can mean avoiding anything new, impacting their quality of life.

The threat response from a perceived drop in status can take on a life of its own, lasting for years. People work hard to avoid being "wrong" in a situation, from a simple typesetting mistake to an error of judgment about a major strategy. Think of some of the big corporate mergers that have gone bad, and the executives involved who avoid any responsibility. People don't like to be wrong because being wrong drops your status, in a way that feels dangerous and unnerving.

When you decide you are right, the other person must be wrong, which means you don't listen to what he or she says, and he or she experiences you as a threat too. A vicious cycle emerges. Being "right" is often more important to people than, well, than just about anything else, at the cost of not just money but relationships, health, and sometimes even life itself.

As well as sometimes taking on a life of its own, the other trouble with status threats is how easily they can occur, generating a strong threat even in minor situations. Say you are at a meeting with a colleague, and for the first time in your working relationship, he asks to follow up with you about a project. It's likely you will interpret his request as a threat to your status: Doesn't he trust you? Is he checking up on you? Your threat response could make you say something harmful to your career. Remember that the limbic system once aroused makes accidental connections and thinks pessimistically.

Just speaking to your boss arouses a threat. If you manage someone, just asking how his or her day is going can carry more emotional weight than one might think. I propose that many of the arguments and conflicts at work, and in life, have status issues at their core. The more you can label status threats as they occur, in real-time, the easier it will be to respond more appropriately.

On the way up

I interviewed an international ballet dancer who used to be a member of the London Royal Ballet. She told me how she was often bored and frustrated as one of many dancers, even though she was in a world-class troupe. That all changed when she moved to a smaller, less known troupe in her home city, but now was the leading soloist. She explained, "Finally I am the highest paid dancer in the company. I am the one at the front of the room. The minute you're at the front of the room, there's no boredom at all. The focus is on you, the space is your space, you feel at the top."

Studies of primate communities show that higher-status monkeys have reduced day-to-day cortisol levels, are healthier, and live longer. This isn't just monkey business (sorry for the pun.) There is an entire book, The Status Syndrome, by Michael Marmot, illustrates that status is a significant determinant of human longevity, even when controlling for education and income. High status doesn't just feel good. It brings very real rewards, too.

Status is rewarding not just when you have achieved high status, but also anytime you feel like your status has increased, even in a small way. One study (still under review) showed that saying to kids "good job" in a monotonous recorded voice activated the reward circuitry in kids as much as a financial windfall. Even little status increases, like beating someone at a card game, feel great. We're wired to feel rewarded by just about any incremental increase in status.

Many of the world's great narratives (and some of our not-so-great television franchises) have status at their core, based on two recurring themes of "status hope." These stories involve either ordinary people doing extraordinary things (giving you hope you could have higher status one day) or extraordinary people doing ordinary things (giving you hope that even though you may be ordinary, you are basically the same as people with high status.) Even an increase in hope that your status might go up one day seems to pack a reward.

An increase in status is one of the world's greatest feelings. Dopamine and serotonin levels go up, linked to feeling happier, and cortisol levels go down, a marker of lower stress. Testosterone levels go up too. Testosterone helps people focus, feel strong and confident, and even improves sex drive. With more dopamine and other "happy" neurochemicals, an increase in status increases the number of new connections made per hour in the brain. This means that a feeling of high status helps you process more information, including more subtle ideas, with less effort. With the reduced threat response, you are more able to think on multiple levels at once.

People with higher status are better able to follow through with their intentions more—they have more control, more support, and more attention from others. Being in a high-status state helps you make the connections that your brain expects to make, which puts you in an upward spiral toward even more positive neurochemistry. This may well be the neurochemistry of "getting on a roll."

Getting and staying on a high

You can elevate your status by finding a way to feel smarter, funnier, healthier, richer, more righteous, more organized, fitter, or stronger, or by beating other people at just about anything at all. The key is to find a "niche" where you feel you are "above" others.

If you video-recorded a standard weekly team meeting in most organizations, you might find that a large percentage of the words spoken ever are intended to edge an individual's status higher, or edge other people's status lower. This bickering, the corporate equivalent of sibling rivalry, largely happens unconsciously and wastes the cognitive resources of billions of people.

The ongoing fight for status has other downsides. While competition can make people focus, there will always be losers in a status war. It's a zero-sum game. If everyone is fighting for high status, they are likely to feel competitive, to see the other person as a threat.

If you don't want to have a potentially threatening conversation with someone, try talking down your own performance to help put the other person at ease. Another strategy for managing status is to help someone else feel that his or her status has gone up. Giving people positive feedback, pointing out what they do well, gives others a sense of increasing status, especially when done publicly. The trouble is, giving other people positive feedback may feel like a threat, because of a sense of relative change in status. This may explain why, despite employees universally asking for more positive feedback, employers seem to prefer the "deficit model," pointing out people's faults and performance gaps, over a strengths-based approach.

These two strategies—putting your status down and others' up—only help other people with their status, and may actually threaten yours. So where can you get a nice burst of confidence-inducing, intelligence-boosting, performance-raising status around here, without harming children, animals, work colleagues, or yourself?

Getting a status rush without harming others' status

There's only one good (non-pharmaceutical) answer that I can find so far. It involves the idea of "playing against yourself." Why does improving your golf handicap feel so good? Because you raise your status against someone else, someone you know well. That someone is your former self.

"Your sense of self comes online around the same time in life when you have a sense of others. They are two sides of the same coin," Marco Iacoboni explains. Thinking about yourself and thinking about others use the same circuits. You can harness the power of the thrill of "beating the other guy" by making that other guy (or girl) you, without hurting anyone in the process. To play against yourself gives you the chance to feel ever-increasing status, without threatening others. I have a hunch that many successful people have worked all this out and play against themselves a lot.

In summary, I believe it is time to rethink self-esteem. Status appears to be a more accurate way of understanding what self-esteem is really about. It's a highly dynamic issue. By rethinking self-esteem, we can create more accurate ways of intervening with those struggling with low status, like changing one's environment, finding domains of life where one can experience higher status, or learning to play against yourself.

And this brings us right back to education, and the headline that got me so worked up. Kids can grow in status and feel rewarded by doing difficult things—by being challenged and then improving, and by being told they are capable of more and seeing this themselves. Not just being told they are wonderful as they are. A better understanding of the actual neurochemical processes involved in the experience of "self-esteem" can lead us to design better educational processes and improve the lives of millions of people as a result. I would suggest that some of the people who made terrible financial decisions, putting us into the global financial crisis we are in, had "high self-esteem" and felt deserving of high returns for little effort. Theories can have consequences.

So is the helicopter parent starting to die out? Unfortunately, not at all. It's too soon to declare that. People have to learn the reasons why being a helicopter parent is detrimental to a child's self-esteem. The first thing I told my daughter after reading more about self-esteem and parenting was, "Go do some really difficult things." Perhaps more kids should be hearing the same message.