Problems We’ll Never Solve – Coddled College Students and Other Cultural Addictions

What passes for psychology actually exacerbates the coddling of kids, et al.

Posted Oct 12, 2010

As psychologists, we're solution oriented. Research and practice are - ideally - geared to resolving social and psychological problems. But we have failed repeatedly to solve the biggest issues facing us. One key example appeared in the NY Times today - the coddled college student.  It is one of many such problems - education, obesity, depression, addiction, the underclass - over which we can only gnash our teeth, but that never change.

The "Room for Debate" question for the day was, "Have Freshmen Changed?" Of course, our own Hara Marano - who was one of the contributors - has highlighted this issue in her landmark work, "A Nation of Wimps." But - contrary to the "debate" in the title - all six contributors answered in the affirmative to the question, "Are helicopter parents making it harder for students to transition to life on campus?"

Hara would like parents to make their children more self-reliant. That won't happen in this world. And the contributors, while all bemoaning the problem, make clear why this is so. Here are the five types of reasons for this stasis:

1. Cultural drift. According to contributor Linda Bips, "Parents, who handle every difficulty and every other responsibility for their children from writing admission essays to picking college courses, certainly may contribute to their children's lack of coping strategies." But this is good parenting by the concerned modern parent, isn't it?

2. We approve of the behavior that causes the problem. As Hara points out, helicoptering is de rigueur for today's parents. Meanwhile, Bips indicates, "The number of students who arrive at college already medicated for unwanted emotions has increased dramatically in the past 10 years. We, as a society, don't want to feel anything unpleasant and we certainly don't want our children to suffer." And what professional is going to suggest weaning kids from these drugs!

3. Technological change. I noted a local news program was promoting new electronic devices with which parents can track and protect their children for Halloween - thank God, there won't be all the usual poisonings, razor blades in candy, and kidnappings in my suburban neighborhood that night! (Actually, kids are now kept home entirely or attend parties to avoid these alarming dangers.) In the case of college students, Barbara Hofer points out, "students have an unprecedented number of ways to stay in contact with . . . .those from a previous life. . . along with the expectation of increased contact with parents" so that they are incapable of adjusting - of even becoming engaged in - their college lives.

4. Social class differences. This is a little off topic for coddled college students, since, by definition, most of these are middle class. Lower-SES children are NOT often the victims of overprotection. Of course, the problems associated with child neglect are used by middle-class parents to justify their overprotecting their kids.

5. Media. People - and thus the media - like simple problems and answers everyone can jump on board with. And both the media and their audiences are highly susceptible to fear-mongering. Thus, the introduction to the "Room for Debate" topic described the recent suicide of an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman. This event had a thousand - a million - times the impact of all the nuanced analyses of the six Times experts, except it pointed parents in exactly the opposite direction, towards being more protective of their children. Yet, according to the experts, coddling contributes to such horrific outcomes. As Bips puts it, "Many of today's students lack resilience and at the first sign of difficulty are unable to summon strategies to cope."

For all these reasons, when the Times revisits this topic in a few years, it will have gotten worse. The same is true for every other social malady our culture highlights: education*, childhood obesity, depression, addiction, the underclass - and for the same set of reasons.

That is, unless our society collapses entirely and we are thrust back to subsistence - or at least substantially more deprived - existences, so that we can't employ all of the psychological learning and techniques that have created the problems we are seeking to deploy psychology to solve!  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but, did I mention, psychology is - ideally - reality oriented?

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* (Also in today's Times)  Mr. Canada’s two charter schools, featured as unqualified successes in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the new documentary, again hit choppy waters this summer, when New York State made its exams harder to pass.  A drop-off occurred, in spite of private donations that keep class sizes small, allow for an extended school day and an 11-month school year, and offer students incentives for good performance like trips to the Galápagos Islands or Disney World.