The Culture of Toddlerhood

Why is growing up so hard to do?

Posted Feb 11, 2019

Ever wonder why smart people make the same mistakes over and over? Or why politicians sound like stubborn toddlers overstimulated by a 24-hour news cycle? Or why we seem surrounded by power struggles, overreactions, temper tantrums, and resentful pouting?

Many factors contribute to the Culture of Toddlerhood. These are chief among them:

  • Entitlement (ever-expanding perception of “rights” and demands)
  • Self-obsession (inability to see perspectives that go beyond personal experience)
  • Splitting (all good or bad, angel or demon)
  • Intolerance of disagreement and uncertainty
  • Elevation of feelings over values
  • Substituting power for value (reacting to diminished self-value by exerting power)

Entitlement. The favorite words of the toddler: “Mine!” and “No!”

Self-obsession. The Culture of Toddlerhood is fixated on happiness as a primary objective. Yet nearly all its messages are of self-obsession and “getting your needs met.” Research on happiness shows that self-awareness, balanced by mindfulness of the environment and meaningful interactions with others, bring happiness, while self-obsession destroys it. We're becoming a nation of reality show characters, as fascinated with ourselves as toddlers staring at a mirror. In the Culture of Toddlerhood, we're frozen, like deer in headlights, by the glare of our imagined reflections. 

Splitting has taken over the media and, by extension, political discourse. Angry, resentful, contentious, and rude emails, blogs, and tweets, oversimplified, heavily negative political discourse, and governmental gridlock are here to stay. And they're certain to get worse, unless we outgrow the Culture of Toddlerhood.

Intolerance of disagreement ultimately rises from the dread of uncertainty, a dread that severely limits growth and accomplishment. Uncertainty, if we can tolerate it, drives us to learn more and connect to one another; it makes us smarter and more compassionate.

How often do we see in the media anything like complex adult dialogues that focus on cooperation and reconciliation of disparate views? Adult dialogue makes poor sound bites, lousy tweets, and boring blogs.

The Cult of Feelings. Much of pop-culture assumes that “How you feel is who you are.” In this "cult of feelings," what we feel is at least as important as what we do. (Think of all the news interviewers who shove microphones in the faces of politicians, perpetrators, and victims alike to ask the overwhelming question, "How do you feel?") We give more importance to personal feelings than personal values and to expressing how we feel rather than doing what we deeply believe is right. The result is a culture that elevates superficial feelings over the deeper meaning of experience.

Substituting Power for Value. Much of the psychological suffering in the world comes from substituting power for value. When they feel devalued, many people confuse the decline in energy and wellbeing (resulting from a deflated ego) with physical threat, which floods them with adrenaline and cortisol. These stimulating hormones make them feel temporarily more powerful and primed to exert of power, either overtly or passively. A lot of the cortisol that is typically blamed on “stress” comes from entitled egos perceiving continual threat and insult. When feeling devalued, we must do something that makes us feel more valuable, not more powerful.

We seem trapped in perpetual toddlerhood due to the rampant use of the toddler coping mechanisms—blame, denial, and avoidance. To change the culture, we must replace blame, denial, and avoidance with the adult coping mechanisms of improving (solving), appreciating, connecting, and protecting.