I am struck by the irony that behavioral psychologists are now writing books to remedy some of the problems triggered by their own colleagues years ago. This is especially true in the realm of parenting where parents have been told by “pop-phychologists” how to raise their kids for many years now. I referred recently to a book by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell that deals with the narcissism they are convinced stems from the “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the schools –and our homes. Like the teachers, parents have bought into the notion that their kids need more self-esteem and the way to achieve that goal is to keep telling them they can walk on water. As Twenge and Campbell point out in their book “Thinking that you’re great when you actually stink is a recipe for narcissism, yet this is what many parents and teachers encourage in children every day in the name of self-esteem.”
Twenge and Campbell admit that a part of the problem, at least, stems from some of the books their colleagues wrote back in the 60s and 70s — books such as PET: Parent Effectiveness Training written in the early 70s which told parents to be less authoritarian and that they need to be “pals” with their kids, insisting that “saying adults know more [than their kids]. . .is akin to the belief that some racial groups are superior to others.” Seriously! In a word, parents shouldn’t be telling their kids what to do, they should ask the kids what they want and go from there. The roles of parents and kids soon began to reverse, according to Twenge and Campbell, as parents became kids and kids became parents — telling their parents what they wanted and even what they should be doing.
My sense of things is that this movement dovetailed with the growing need felt by parents in the 70s and 80s for both Mom and Dad to work in order to provide their families with the material goods our commodified culture insists will guarantee them “the good life,” a life that was repeatedly paraded before them on their television sets. This trend has continued and, if the parents are not separated or divorced, they spend less time with their kids, are tired when they get home from work (feeling a bit guilty) and they take the path of least resistance which is simply to let the kids have their heads. “Yes” is easier to say than “No.”
All of this is coupled with the growing self-esteem movement to translate into a doctrine that turned the homes and schools upside down: parents and teachers now want to be friends with the kids and center their lives and teaching around what the kids want. In the schools this movement was carried along by the student-centered educational theories of John Dewey and his colleagues at the University of Chicago initiated in the early part of the twentieth century resulting in a strange blend of common sense (the child matters) with nonsense (the child rules).
In any event, psychologists like Twenge and Campbell are now back-peddling frantically as they try to make parents realize that it was all a terrible mistake: by putting the child at the center of the family’s universe, he or she becomes the center of their own universe. The chickens are coming home to roost. The self-esteem movement has resulted in kids who turn into dictatorial, narcissistic adults (as mentioned in a previous blog) who are convinced that they are entitled to be handed the controls of their lives and the lives of those around them (including their parents and teachers), creating growing numbers of adults who live in a self-centered, fantasy universe, talking, singing, and writing about themselves — the only interesting people they know. These are character flaws that cannot be easily altered. The tiny snowball the pop-psychologists started down the mountain in the 60s and 70s has now become an avalanche.
The solution to this cultural malady is for the parents and teachers to simply resume control of the homes and schools. They need to teach the kids the meaning of the word “no” and mean it when they say it. I would also add that we need to pay more attention to what kids need and less attention to what they say they want. Kids need structure and discipline: it helps bring them back to reality from the fantasy world they have come to believe is real and it centers their lives. As things now stand they are becoming increasingly self-absorbed, conceited, aggressive, and convinced that they are entitled to wear the crown that rightfully belongs to the adults who used to rule the world and who now sit at their feet nervously waiting to be told what to do.