Saturday, September 11, 2010

Teens and Achievement: let's look again

...But maybe it just takes a wider, freer eye to recognize something new to express instead of just rolling into our own small circles.

While pondering the above challenge, which appeared here on Wednesday, I noticed that a few of my friends had posted an article on Facebook that had been published on Psychology Today, titled A Nation of Wimps, by By Hara Estroff Marano, who claims that:
But taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees. With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they're robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we're on our way to creating a nation of wimps.

It is interesting to note that the article begins with the word "Maybe" but as the author gathers rhetorical speed, all caution is abandoned for the tone of grave and important certainty with which the above-quoted judgment is delivered. The article asserts that surveys of college counseling centers (conducted since 1988) are where the effects of over-protective parenting are first seen. We will have to accept that even though there is no study or survey cited (only isolated, anecdotal evidence is offered) to support the author's claim that the increase of psychological problems among students is linked to a shift in the way American citizens parent (and no scientific proof offered that such a shift has occurred), that there was some kind of sound scientific method used in this survey to determine that college students' mental problems are both more frequent and more severe (as described in the article):
By all accounts, psychological distress is rampant on college campuses. It takes a variety of forms, including anxiety and depression—which are increasingly regarded as two faces of the same coin—binge drinking and substance abuse, self-mutilation and other forms of disconnection. The mental state of students is now so precarious for so many that, says Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, "it is interfering with the core mission of the university."

The author of the article suspects that parenting styles have changed since the early 1980's; this suspicion is driven less by empirical evidence and more by the nature of the author's professional training in psychology, which posits that all psychological disturbances are caused by some combination of poor "nature" and/or poor "nurture," where parenting has a greater role in determining outcomes. The greatest problem with the claims made in the article, though, is that it offers no proof that parents are behaving any differently in the 21st Century than they did in the middle of the 20th Century. The assumption that an increase in psychological disturbances (or conversely, an increase in psychological wellness) is always caused by changes in parenting styles has such cultural currency today that an article such as this one can be published and reviewed without the reviewer or editors finding anything amiss.

The other assumption that the author makes in the article is that the purported increase in college student psychopathology has something to do with a higher emphasis placed on achievement. But how was this claim tested? What standards of measurement were used? Again, we don't know. In fact, there have always been stressors that put human beings at risk for psychological disorders; why would the drive to achieve be any more severe or damaging that the exigency to survive?

If we can make the claim that more college students are struggling with psychological issues and stress (again, it's important to remain cautious, since this article is already an unreliable source for its central thesis), then perhaps applying a "wider, freer eye" to this problem could yield a different judgment. First, we might ask what has actually changed since 1988? Across the board, the percentage of U.S. citizens who report that they belong to any form of of religion has dropped significantly since the 1990 census. While other trends and shifts in demographics have been measured by various studies, as well as by the census, the particular shift among adults who consider themselves Christians (which dropped from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008) is indeed a factor that would impact students' mental health (the combined change for all other religions practiced in the United States was only 0.5%, which would not make any significant impression on the overall state of college student psychological coping).

That a change in religious practices effects psychosocial competence has been studied scientifically and documented in numerous studies. In just one of those studies, researchers found that "Intrinsic religiously motivated members, in general, manifested more favorable competence attributes than less intrinsically motivated members" ("Religious Participation, Religious Motivation and Individual Psychosocial Competence," Kenneth E. Pargament, et al, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion).

If a significant shift in parenting styles has occurred in the United States since the early 1980's, then this shift has yet to be studied and documented. If there has indeed been an increased emphasis on achievement in our culture, this incidence would need somehow to be quantified and measured before it could be accepted as fact.

Yet what has been scientifically observed and measured already offers an avenue whereby a more interesting and complete judgment might be made about any increase in college student psychosocial disorders. Why is this important and evident fact ignored?

Parents, and their attempts to raise their children in a world fraught with the particular dangers the 21st Century offers, will continue to bear the brunt of the blame for any undesirable behaviors that appear in their children, as long as we, as a culture, continue to ignore the impact of a worldview that shuts out all possibility of an answer to any of the most basic questions that people ask (particularly when they reach the developmental stage of the college student): Why are we here? What use are we? Why are we given this life and not some other life? etc. This worldview has become increasingly dominant as U.S. citizens abandon religious practice.

1 comment:

clairity said...

I appreciate the questions you raise, and it makes me realize how much of the culture we just assume. I wonder if that is especially the case with parenting, as in this matter we generally feel so insecure! I like the challenge also because it's one of those items that caught interest and circulation.