* Donald N. Cotler M.D., FAAP, is the Health and Wellness Advisor for The Parent du Jour. He practices fatherhood and unclehood in Maplewood, and pediatrics in Millburn.
Here, to combat Self-Esteem Syndrome, Dr. Cotler offers a prescription of boredom and Necco wafers .
As we “modern” parents noodle around in some 1990’s technological cul-de-sac, it seems our children may be hurtling towards a dystopic future. One where they will be encased in electronic media pods as they move between exquisitely managed, self-esteem building activities, always protected against boredom, frustration and disappointment.
Of course, it is natural for parents to shield their children from negative emotions and we who occupy the near edge of the Generation Gap are not the first to be told that our kids have it too easy. (I refer you to a Popeye cartoon from early in the last century called “Pappy’s Stress Test,” wherein Popeye’s crusty old dad insists, over the protest of his softhearted son, that grandson Sweet Pea needs some toughening up: “Maybe some shootin’ will sharpen his peepers.”) Now there is growing indication that there is some truth to this criticism. While the overt competition to scramble ahead of their peers is growing more intense and affecting ever-younger children, the questions about emotionally overprotective parenting philosophy remain pertinent.
In a study repeatedly described in the popular press, preschoolers were placed in a room with a sweet and told that they could eat it at any time, but if they waited until the examiner returned, they would get two. The “waiters” looked around the room, apparently allowing their attention to wander as they passed the time. The “eaters” seemed to focus on the sweet until they eventually gave in. The study was designed to compare long-term differences between the groups. It turns out that the children who were able to delay gratification in the study did significantly better on a range of measures of long-term adjustment and achievement. Nature or nurture? The study didn’t address this issue, but it at least calls into question the wisdom of car DVD players.
The upside of distracting children during tedious times such as long car trips is obvious, but what is lost when these children aren’t forced to deal with boredom? My memories of fifteen-hour drives with three siblings are not at all unhappy. Those days, however, may have been difficult for my parents (we discovered that my father could reach any of us without taking his eyes off the road) and they might have appreciated electronic distractions for us. But, I am convinced that I learned valuable skills on those trips.
What I remember are pretty landscapes, license plate games and Necco wafers. Properly managed, five cents’ worth of Necco wafers were good for five hundred miles.
Seamless scheduling of activities can have the same drawback. Children’s lives are enriched by all to which they are exposed, but they seem to be getting less and less chance to make up their own games or just sit in the dirt and daydream. As we remove the necessity, they are less inclined to invention.
Treating all children as if their self-esteem is fragile and impermanent is another parenting strategy that seems counterproductive. Durable, appropriate self-esteem is not conferred by unalloyed praise or the repeated insistence that “we are all winners.” Kids know better — or they eventually find out. Have you ever talked to five-year old tee-ball players after a (noncompetitive, no losers) game? You will often hear something like “It was another tie, but we had twenty three and they had nineteen.” School children in Washington, D.C., were found to have the highest level of self-esteem in the nation about their math skills — at a time when they were ranked last in the U.S. on math proficiency.
I once overheard my son setting up teams for some kind of game in our yard. “It’s you two versus me and him,” he said. One of his friends protested. “Why is it always ‘versus? Why can’t we work together?” My immediate reaction was wow! this kid is amazingly other-directed with the confidence to back it up. What great parents! Then I began to wonder whether he was growing up with a handicap. As it turned out, this little boy grew up to be a fine student and a standout athlete who competed well at every level and certainly esteemed himself, as did all who knew him, so I stand by my original appreciation for his parents’ approach. But that approach evidently included encouragement of collaboration and competition in an appropriate balance.
Children who are not allowed to participate in honorable, rule-bound competition don’t get a chance to be respectful winners or proud but momentarily unsuccessful losers. There is no shame in trying hard and coming up short. That’s life. Assess your effort, adapt as necessary and come back tomorrow.
I believe that “progress” is really progress. We live longer and healthier lives than ever before, with more time and energy to devote to higher pursuits. But new technological and social inventions threaten to upend even our most fundamental concepts of human nature. (For a thrilling survey of what may be just beyond the horizon, read “Radical Evolution” by Joel Garreau.)
So, even though family Gameboy policy may seem trivial compared with immortality, global consciousness or uncontrolled self-replicating nanobots, it is in our interest to occasionally consider the unintended consequences of our good intentions.