Off the Cuff: November 2011

Coddling kids is not helping to prepare them for the hardships of the real world

I’ve been trying to come to grips with my anger and frustration with what’s happening in America, without much success. The crisis we’re now facing has been coming for some time. I’ve been writing about it—how our problems are so widespread, from a government that doesn’t work on any level to a dysfunctional education system to a failed economy to … okay, you know the litany. It’s hard to know where to begin, even in understanding it all—let alone coming up with what can be done to turn this country around.

And then the Wall Street protests hit, and spread to other cities. Several weeks ago, I walked to City Hall to see what sort of people would camp out there, and to hear what they had to say. I have to admit, I was not impressed—it was a ragtag bunch, a tent city of the terminally unemployed, more like the crowd you’d see on South Street. Perhaps more to the point, the signs and the messages had no focus:

Vote for human needs … Afghanistan. For who? For what? … Education not Incarceration … Are you socially active? Use social media. Get excited. … If your business is greedy I’m not working or doing business with you

Yet these disparate, off-the-wall messages got me thinking: If we can’t begin to come to grips with what’s happened to us as Americans, we have no shot at coming out of the mess we’re in.

I believe there has been a fundamental decline in our competitive spirit. Barack Obama was right when he accused us of going soft—we have gone soft. And what disturbs me more than anything is how we’ve raised our current generation of young adults. There are very few 22-year-olds—excuse me, make that 25-year-olds, because most kids don’t graduate from college in four years—who impress me as going anywhere. They seem poorly educated and unmotivated. They strike me as lazy and immature. I’m generalizing, of course; there are exceptions. But by and large, the generation now coming of age is not ready for prime time.

And that has everything to do with the country’s decline. A generation ago, our colleges and universities were the envy of the world; today, the U.S. has fallen to ninth in percentage of citizens who are college graduates; worse, the U.S. is 51st in science and math education. In 2004, six percent of U.S. college degrees were in engineering. That’s half the average for well-off countries; in Japan, 20 percent graduate as engineers. We have more students majoring in psychology than in engineering. Why?

Because it’s hard. Studying engineering, or physics, or math, requires a great deal of work. That’s not something our young people are interested in.

Yet the fault isn’t entirely theirs—we’re all responsible. Somehow, we’ve substituted coddling young people, shielding them from pain and the problems of growing up, for the real lessons of life. Our culture now insists that childhood is a time to make sure no hardship punctures the pristine bubbles in which we keep our children. No wonder they’ve become lazy and uninterested in tough challenges.

The great irony is that in protecting our children—and not introducing them to the obvious idea that nothing is obtained in life without prodigious toil and hardship—we are relegating them to lives that will not be as successful or happy as ours. They’d be much better off getting prepared for the real world instead of having a childhood of fun and games.

Tackling these problems, it seems to me, would be a very good first step in getting the country back on track. But do we have the guts to challenge the current indulgent child-raising mind-set? Maybe that, too, is simply too hard.