How Wimpy Are Our Kids?

This picture of kids on a playground in 1912 popped up on my Instagram feed:

It got me thinking: if you encouraged that sort of activity today, someone would call the police. No one would consider it safe for kids to play that way, and when it comes to children, safety–or “safety”–is the supreme value.

I have been working, on and off, on a memoir about what it was like to grow up in a small town in South Dakota in the 1950s and early 60s. Looking back, kids in that time and place enjoyed an astonishing degree of freedom. Kids played, almost always without parents having anything to do with it. In some ways, you could say our parents were strict. On the other hand, they rarely had any idea what we were doing. As long as we were home for dinner at six, we were good.

Those days are gone. And yet, despite the hothouse environments in which children are raised nowadays, they aren’t safe at all. On the contrary: a great many of them can’t cope. I ran across this podcast by Bari Weiss: “Why the Kids Aren’t Alright.”

American kids are the freest, most privileged kids in all of history. They are also the saddest, most anxious, depressed, and medicated generation on record. Nearly a third of teen girls say they have seriously considered suicide. For boys, that number is an alarming 14 percent.

What’s even stranger is that all of these worsening mental health outcomes for kids have coincided with a generation of parents hyper-fixated on the mental health and well-being of their children.

Take, for example, the biggest parenting trend today: “gentle parenting.” Parents today are told to understand their kids’ feelings instead of punishing them when they act out. This emphasis on the importance of feelings is not just a parenting trend—it’s become an educational tool as well. “Social-emotional learning” has become a pillar in public schools across America, from kindergarten to high school. And maybe most significantly, therapy for children has been normalized. In fact, there are more kids in therapy today than ever before.

On the surface, all of these parenting and educational developments seem positive. We are told that parents and educators today are more understanding, more accepting, more empathetic, and more compassionate than ever before—which, in turn, makes wonderful children.

But is that really the case? Are all of these changes—the cultural rethink, the advent of therapy culture, of gentle parenting, of teaching kids about social-emotional learning—actually making our kids better?

Best-selling author Abigail Shrier says no.

In her new book, Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up, Shrier argues that these changes are directly contributing to kids’ mental health decline. In other words: all of this shiny new stuff is actually making our kids worse.

Today: What’s gone wrong with American youth? What really happens to kids who get therapy but don’t actually need it? In our attempt to keep kids safe, are we failing the next generation of adults? And, if yes, how do we reverse it before it’s too late?

That conversation is a little different from the kids playing on 20 foot high jungle gyms, but clearly related. It is a big topic, and that is enough for the moment.

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