Why Our Kids Need A Cultural Shift

by Joanna Nesbit
Originally Published: 

Earlier this summer, I asked a friend about her new job in the student health clinic at our local state university. I was curious whether she dealt with garden-variety colds, contraception or something else. My daughter has recently headed to college, and I’m always looking for insight from someone in the field because, like all parents, I worry about binge-drinking and unprotected sex. My friend said, her voice fading almost to a whisper, “I see a lot of anxiety.”

“Really? Even here?” I spent six years at this university for my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and it’s not an anxiety-inducing kind of place. Sure, you fall into it at times. I still recall the day I got a D on my math final and how sick I felt. Sick. I didn’t tell my friends—I was too embarrassed—and certainly not my parents, whom I never talked to about grades. I did a lot of self-talk that day and the next, walking around clouded in my own small version of Penn Face. In a couple days, the sick feeling abated. I recovered. (I got a C in the class.) But according to another friend who is a university counselor, it’s this self-talk that young people can’t do these days. “They don’t have coping skills,” he told me. “I teach them how to ride their emotions.”

Coping skills—it’s such a squishy idea. How do you teach these, exactly? Or do they just come? Reams of books and articles address millennial children’s inability to cope (especially, it turns out, when they get to college). My professor friends who teach at the university talk about the cultural shift from a generation ago—how parents call now about grades, sit at the admissions desk with their student, run interference when kids flounder. We’ve been talking about it for the last 10 years. It’s not new. But the suicide cluster at selective colleges is. As is the recent rise in anxiety and other psychological problems flooding college counseling centers (an increase of 13 percent in the last two years). What’s going on?

Last week, I finished reading How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a new book calling for parents to dial back on overparenting and give kids concrete life skills, including how to cope. I nodded in agreement through much of it—her profile of our modern parenting style, so quick to solve social conflict, redefining it as bullying as we go; our unwillingness to respect teachers’ and administrators’ handling of our children’s missteps; not requiring more help around the house; traveling from extracurricular to extracurricular with little downtime; not cultivating our own adult lives, instead dedicating ourselves to children’s activities. I see it all around me. I relate to more than I care to admit.

But friends of mine who promote independence in their kids, one of whom consciously moved away from an affluent, high-stakes community with her family to limit the pressure that comes with keeping up with the Joneses, point to social media as the culprit and the phenomenon of the “curated self,” a polished, joyful exterior presented via Instagram and Snapchat depicting how fun life is. I see it too. A few days before departing for her campus, my daughter excitedly showed me photos of an upperclassman at the college she’s attending—a small liberal arts college with an outdoorsy reputation full of high-achieving students several income notches above our family. “Look at all the things she’s done,” L. told me, holding up her smartphone. “She’s hiked in Nepal, and she’s skied all these places.” The photos did indeed make this young woman’s life look pretty great. Does my daughter know she also surely harbors self-doubt at times? That we all do?

L. is an independent soul, not prone to worry like I am. At age 2, her mantra was “self.” Through the years, she has managed her own homework, learned how to cook and washes her own laundry. Amid her senior classes, she handled her own college applications, writing essays, studying haphazardly for the SAT on her own, securing various letters of recommendation and still managing to get to bed at a reasonable hour. She’s navigated public transportation alone in New York City 3,000 miles from home, changed planes on her own, driven to the doctor and dentist alone, developed a devoted babysitting clientele, dishwashed at a local restaurant, and recently backpacked into the North Cascades with friends, begging her outdoor-expert dad not to come so they could figure things out on their own. She believes in her own trouble-shooting skills. She actually likes getting lost. Lythcott-Haims would be pleased.

But how intact is her interior life? Her skill at self-reflection? Her ability to talk herself down after a setback? Her capacity for enduring hard times—homesickness, loneliness, self-doubt? I don’t know. That’s ahead of her. I can’t envision this bouncy, can-do kid falling into a downward spiral, but I also know from my own life experience her path includes bumps, maybe roadblocks. In time, we adults know, homesickness fades, self-doubt retreats, loneliness abates—if a person knows these feelings are normal, that is, and that everyone goes through them, whatever they’re posting on Instagram.

There’s no easy answer to the layered issues our children confront on the cusp of adulthood. I agree with my friends it’s not as simple as curbing the overparenting. My daughter is the poster-child for independence and life skills, but social media is an insidious presence, here to stay as far as I can see. And the zeitgeist sends powerful messages about success that our kids seem to be mainlining—messages that I believe must broaden and change to include post-high school choices beyond the competitive colleges so many students focus on. We’ve tried to combat these success messages in our family in our low-key town, but it isn’t easy. Still, we have got to keep talking, all of us. And some of us need to chill on the pressure. It’s not worth it. Too many kids are cracking up.

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