Fear is shaping our children

The helmet perfectly symbolizes childhood today. Nothing is safe, kids should be wary of everything, pass the Ritalin. This phenomenon would be laughable if it weren't so serious.
By Patricia Pearson

USA Today
Sep. 08, 2006

“Summertime,” goes that wonderful old song by the Gershwins, “and the livin' is easy.”

Well, it used to be, anyway. This past one seemed fraught with peril, as they usually do, these days, for parents. Allergies, skin cancer, air pollution, injuries, drownings, heat stroke, West Nile virus … oh my.

Gone are the golden afternoons of my own childhood, when I left the house without a hat, or sun screen, to noodle about on my bike (without a helmet) and play hide-and-seek in the bushes (without benefit of mosquito repellant or pedophile spray) and invariably stayed out until supper (which consisted of fattening foods).

Now, my children cannot exit my home from May through October unless they are dressed in the equivalent of a hazmat suit.

“Don't forget your sun block!” I find myself having to singsong each morning. “Have you removed the life-threatening peanuts (they can cause allergic reactions) from your knapsack? Did you remember your antibacterial soap? Your school meds?”

My out-the-door check list is required by camp counselors and school administrators, not by me. I'm a mom playing along. I even had an argument with my 6-year-old son about it, when he brought his bike to the park but forgot his helmet.

“I can't ride, then,” he announced regretfully.

“Of course you can ride,” I said. “You're hardly going to fracture your skull peddling at 2 miles per hour over the grass.”

But he has heard otherwise. So, fine. Scary grass. Perhaps we can kick around a soccer ball and hope that he doesn't break his toe.

I'm a rebel. I'm sorry. I don't think it's right to be conveying to my bright, robust children that they need to be anxious, at all times, and never take risks.

A psychiatrist based in Vermont, Paul Foxman, noted this problem in his 2004 book, The Worried Child: Recognizing Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Heal, when he talked about the increasing tendency to preach about health perils to young children: “Teaching about the dangers of drugs and alcohol to youngsters is supposed to help them make healthy choices as they mature,” he wrote. “But these early interventions may create anxiety in some children who are not ready for — and do not need — input about such dangers and issues.”

Of course they're not ready. They're kids. They have no sense of context. They can't prioritize threats in their environment. Ghosts compete, in their minds, with chardonnay and peanuts. What do they know? It's our job to sort out the relevant fears. And frankly, we're not handling it very well.

According to the National Mental Health Information Center, 13% of American children ages 9 to 17 suffer from anxiety disorders in a one-year prevalence rate. This is a striking increase over the number of children who felt anxious in the 1950s, as psychology professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University points out in her book, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before. The average child, Twenge told me, reports more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did 50 years ago.

These are not the children of Beirut and Israel's Haifa, nor of Afghanistan. These are American kids being terrified of math tests and bicycles.

“Why,” asks California-based child psychologist Madeline Levine, “are the most advantaged kids in this country running into unprecedented levels of mental illness and emotional distress?”

In Levine's book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, she offers some interesting answers.

“Parents are genetically programmed to protect their children from threats,” she says. “Thankfully, the more recent historical threats to our children's well-being — malnutrition and devastating childhood illnesses — have been eradicated, or greatly reduced. Yet, levels of parental anxiety remain extraordinarily high.”

We worry about our children, which makes them worry, and then — surprise! — we treat their worries as a health crisis and medicate them.

There has been a blazing upsurge in psychiatric drug use in children. The number of prescriptions for anti-psychotics, for instance, increased fivefold from 1993 to 2002. Ritalin gets doled out like candy; countless grade-schoolers take anti-depressants.

I wonder what kind of soldiers and citizen heroes we are raising to meet history's next great challenges if they're made to believe that they need sun hats and Zoloft just to get through the day.

It is interesting to consider that the so-called Greatest Generation, which fought in World War II and grew up during the Depression, exhibited very little fear of bodily injury or death in childhood. According to a study done in 1933, American children at that time were most afraid of the supernatural and the dark — what you might call normal childhood fears through the ages.

Now, apparently, there is no normal. Everything is frightening.

This is a very tangled web we are weaving. As Levine has observed about the adolescents in her practice in Marin County, Calif.: “They are overly dependent on the opinions of parents, teachers, coaches and peers and frequently rely on others, not only to pave the way on difficult tasks but to grease the wheels of everyday life as well.”

They have not, in other words, been able to fall on the park grass without their helmets. They have not been allowed to stumble, or to fail. They are being made to fret about everything and nothing, and are surprised by adversity. This is not how a generation should be raised.

Patricia Pearson is a freelance writer and author living in Toronto. She is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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