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What happens when a coddled child goes to college? 7 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Teaching.

Edited 03/07/08: The MSN link to the Psychology Today article referred to below is now broken. Here’s a link to the article in the “Way Back Machine”. 

I have noticed a distinct uptick in the amount of disconnected apathy I get from my students. Not just that they, like normal young people, would rather party than do homework, but a real disconnect from life. I have also been frustrated by a seeming lack, among some students, of a willingness to take responsibility for their actions. When they get a C, they blame me; they don’t want to work for a grade; and they feel entitled to an A, regardless of the quality of their work. I have been trying to unravel this shift in student attitudes (we GenXers had our own problems, to be sure), and was directed to an article from Psychology Today on a message board I frequent.

In sum, the author and experts assert that there was a dramatic shift in parenting styles in the 1980s to a hypervigilance among parents, to protect children from all pain and discomfort, even to the point of manufacturing disabilities for their children to get them ahead. Apparently, our brains develop basic cognitive abilities (memory, problem solving, and planning) through normal social interaction. This makes sense, given that our brains developed in conjuction with our growing sociality. But children who basically have their whole lives planned and coordinated by their parents end up as dysfunctional adults who, like deer in headlights, are unable to cope with normal life problems, like minor failures or a disagreement with a stranger. My own experience as a professor seems that this is much more a problem among the middle class and professional class. There doesn’t seem to be a racial or ethnic component, however; it’s about the class of the parents. Interestingly, my older and/or poorer students complain to me about their middle-class and/or younger students’ participation in class.

Of course there are other influences as well, that the article doesn’t talk about, such as cultural shifts (e.g., video games) and class stresses of their parents (e.g., cost of living is higher, incomes are lower in all but the top 15% of american households).

Here’s the full text of the article. And here’s an interview with a researcher who found stark differences between middle-class and lower-class parenting styles, published in a book called Unequal Childhoods.



1. diana s. - 7 August 2006

I’ve noticed the crazy hypervigilance my nieces and nephews’ neighborhood, which is upper middle class. Parents schedule all of the kids’ time to the point where the kids can’t go out and simply play. I never thought I’d say this, but “when I was a kid”, we were gone for hours with our friends “exploring” the neighborhood and inventing outside games. It seems like there are a lot of reasons to protect children these days, but don’t you think there were the same number of problems when “we were kids?”

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