The joyless childhood
In his recent book, “The Epidemic: The Rot of American
Culture,” child psychiatrist Dr. Robert Shaw contends that America's
decadent culture — combined with absentee and permissive parenting — is
corroding children, breeding a generation of sullen and joyless youth.
Dr. Shaw discussed this phenomenon in a recent telephone interview.
Q: Can you explain how American culture has been
A: A look at MTV, interacting with video games, reading the
daily newspaper with its description of the level of integrity in
corporate life, the massive mistrust of government and politicians and
the reluctance to pass on moral values to children are all signs of
moral decay within American culture. ...
Q: You say that America has
spawned an entire generation of emotionally stunted children without the
capacity to appreciate the feelings and legitimate needs of others. Why
is our society raising joyless and selfish children?
A: I attribute it
to changes within the past 30 years in parenting practices, which are
one of the defining aspects of a culture. These changes both have to do
with excessive absentee and permissive parenting. Parents are insecure,
unwilling to control their children and behaving more like peers than
parents. The results are painful for both parents and children.
accounts for the changes in parenting in the past 30 years?
A: No one is
entirely sure. In the 1960s, we began to equate the possibility of
attaining happiness with freedom from constraint. We still believe this
about children, even though we don't tend to feel that way about adults
anymore. What is happening with children is a continuation of attitudes
that have been with us for a long time. There have also been tremendous
societal changes secondary to the advent of birth control and the
woman's liberation movement. This has made it possible for women to find
exciting and useful careers in the workplace, which often leaves them
very pressed for time to spend with their children. ...
Q: You claim
that parents have lost touch with what children need to grow and thrive.
Why have parents become so disconnected with their children?
A: It is a
combination of tremendous pressures on parents to maintain their place
in society, pressures to work a brutally competitive struggle for
educational advantage. Many parents are already the second generation of
this problem and are so detached from the history of parenting that they
have lost sight of the degree to which children need bonding and a
stable environment with a set of rules and limits within which they can
operate. They also need to be protected from the assault of media, which
is inducting them into a consumerist and valueless attitude.
Q: Can you
discuss the four essential “vitamins” you list in your book that
children require to reach their full potential?
A: The first is a
sheltered bonding experience, which is best done by their mother. This
teaches children how to love and helps them learn to be attached in a
good way to others. The second is moral and spiritual development. The
third is being sheltered from the media, and the fourth is the provision
of downtime, which is becoming a scarce commodity for heavily pressured
and overscheduled children. ... Downtime is the opportunity to have
quiet, not externally stimulated time, which offers an opportunity for
reflection. ... It is a time when creativity, dreams and aspirations
develop. From my point of view, a child sitting on a swing just quietly
looking off into the distance is a more useful opportunity for a child
than a great deal of the so-called “enrichment activities,” which we are
forcing upon our children.
Q: What do you think of the contemporary
trend to clinically diagnose children with some kind of deficit or
hyperactivity disorder and prescribe psychoactive drugs to counter the
A: I think that the vast majority of cases diagnosed are
diagnosed incorrectly. Out of the millions of children diagnosed with
hyperactivity, probably only 1 [percent] or 2 percent have some kind of
neurologically diagnosable condition. Unfortunately, we are substituting
drug control for parent control.
Q: How can children regain their
A: By being connected with love and taught how to behave so
that people are made happy by them. Underattended-to children become
feral and have to invent their own life, their own rules, their own
morals, and they have no reason to please anyone. The central aspect of
residential treatment centers for children who are disturbed in this way
has, as its core, the provision of very clear rules and procedures, and
at the best places, the opportunity to develop an intense relationship
with a mentoring staff member. What they are doing is supplying just
what our parents don't supply. ...
Q: What lessons can parents and
children learn from the tragedy of Columbine?
A: I think one of the
lessons we should learn is that we are in an epidemic and that this is
an epidemic of affluent, privileged, even comfortable people. ...
Columbine shooters, brutal college hazers, destructive computer hackers
are but the extreme of an epidemic that starts in early childhood. We
need to be aware that the parents of these children are perfectly
well-intentioned and think they are raising their children in a good
way. They have no idea that their children have started down a track
that can end with them being alienated, disaffected and even violent.
This epidemic is so insidious that the manifestations of it are
explained away by parents as stages and typical behaviors.
Unfortunately, it has become politically incorrect to point to parents
any problems their children may have. Schoolteachers are reporting that
children are less manageable at school and more violent — even at
younger ages between 3 and 6. When schools try to deal with aberrant
behavior in children, parents show up with lawyers. Parents have to make
a serious commitment if they decide to have a child. They need to know
what a child needs and be prepared to give it to them. Parents have to
spend a great deal of time with their children. They are the instruction
manual for how to operate in the life of the culture that exists when
the child is born.
By Loredana Vuoto
31 March 2004