Growing Up In an Age of Distraction

Is There a Crisis of Pseudo-Connection in Today’s Families?

Rich Simon

Over the last few months, as we began to work on this issue on kids and families in therapy, magazines around the country began to invade our territory, suddenly turning childrearing into the topic du jour. In rapid succession, elite magazines like the Atlantic, The New Republic, and even The Economist, as if simultaneously picking up on the mysterious emanations of an emerging cultural trend, devoted lengthy features to a growing suspicion that something isn’t right with the way we’re raising our children today. It’s not that they’re neglected and abused—although, unfortunately, at times this is the case—but something like just the reverse: they’re so overprotected, overprogrammed, overeducated, and overcontrolled that they seem unable to genuinely grow up and achieve full psychological personhood.

As polished and thoroughly researched as these other magazine pieces have been, from our perspective, they somehow seemed to beg the fundamental therapeutic questions they raised. For one thing, they ignore the heart of the matter: has the time come to consider the whether the profound changes in our economy, technology, and culture over these last couple of decades opened up a breach in the very experience of intimate connection in middle-class families around the world? And, if so, what can we as therapists do about it?

For a boomer like myself, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the fundamental rules of adequate childrearing have been radically transfigured since the dinosaur years of my own childhood. For those of us who grew up the 1950s and early ’60s, there was a kind of assurance in the very air we breathed that, as members in good standing of the great American middle class, our future was safe—we’d probably never be rich or famous, but we knew that one day we’d grow up, graduate from high school, go to college, get a job, marry, produce kids, and probably raise them pretty much the way we were raised. But today, that assurance, that sense of inner security that used to be considered the birthright of American families has vanished. In its place is a rankling anxiety, a sense in parents and their kids that childrearing takes place in a kind of war zone in which danger lurks everywhere and the future is a dark, uncertain void.

In this issue, the contributors invite us to stand back from the day-to-day rush of our professional lives and connect dots we may not have linked up on our own. From their experiences in the consulting room, they consider whether there’s there an emerging norm under which parents don’t emotionally directly engage their children as much as they regard them as demanding, long-range parenting projects. In his cover piece, Ron Taffel observes a trend in the families he sees to turn the responsibilities of parenting into a self-conscious competition to create and develop the most marketable child-as-product as money and time can manufacture. He wonders whether the jangling rhythms and constant distractions of daily life, combined with unrelenting pressures to succeed, are fraying the underlying bonds of attachment that undergird family life and child development.

Some may argue that the human race is dealing with worse threats to children (do I need to mention Gaza, Syria, Honduras, or any other of a dozen current hellholes?) than overzealous parents agonizing over their kids’ chances at getting into Harvard. But if this issue’s contributors are correct, we’re just beginning to recognize a crisis of connection with our children that both our society and our profession can no longer ignore.

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Topic: Parenting | Anxiety/Depression | Children/Adolescents

Tags: childrearing | emotion | kids | neglect | parents | psychotherapy | psychotherapy networker magazine | Ron Taffel | SPECT | TED | therapist | therapists

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Monday, September 15, 2014 8:22:48 PM | posted by dr. roger aveyard
Yes, Rich, your observations are spot on. Growing up in the 50's and 60's felt very secure and optimistic. A person could safely walk down the street at night alone unafraid. Parents felt that their children were safe playing outside for hours and hours. Today, not so much. I really think the 60's was the decade of enhanced freedom and great turmoil, a paradox of empowerment alongside the ravages of an unpopular war. From my perspective it was a very exciting time to be a young man, even though getting out of the service in 1967 brought me undeserved callous treatment, as I was no where near Viet Nam. Civil rights progression was painful, sexual freedom and drug access pleasurable, political assassinations very disturbing, and there was a clear paradigm shift from community identity to individual freedom. Since that decade our country has also lost its Judeo-Christian roots and our Founding Fathers might not recognize our country today. Our representatives in Washington have forgotten that they are supposed to be servants of the people. Chaos in previously healthy capitalism is rampant and confusing. Our country used to feel safe between the oceans but that is now an illusion. In addition, the average citizen is unengaged in the political process, totally unlike the youth in the 60's. It seems that the local and national ties that kept us safe and secure have disintegrated. There isn't a lot to be optimistic about. Children have lost the safety and security previously enjoyed by past generations. Not their fault, but we need to recognize not only their needs but the need to strengthen our families, which have been decimated by many years of unhealthy social engineering experiments. Since we seem to have no national leadership, only the people, one by one, can influence the course of our history. Another paradigm shift is necessary. Where will it come from?? I recommend Ben Carson's book "One Nation" for better understanding and concrete recommendations for restoring the American dream to the next generation.

Monday, September 15, 2014 12:45:00 PM | posted by Philippe
I absolutely agree. I see this all the time in my practice; indeed, I was seeing it among other families while we were raising our children, but it is clearly getting worse. It is important to recognize that it has been a gradual process that was beginning even in the past Richard refers to that now seems "idyllic." A gradual increase of focus on material comfort and well-being and on "lifestyle" that the growing middle class enjoyed has steadily evolved into this, aided by evolving technology which changes our behaviors, habits and expectations. The "new normal" of being focused on and infatuated with technology certainly has a deep and broad effect on attachment relationships. But let's not forget the steady increase of narcissism that has been written about, that also evolved out of the post-war era. It has also had a profound impact on parenting and attachment bonds. I think that there is a broader social issue apparent in politics and commerce as well, that is a pull away from the bonds and responsibilities of human-to-human relationships - and of our relationships with the earth itself.

Monday, September 15, 2014 12:41:25 AM | posted by J. Maizlish, MA MFT
The attachment weakness Richard and the near and distant social tragedies and suffering he references in the final paragraph are connected.
Weakness of attachment between caretakers and children may lead to weakness of empathy and sense of self. In turn, those can result in individuals and a public less connected to the sufferings of others, less likely to press for public policies which restore human services at home and for revision of foreign policies which contribute in varying degrees to the ills in those distant lands.
It's all attached -- even if we're not always attached!
Atrengthening appropriate attachment means strengthening the sense of self, and both can lead to more empathic society and public policies.

Sunday, September 14, 2014 9:10:09 PM | posted by Dr. Sara Joy David
Children have definitely become commodities in larger numbers and greater pressure. However, this is not entirely a new phenomenon. Children were used for free farm and household labour. Some were used to collect welfare cheques while their alcoholic parents neglected them and let them go hungry. Many children have been "Prisoners of Childhood". Yes the profession should be proactive in exposing this, educating the public and encouraging meaningful parent/child bonding and interaction.