Over the last thirty years there has been an alarming transfer of power from parent to child. In North American culture, and those areas of the world infected by this culture, the antics and opinions of the famous and infamous, singers and actors, and same-age social peers matter more than parents and teachers. In place of the family unit is the teenage social circle linked neatly together by an always on social media that promotes the cult of the new, the irrelevant, the immature, and celebrity. During this period there has been a new emphasis on the opinions and preferences of children. The toddler gets to decide the clothes they want to wear on any given day; the young child can refuse to eat his vegetables safe in the knowledge that he’ll still get dessert; while the teenage child can game, text, or surf late into the night knowing that their mom is too busy trying to be the cool mom, rather than the voice of parental authority. Recent television, online, and even literary culture undermines parental authority to the point where little communication across generations is happening. Even children limited in their exposure to popular culture are not safe: the increasing influence of peer networks that continue after school via electronic devices means that the opinions and values of parents are further undermined.
The problem with contemporary enculturation is that it has degenerated into a shared nothingness. There is no meaningful shared culture, nor moral teaching. The notion of virtues is increasingly unknown, or wrongly defined. Rather than protests against war and injustice there are YouTube prank videos. Rather than lectures or town hall meetings there are digital meet-ups via streaming. Rather than talk and the exploration of ideas or forming of emotional attachments there is social media chat or texting. Rather than writing there is swiping. Rather than deep thinking there are shallow, transient jokes. And rather than the scholarly or religious exemplar there are juvenile, often immoral, celebrities.
This distinctly North American cultural trend undermines the authority of parents. Effectively, the family unit is under assault from a wide variety of sources. Dr. Leonard Sax has been concerned about this for over thirty years. After studying biology at MIT, then gaining his MD and PhD from Pennsylvania, he practiced family medicine in Maryland, where he has treated over 90,000 patients. Since 2001 he has visited and spent time in 380 schools across America, Canada, Australia, England, Scotland, and Europe meeting with parents, teachers, and teenagers. This experience has led him to study the profound changes in North American culture and parenting that now emphasizes youth culture at the expense of the wisdom of previous generations. One of the big recent changes has been the medicalizing of children.
In 1994 it was extremely rare for a child under the age of twenty to be diagnosed with bipolar depression. Then, between 1994 and 2003, there was a fortyfold increase in childhood bipolar depression. Traditionally, bipolar depression was described as episodes of depression, alternating with episodes of mania with euphoric energy and a lack of sleep. Each episode of either mania or depression could last for days or even weeks. This description changed in the mid-1990s when a team of Harvard researchers successfully argued that bipolar disorder was different in children. They claimed that alternate episodes of depression and mania cycled rapidly and lasted for just minutes. One minute a child could be very sad, the very next minute they might be euphoric and buzzing with energy. For many older doctors and parents this new description of bipolar disorder led to head scratching. To have a child who was upset and sad, who then suddenly became energetic and happy, running around with their friend, was generally considered normal childhood behavior. Critics argued that mood swings were being treated as serious mental illness. But the new Harvard diagnosis of rapid cycling bipolar disorder held and led to a huge increase in newly diagnosed bipolar American children. Inevitably, once such a diagnosis was made, the child was pumped with drugs. This was exactly what happened: American school children were treated with Risperdal and Seroquel. Equally inevitable was that the same Harvard researchers had personally received $4 million from the makers of these drugs, which they had conveniently forgot to declare. It only showed up during a later investigation.
In Europe, during the same period, the rates of childhood bipolar disorder decreased amid skepticism about ballooning rates in North America. In fact, a child living in America is seventy-three times more likely to have bipolar disorder than a child in England. We find a similar trend emerging with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention twenty percent of American boys are diagnosed with ADHD. In England, the figure is just 0.7%. The reason for this recent trend is not just due to over diagnosis. The symptoms of ADHD mimic sleep deprivation perfectly. The rise of televisions in bedrooms, then cell phones, then the internet and gaming consoles, coupled with the decline in family time and children setting their own bedtimes, or parents deliberately putting children late to bed in order to have a sleep in, has meant a decline in the number of sleep hours for adults and children. When children are sleep deprived they act as though they have ADHD. Then they are treated with Adderall or Ritalin, which work, because these two drugs are effectively “speed” and compensate for sleep deprivation, quietening down the child. All ADHD medicines work in the same way. They increase the action of dopamine in synapses in the brain. In the long term this artificially induced dopamine damages the motivational center of the brain called the nucleus accumbens leading to unmotivated children who become unmotivated adults disengaged from society.
Aside from American doctors now being more likely to diagnose childhood mental illness, American teachers are much more likely to refer children for evaluation and medication. The common refrain is, “try it and let’s see what happens.” The picture is very different in Europe where children start school later, where play for younger children is more emphasized allowing them to expend energy, and where moving about during lessons is likely to be met with a sharp rebuke along the lines of “stop this silliness at once,” rather than a prescription for “speed.” Moreover, British and European children are actually getting more sleep than twenty years ago. This could explain why European rates of ADHD are so low. The seemingly endless rise of heavy duty drugs for American children also includes prescriptions for antipsychotic medications that have risen by seven-hundred percent over a sixteen-year period, meaning that American children are ninety-three times more likely to be on antipsychotics than European children. Either American children are being wrongly diagnosed, or there is something profoundly psychotic about contemporary American life.
If American children are increasingly spoilt and medicalized, it is perhaps little wonder that the great American dream is becoming the American nightmare. The reality is that children in the United States are starting to fall behind. The culture of disrespect and of moral ambiguity is aided by declining educational standards. In the education system there are three main problems. The first is an over investment in the fool’s gold of technology. Schools are awash with tablets and smart boards that cost a great deal and add little. The European countries with the best education systems have classrooms that are utilitarian and technology free, where children write with pens and read actual books, and the only thing the board is connected to is the wall. Not every developed country has bought into the hope of technological utopia. The second problem is low selectivity in teacher training. In Finland, getting into teacher training school is as selective and as prestigious as getting into medical school. In other European countries teachers are respected as a profession. In North America it’s difficult to imagine a doctor viewing a teacher as their intellectual and social equal. Added to these two problems is the value placed on education. American students are much less likely to graduate than other developed countries. They spend significantly less time studying than every single European country except Slovenia. Yet North American children have more over scheduled lives, being driven from one extracurricular activity to another. In contrast, European children study harder, but spend more time with their families, more time sleeping, more time eating healthy food, and less time on medication. There is still a culture of literature and scholarship. On his travels in Europe Dr. Leonard Sax was shocked at how literary and cultured tech workers were and that computer coders could speak multiple foreign languages. He wryly noted, “The Brits write technical documents as if they were English Literature majors.”
With this onslaught North American children are increasingly fragile. There is an innate assumption of greatness among recent generations of children and young adults. This assumption has been nurtured then promoted by parents and teachers. The child is told how brilliant they are, how clever they are, how wonderful they are. With these assumptions inculcated from an early age children are not ready for failure. When teenagers eventually fail tests anxiety and depression soon follow, there is little inner strength. Young men lacking in inner strength are particularly vulnerable, retreating into the safety of video games and the internet if real life isn’t turning out so great.
One of the main reasons for this fragility is the breaking of bonds across generations. Parents are too busy. Grandparents often live far away, as do other extended family members. Local communities with shared values have broken down. With this breaking of bonds there are few people to show children that there should be a willingness to fail, followed by hard work, further learning, a reattempt, renewed strength at a task, then eventually success. These are life’s lessons that train a child. Simply telling a child they are intrinsically wonderful dooms them to failure. To be sure they need unconditional love, but praise of the actual process of the work, rather than praising their innate greatness, is what benefits them.
This generational bond is so fundamental to raising your children. With the nomadic lives many people now live it is true that grandparents might live many miles away. This doesn’t stop parents fighting to spend every moment with their child in order to loosen the bondage of technological devices or the pull of peer-group pressure. In Switzerland elementary schools have a two-hour lunch break such that a child can lunch with one of their parents. In the Netherlands schools close on Wednesday afternoons, with employers giving employees Wednesday afternoons off to spend with their children. These policies might not be attainable in North America, but they show the importance of spending time with your children whenever you can. This time should be spent doing things together, even meaningless things. It could mean lying on the grass staring at the sky together, walking to the store, and especially having dinner together. It could mean hiking or cycling. It could mean a craft. It doesn’t mean doing more scheduled educational activities or teaching. It certainly doesn’t mean yet more urban shopping trips that further emphasize a shallow consumer culture wherein success is measured by spending power, possessions, and occupation. This quality time weans the child from peer pressure and helps them to learn values spanning generations.
Two of the very best values to teach your children are conscientiousness and humility. The best predictor of future success is conscientiousness. This trait includes self-control, honesty, hard work, and integrity. It predicts better health, happiness, and a longer life. It protects against substance abuse, addiction, obesity, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Parents teach conscientiousness by setting an example. To become a better parent you need to become a better person. If you are married to various electronic devices it’s very difficult to tell your children to abstain. If you eat junk food, value shopping, and believe status is obtained through your occupation, or your wealth, car, or house, then it’s impossible to teach your children to be conscientious. The first step is to sort out your own values. The second is to establish rules in the house. Toddlers should be doing easy chores, even if only helping to clear the table. All children from a very young age need a set bedtime. In their bedroom, and in your bedroom, there should be no electronic devices. Then they need to learn to eat wholesome food, that dessert is a pleasant, occasional reward, that if they don’t want to eat their vegetables they can go hungry. Children need to be taught un-American values such as self-restraint. They need to be praised for working at a task, not for being naturally brilliant. They also need unconditional love and affection. Young children do not need to be asked their opinion. It is enough that a parent tells them to do something. Teenagers also need rules and telling what to do, though in their case an explanation of the rules makes sense, even if they do not agree. These household rules are non-negotiable.
The second value is that other un-American trait of humility. Here the correct definition of humility is crucial. Humility is not acting stupid when you know you are smart. That’s not humility, that’s psychosis, a detachment from reality. Humility is being interested in other people regardless of wealth, status, or profession. It’s learning from them and admiring them, even if they are a chef from Tunisia. It means listening. Humility means recognizing your shortcomings and lack of all-round brilliance. And it means not having an inflated sense of self-esteem and importance. Humility leads to contentment, appreciation, and gratitude.
The challenge, then, is to schedule less for your children and enjoy the time that you spend with your children and family. Complaining about how busy you are or how little sleep you have is an American disease and is often a boast dressed up as a complaint. Sleep is essential as is getting off the medication treadmill. It’s also essential to hang around like-minded parents.It doesn’t mean looking only Eastwards. And it doesn’t mean isolationism, nor anti-Americanism. It means finding people with shared, slightly old-fashioned virtues who value integrity, humility, conscientiousness, and the willingness to try, fail, then try again. These values were traditionally found throughout North America and Europe, and are still there to be tapped into. It also means rules, politeness, chores, and discipline, but coupled with unconditional love and affection. It doesn’t mean being an austere and aloof parent. You should still be loving and close to your children. But most of all it means pulling one’s family out of the present culture of disrespect and nonsense that has sprung up over the last twenty years. Set the example. You may not be the perfect example of integrity but don’t be paralyzed by your inadequacies or those dark places in your soul. You have to try your best, and in the process you must abstain from the current, popular tech-created culture of nothingness, consumption, and nihilism wherein a man named Trump can take over the asylum.