Anxious parents raising anxious kids

Since school started, several elementary teachers have asked me why so many of today’s kids come to school with anxiety issues. That’s a good question, one that I think goes to the heart of contemporary American parenting.

The short answer is that many of today’s kids – I’m referring primarily to the children of well-meaning parents who read things like this column – are the objects of a tremendous amount of parental concern. This concern ranges from realistic to implausible, an example of the latter being the parent of an early-elementary age child who will not send her child to school because the child’s teacher recently visited Dallas, Texas, where two (as of this writing) health care workers have contracted the Ebola virus. Even where the parental concern in question is based on verifiable evidence – kidnapping, for example – it is often inflated far beyond its likelihood.

My theory is that over time this overarching concern is transferred via psychic osmosis from parent to child. These concern-infected kids begin to fear that the world is not safe and that no one – not even their parents – can protect them from its dangers. In the language of philosophy, these fears are existential; they strike at the very core of a child’s inalienable right to a sense of well-being. And so all too many of today’s kids bring all manner of anxieties with them to school, including performance anxiety, test anxiety, separation anxiety, various manifestations of social anxiety, and, of course, anxiety over attending school at all.

Parenting by fear

People who view American parenting from the perspective of “outsiders” – me and most members of my generation included – can see this pervasive parental concern and its effects rather clearly. A woman from Eastern Europe, for example, told me that from her culture’s relaxed parenting point of view, the driving force in American mothering is fear. Bingo! Overall, it’s the fear that if the mother is not constantly vigilant and involved, something will go wrong, and the wrong in question will be apocalyptic.

This ubiquitous anxiety is not limited to younger children. A mother recently asked me what to do about her son who is making Bs and Cs in honors high school classes. What to do about what? How about do nothing, count your blessings (or lucky stars, depending) and leave well enough alone? This teenager is beginning to act anxious. His mother is all over his case about his grades. Do ya think there might be a connection?

Here’s the mother’s apocalypse: She is worried that her son might not get into the “right” college, whatever that is. Along with many other reasonably successful people, I did not go to the “right” college, except that Western Illinois University was all right by me. As anyone who’s been to a high school reunion should know, a person’s success in life is not a matter of what college he or she went to (a handful of highly esoteric professions excepted).

I told her to leave him to his own devices and cease monitoring his grades. (I could, at this point, go off on a rant about these school websites that promote parental micromanagement, but I do not have the space. Simply be assured that it is one of my most magnificent rants.)