Monday, December 16, 2019

How We Will Start To Heal Our Children

According the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as many as one in five American children ages 3-17 suffer from some form of mental illness. That's a 500-800 percent increase since the 1950's. 

For those keeping track, this isn't new news even as it continues to be a crisis, one that is largely being addressed through prescription drugs, with precious little being done to identify and address the causes of this generational spike in mental illness. Lest you be tempted to dismiss this as simply a change in our definitions or ability to diagnose mental illness, this holds true even when these things are held constant.

According to psychologist and researcher Peter Gray:

The increase psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children's mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early '70s than they are today. The changes seem to have much more to do with the way young people view the world than the way the world actually is.

However, as psychologist Steven Pinkler notes in his book Better Angles of our Nature, our chances of being victims of homicide, rape and sexual assault, violence against children, death in war and a whole host of other risks have never been lower:

Violence has been on the decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.

Yet our children are experiencing historically high rates of anxiety and depression, the mental health results of feeling out of control and in danger. This is because our children feel out of control and in danger and we, as a society, are doing it to them.

In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, psychologist Alison Gopnik, notes that the word "parenting" didn't really exist until the early 1960s. "Parenting" is the verb form of a fundamental relationship that has no parallel in our other important relationships. We don't do "wifing" or "childing" or "friending." We are, rather, wives, children, or friends. We are likewise parents, but it often seems that the whole notion of "parenting" is a failed experiment, one that has directly resulted in this rise in anxiety, fear, and depression, both among parents and children, over the past 70 or so years, without producing much in the way of positive results.

Instead of simply being a parent, we now feel that children must be endlessly shaped, molded, and built, that they must always be "learning," and that if they do not "turn out" according to some pre-determined blueprint of a "successful" adult, we have failed as parents. In the name of parenting, we have shaped our children's lives in such a way that they have very little free time, with every minute of their days scheduled with structured activities, not just during school, but after school and on weekends as well. In the name of parenting we have demanded that our schools increasingly focus on "academic" learning, on homework, on testing, on measuring, on manufacturing. And it comes at the expense of our children being allowed to be children, which is to play, which to choose what they are going to do, which is to be outdoors, unsupervised, with other children, and with the time to just fart around. The result is that our children never get a chance to learn how to be in control of their own lives. No wonder they feel anxious and depressed. And no wonder parents are feeling anxious and depressed as well.

To be a parent is simply to have a loving relationship with your child. As Gopnik writes:

So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children's minds; it's to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it's to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can't make children learn, but we can let them learn.

We must learn to stop "parenting" and return once more to simply being parents. When we do that, we will start to heal our children.

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