Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of England, once said, One of the great problems of our age is that we're governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.
Quite so, and it is equally accurate to say that one of the great problems of our age is that children are being raised and educated by people who care more about their feelings than they do their thoughts and ideas.
The child's feelings have been the paramount consideration in both spheres since the late 1960s, when parents became persuaded that they should no longer take their cues from their own upbringing, but from psychologists and other mental health professionals. As a consequence, the focus of American parenting veered sharply away from training the child's character and mind toward that of protecting his feelings from insult (i.e. disappointment, failure, embarrassment, and other basic facts of life) and elevating his opinion of himself.
Proper parenting, the new experts said, was a matter of being sensitive to and acting in accord with the feelings that issued from one's child. Psychologist Thomas Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training, the best-selling parenting book of the 1970s, said that because children do not like being told what to do, adults should not tell them what to do. Children who submit to their parents' authority, Gordon said, grow to be adults who fill the offices of psychologists and psychiatrists.
We now know, of course, that this isn't true. Gordon and other progressive parenting pundits were pulling this baloney out of thin air. Research psychologist Diana Baumrind's decades-long study of parenting outcomes finds that the most well-adjusted children come from households presided over by parents who are loving but unequivocally authoritative - parents who, in other words, adhere to a traditional (pre-1970s, non-psychological) parenting model. It turns out that the very parenting model promoted by the mental health community compromises child mental health! (It is significant to note that Gordon was eventually given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Psychological Association.)
Indeed, the mental health of America's children has been in free fall since the 1960s. Compared with the child of then, today's child is much more likely to become seriously depressed, commit suicide, or become a bully. And by the way, researchers have found that high self-esteem predisposes people to depression (therefore, suicide) and is characteristic of bullies. How 'bout them apples?
Feelings have the potential of greatly enriching one's life. But unless they are governed by reason, feelings are unruly and destructive beasts. People who are ruled by their feelings say stupid things, make stupid decisions, and fail to learn from experience. The current epidemic of cutting among teenagers is a prime example of feelings run amok.
For more than a generation, children have been encouraged to express their feelings rather than taught to control them. They've been told that all feelings are valid, which isn't true. The end result of this mis-education in feelings is young people who believe their feelings trump the feelings of others.
When all is said and done, the child mental health crisis in America is the result of raising children who have lots of emotions but no emotional resilience. They're full of self-esteem but have little respect for others. This cannot lead to a satisfying life.
It's not complicated: The emotionally sturdy person is characterized by a high level of respect for other people, not a high level of self-regard. Instead of wanting attention from people, he pays attention, looking for opportunities to serve. That's what good manners are all about, and learning good manners is where the Good Life starts, not by learning to recite all 50 state capitals at age 3 to applause from a roomful of adult admirers.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th Street, Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46260 and at his website: http://www.rosemond.com.