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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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The joyless childhood

In his recent book, “The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture,” child psychiatrist Dr. Robert Shaw contends that America's decadent culture – combined with absentee and permissive parenting – is corroding children, breeding a generation of sullen and joyless youth. Dr. Shaw discussed this phenomenon in a recent telephone interview.

Q: Can you explain how American culture has been corroded?
A: A look at MTV, interacting with video games, reading the daily newspaper with its description of the level of integrity in corporate life, the massive mistrust of government and politicians and the reluctance to pass on moral values to children are all signs of moral decay within American culture.

Q: You say that America has spawned an entire generation of emotionally stunted children without the capacity to appreciate the feelings and legitimate needs of others. Why is our society raising joyless and selfish children?
A: I attribute it to changes within the past 30 years in parenting practices, which are one of the defining aspects of a culture. These changes both have to do with excessive absentee and permissive parenting. Parents are insecure, unwilling to control their children and behaving more like peers than parents. The results are painful for both parents and children.

Q: What accounts for the changes in parenting in the past 30 years?
A: No one is entirely sure. In the 1960s, we began to equate the possibility of attaining happiness with freedom from constraint. We still believe this about children, even though we don't tend to feel that way about adults anymore. What is happening with children is a continuation of attitudes that have been with us for a long time. There have also been tremendous societal changes secondary to the advent of birth control and the woman's liberation movement. This has made it possible for women to find exciting and useful careers in the workplace, which often leaves them very pressed for time to spend with their children.

Q: You claim that parents have lost touch with what children need to grow and thrive. Why have parents become so disconnected with their children?
A: It is a combination of tremendous pressures on parents to maintain their place in society, pressures to work a brutally competitive struggle for educational advantage. Many parents are already the second generation of this problem and are so detached from the history of parenting that they have lost sight of the degree to which children need bonding and a stable environment with a set of rules and limits within which they can operate. They also need to be protected from the assault of media, which is inducting them into a consumerist and valueless attitude.

Q: Can you discuss the four essential “vitamins” you list in your book that children require to reach their full potential?
A: The first is a sheltered bonding experience, which is best done by their mother. This teaches children how to love and helps them learn to be attached in a good way to others. The second is moral and spiritual development. The third is being sheltered from the media, and the fourth is the provision of downtime, which is becoming a scarce commodity for heavily pressured and overscheduled children. ... Downtime is the opportunity to have quiet, not externally stimulated time, which offers an opportunity for reflection. ... It is a time when creativity, dreams and aspirations develop. From my point of view, a child sitting on a swing just quietly looking off into the distance is a more useful opportunity for a child than a great deal of the so-called “enrichment activities,” which we are forcing upon our children.

Q: What do you think of the contemporary trend to clinically diagnose children with some kind of deficit or hyperactivity disorder and prescribe psychoactive drugs to counter the problem?
A: I think that the vast majority of cases diagnosed are diagnosed incorrectly. Out of the millions of children diagnosed with hyperactivity, probably only 1 [percent] or 2 percent have some kind of neurologically diagnosable condition. Unfortunately, we are substituting drug control for parent control.

Q: How can children regain their joyfulness?
A: By being connected with love and taught how to behave so that people are made happy by them. Underattended-to children become feral and have to invent their own life, their own rules, their own morals, and they have no reason to please anyone. The central aspect of residential treatment centers for children who are disturbed in this way has, as its core, the provision of very clear rules and procedures, and at the best places, the opportunity to develop an intense relationship with a mentoring staff member. What they are doing is supplying just what our parents don't supply.

Q: What lessons can parents and children learn from the tragedy of Columbine?
A: I think one of the lessons we should learn is that we are in an epidemic and that this is an epidemic of affluent, privileged, even comfortable people. ... Columbine shooters, brutal college hazers, destructive computer hackers are but the extreme of an epidemic that starts in early childhood. We need to be aware that the parents of these children are perfectly well-intentioned and think they are raising their children in a good way. They have no idea that their children have started down a track that can end with them being alienated, disaffected and even violent. This epidemic is so insidious that the manifestations of it are explained away by parents as stages and typical behaviors. Unfortunately, it has become politically incorrect to point to parents any problems their children may have. Schoolteachers are reporting that children are less manageable at school and more violent – even at younger ages between 3 and 6. When schools try to deal with aberrant behavior in children, parents show up with lawyers. Parents have to make a serious commitment if they decide to have a child. They need to know what a child needs and be prepared to give it to them. Parents have to spend a great deal of time with their children. They are the instruction manual for how to operate in the life of the culture that exists when the child is born.

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