A Nation of Wimps

by Hara Estroff Marano, Broadway Books, New York 2008

The great German novelist, dramatist and philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stated two hundred years ago that, “Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying, too zealously, to make it easy for them.” In A Nation of Wimps, Hara Estroff Marano echoes Goethe’s position, and addresses the many problems facing today’s youth: overprotective and overinvolved parents, ADD and ADHD, perfectionism, risk taking, decision making, failure, and a host of other issues every coach comes face to face with. This book is highly recommended for coaches and especially for parents.


The attachment bond that normally develops between parent and child naturally equips children to explore the world on their own terms- but adults are hallucinating hazards to keep kids from exercising the separation that nature has prepared them for. The highest cost of the pressures now placed on kids may be the loss of play, the very thing that facilitates their creative adaptation to the fast and flat world we find ourselves in.  The extraordinary value of play is almost entirely counterintuitive- play looks like such a waste of time- but kids can’t grow up without it.

Excellence involves enjoying what you’re doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned, and developing confidence. Perfection involves feeling bad about a 98 and always finding mistakes no matter how well you’re doing. It leads directly to obsessiveness, negativity, and depression. Perfectionism is transmitted from parents to kids.

Americans commonly think that talent is the key to success. But a series of provocative new studies suggests that what counts even more is a fusion of passion and perseverance. In a world of instant everything, grit may yield the biggest payoff of all.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that those with grit are more likely to achieve success in school, work, and other pursuits- perhaps because their passion and commitment help them endure the inevitable setbacks that occur in any long-term undertaking. Their studies show that intelligence accounts for only a fraction of success- 25 percent of the differences between individuals in job performance and a third of the difference in grade point average…Character counts.

Overinvolved parents do more than create havoc for school officials and coaches. They infantilize their children, creating dependent children who are stuck developmentally and are psychologically fragile. Their children are unable to manage everyday affairs.

Contrary to the widely held belief that only intellectual activities build a shard brain, it’s in play that the cognitive skills are most acutely developed. By play I’m referring not to adult-coaches and adult monitored sports but true play: free, unstructured play, where kids invent the activities, the activities reflect their own curiosity and interests….Child’s play fosters decision making, memory, thinking, and speed of mental processing.

In a direct challenge to current cultural dogma, Panksepp has gathered new evidence that play, neurobiologically constructive, helps build the brain in ways that encourage kids to control themselves and learn. The “learning disorder” known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, may result not from faulty brain wiring or chemistry gone awry, as conventional medical thinking holds, but from the restriction of the urge to play.

The urge to play is a fundamental neurological “drive”- it is powerful and arises spontaneously, without any learning. Thwarted or left unfulfilled, it creates symptoms of ADHD. The 6 to 16 percent of American children diagnosed with ADHD may be normal kids who simply have a strong desire to play or who encounter greater restrictions of activity.

The findings imply that the fundamental disorder in ADHD is not a deficit of attention at all but the ability to control the impulse to play- a deficit of behavioral inhibition….”Most psychiatric problems ultimately reflect difficulties individuals encounter in regulating their feelings,” notes Panksepp. Not in having the feelings, but in controlling them

“The term attention-deficit disorder turns out to be a misnomer,” he explains. “Most people who have it actually have remarkably good attention spans as long as they are doing activities that they enjoy and find stimulating. Essentially, ADHD is a problem dealing with the menial work of daily life, the tedium involved in many school situations and 9 to 5 jobs.”

Perhaps the most stunning information is research that highlights the value of failure. We learn more from our mistakes than we do from getting things right…Learning, then, hinges on the surprise of getting things wrong. Failure, after all, is just information, a signal to try something else, another chance to learn. But failure is information- and not a fixed and frozen outcome or catastrophe- only if children are allowed to see themselves as problem solvers, little scientists learning by trial and error, and not as trophies of talent or perfection who need to look smart and always produce the right answer

The research [UCLA psychologist Jeffrey J.] Wood has been doing for the past five years indicates that the children of intrusive parents lack mastery experiences. They are impaired by anxiety because they “have no self-confidence and their parents have not engaged in the kind of parenting styles and behaviors to make children feel like they can actually handle situations on their own.

So far, he’s looked statistically at the relationship between self-confidence, anxiety, and parental intrusiveness. And he’s found that it’s parental intrusiveness that sets off the chain leading to decreased self-confidence, which then leads to increased anxiety.

The protectionism that takes all the risk of life for kids rests on the assumption that children are easily bruised. It becomes a self–fulfilling prophecy. The fact is that too much protectionism creates frailty. Not only do children fail to develop coping skills for life’s vicissitudes, and fall apart when they hit a speed bump, but kids do come to think that something must really be wrong with them if they need so much protection.

Setbacks and disappointments and inner conflict, [Psychiatrist Steven] Wolin has found, are often the best opportunities we get for growth. Happiness comes not from removing sources of discomfort but in struggling through them.

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