You've probably heard the phrase "Helicopter Parent" by now. It was coined by the authors of the popular book, Parenting with Love and Logic. A helicopter parent is one who hovers over their child's every move in an effort to protect them from pain, disappointment, and failure in the process of achieving success. This type of parent is especially prevalent in western culture because we are so preoccupied with building our children's self esteem.
A new French parenting book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,' has recently caught fire in the parenting world, and leading experts have reported a growing eagerness among mothers and fathers to return to the less-hovering style that was practiced by previous generations.
My thoughts on this? It's about time. Two years ago, a newspaper headline caught the attention of millions of parents including myself, 'Helicopter parents not doing enough to let children fail.' The controversial article recieved hundreds of comments. Why? Well because it explains how parents concerned about self esteem are not letting their children do difficult things, and as a result, we are developing adults who expect a lot from life but may not be willing to give much. This of course does not bode well for the future of western civilization, especially when you have other cultures instilling a mental model of the urgency of working hard and doing difficult things.
Ever since this article hit the media, I have been studying the way self-esteem works in the human mind and how millions of American families are still failing to approach their children's self-esteem in an appropiate way.
Humans have a habit of thinking psychological theories are 'easy' and therefore don't matter. Yet sometimes a wrong theory about human nature can have terrible consequences. It may be that we have failed a whole generation of children by telling them how special and great they are, and coddling them from doing anything too difficult (or dangerous). We've done this because psychologists have told us that self-esteem is important.
When kids are praised for everything and told they are 'special' it does two things: It reduces their desire to put in effort, and it reduces their ability to self-regulate because they don't get to challenge themselves. Yet self-regulation appears to be the dramatically central player in whether people succeed or not. Also, researcher Carol Dweck (and guest speaker at the recent Neuroleadership Summit) has shown that a 'change' mindset versus a 'set' mindset is central to learning. Trying to instill high self-esteem in kids without challenging them is likely to leave these future adults in a 'set' mindset, less able to develop themselves.
Conversly, if kids are discouraged and are made to feel socially inferior, it can be highly detrimental to their ability to express their cognitive skills. Social context is very important when it comes to the development of one's esteem.
I believe it's time for a major overhaul in our thinking about self-esteem. Our model may simply be incorrect. The trouble is, while there's no question there is a deep human drive for a feeling of self-esteem or competence, this feeling of competence is almost never assessed on its own: we are social beings at the core, and as such our sense of competence appears to be deeply connected to others around us. Self-esteem may not be the right way of understanding this feeling of 'okayness,' when we actually measure this constantly against others. Instead of self-esteem, we need to start thinking about the more dynamic sense of 'status.' Here's a summary of my research on this issue, including links to many important neuroscience studies, all extracted from my new book 'Your brain at work'. The writing is more focused on the work place, but the issues are deeply pertinent to how we bring up kids. If you've ever watched a six month old be jealous of their older sibling you'll recognize how deeply hardwired this issue of status is.
Maintaining the status quo
Status means where we are positioned in relation to those around us: literally where we are in the 'pecking order'. Your perception of status, and any changes in it, can be a driver of what's called primary reward or threat. A sense of increasing status can be more rewarding than money, and a sense of decreasing status can feel like your life is in danger.
Status explains why people will queue for hours on a frosty morning to get a signed copy of a TV celebrity's new book, (a book they have no plan to read). Status explains why people feel good meeting someone worse off than themselves, the German concept of "Schadenfreude," with a study showing that reward circuits activate in this situation. Status even explains why people love to win arguments, even pointless ones. Status explains a tremendous number of strange occurrences in life.
Status is relative, and a sense of reward from an increase in status can come anytime you feel "better than" another person. Your brain maintains complex maps for the "pecking order" of the people surrounding you. These maps have a similar structure to how the brain processes numbers. Studies show that you create a representation of your own and someone else's status in the brain when you communicate, which influences how you interact with others. Any change in pecking order brings about changes in how millions of neurons are connected. If you have ever been in a relationship in which one partner unexpectedly begins earning more money than the other, you would have felt these wide-scale changes in brain circuitry take place, and the related challenges.
Despite attempts by advertisers to make status about the size of your car, there's no universal scale for status. When you meet someone new and size up your relative importance, you might do so based on who is older, richer, stronger, smarter, or funnier. (Or if you live in some Pacific Islands, based on who weighs more.) Whatever framework you think is important, when your perceived sense of status goes up, or down, an intense emotional response results. As a result, people go to tremendous extremes to increase or protect their status. It operates at an individual and group level, and even at the level of countries. The desire to increase status is behind many of society's greatest achievements and some of our darker hours of destruction.
On the way down
As with all emotional experiences, with status the threat response is stronger and more common than the reward response. Just speaking to someone you perceive to be of a higher status, such as your boss, can activate a strong threat response. A perceived threat to status feels like it could come with terrible consequences. The response is visceral, including a flood of cortisol to the blood and a rush of resources to the limbic system that inhibits clear thinking.