‘We raise our children to be narcissistic and navel stares’

We raise our children to be “psychologically vulnerable, lacking in general knowledge, navel-staring and narcissistic individuals,” warns Serge Dupont, Ph.D. in Psychology (UCL), following his recent study on child ‘cult.’

We adore our children, put them on a pedestal, and put their interests above all else. But in doing so, we harm them in the long run – “children like this have a hard time growing up” – and the consequences are also dire for teachers and society at large, says psychologist Serge Dupont. Together with colleagues at University College London, Isabel Roskam and Moira Mikulajak, he wrote a paper warning of the catastrophic, unintended consequences of what they call “child worship” and its associated “educational practices”.

What exactly do you mean by child worship?

Serge Dupont: For centuries, children were seen as inferior creatures, brimming with vices. They had to be corrected into full human beings and freed from their brutal nature. With philosopher and educator Jean-Jacques Rousseau, you see a radically new approach emerging. For him, the adult is the spoiler, and the child, still closely related to nature, is innocent and pure. You have to cherish these original qualities. You will be assured of seeing Rousseau in romance. In the course of the twentieth century, the interests of the child will increasingly be incorporated into laws and treaties, such as the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, the prohibition of so-called corrective pressure in many countries, the ban on smoking among children, or more recently in the Wallonia-Brussels Union, the prohibition of collective punishment in school. What we call child worship is that you put a child at the center of every moment. This worship is expressed in new educational practices. Think about European recommendations for Positive parenting: Parents should always listen to their children, starting with their individual interests. In schools, teachers are asked to consider the needs of each child as much as possible, to create a safe emotional framework, etc.

Parents and teachers can’t handle it anymore.

Many people will call this progress.

DuPont: Pretty sure, but we think the pendulum is swinging.

How do you see this?

DuPont: For starters, kids today are super protected. For example, the number of children going to primary school alone, on foot or by bicycle, is much lower than in the past. Here we rely on studies by geographers who show that children are disappearing from the streets. In addition, it is becoming increasingly natural to always and immediately listen to children and fulfill all their desires. Suppose adults are having a conversation and a child joins them. Then adults often stop talking immediately to listen to the child. In the past, adults often ignored the child. The ultimate educational practice that stems from child worship is the reduction of demands. Several studies show that maintaining discipline, both within the family and at school, dies out in favor of practices called warmth or benevolence, but it also lowers barriers for children.

What are the consequences?

DuPont: Possible consequences of overprotection are mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. These children are less prepared to face life’s difficulties because their parents always try to solve all problems for them and overcome obstacles. Longitudinal studies show that even when they become adults, they have much more difficulty, because they are just people who find it difficult to grow. They attribute their failure to factors outside themselves—always the fault of others—and display traits of extreme individualism and narcissism. Which is logical. A child who is always in the center of attention from birth, will later, as an adult, see himself also as the center of the world.

Do you think that more and more young people are suffering from mental problems because of their upbringing?

DuPont: In the 15 years now, we’ve seen a rise in mental health problems among young adults and all indicators of depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety symptoms, and loneliness. And because our youth was already fragile, they were hit hard by the epidemic. Several studies point to the harmful effects of social media. We believe this is also a result of changing parenting patterns, both at home and at school, which means that young people are no longer able to deal with normal life experiences.

Apart from that, child worship also leads to physical health issues. Because children are so protected, they play outside less. If it’s used to raining or cold, your parents will still send you to the streets to play soccer. Parents today say: “You’ll get sick soon, stay indoors.” We have data from French cardiologists showing that compared to 40 years ago, children take 1 minute longer to run 600 meters – 4 minutes instead of 3. In other words, they lost 25 percent of their cardiovascular capacity. With the risk of obesity, for example.

Serge Dupont. © GF

Have you also looked at consequences in school?

DuPont: In fact. There child worship is manifested in the lowering of the level of pure knowledge and discipline. At school too, it’s all about listening to a child’s needs. But there is a fairly strong relationship between so-called student-centered learning – student-centered education – and lower school performance. But one example among many is the international PIRLS study in 50 countries of reading comprehension among 10-year-olds. There, I searched for this conversation, the Flemish children dangling at the bottom of the arrangement. Or take the TALIS study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which shows that if classroom discipline is abandoned, teachers have a harder time. Here, too, Flanders is at the bottom of the rankings. Flemish teachers spend only 72 percent of their time teaching. The rest is to maintain order and administrative tasks.

Of course, causation is always complex, but the share of net knowledge acquisition in the curriculum has certainly declined. Then you also know that the critical ability of the students will decrease. This is an achievement in cognitive psychology: without culture and knowledge, criticism is impossible. I cannot criticize Marc van Ranst, because I know nothing of virology.

But you can do it very well these days.

DuPont: (Laugh) It’s also true, but what you see, on a pedagogical level, is that the teacher has played a different role. He should step aside and become a facilitator who creates interesting activities, trying to get the students interested in something, rather than someone who teaches the students in front of the class and insists on good mastery of the topic. We have a lot of data in psychology that shows that if a student has to discover the material on their own, without teacher intervention, it hampers the learning process, and the gap between outstanding and non-privileged students widens.

For teachers, putting a child first always seems exhausting.

DuPont: Parents and teachers can’t handle it anymore. More and more are expected of them. They have to listen all the time, negotiate, and set the rules with the kids… In some families, parents are quite stressful. We need to investigate this association further, but it seems to us that child worship leads to parental fatigue – and the number of parental burnout is very high in Belgium – a plausible hypothesis.

You don’t have to explain or justify everything to your child. You can just say: Go to bed now, because you have to.

You even describe child worship as a danger to democracy.

DuPont: The Greeks already understood that for a well-functioning democracy you need a critical mass of enlightened citizens who can put the common good first. But child cult produces individuals who are very far from this model of citizenship. Psychologically unpowered individuals, those who lack general knowledge, those navel-browsing, and narcissists. These individuals are more vulnerable to charlatans and forces that seek to harm democracy. What we caution against in our paper is that by getting too close to a child, parents and teachers miss out on the ultimate goal of child-rearing, which is to raise children to be critical citizens.

What do you advise? Take it you don’t want to go back to tyrannical parenting paradigms?

DuPont: In fact, we certainly don’t want to go back to the Victorian era or the parenting practices that we consider barbaric today. We stress the importance of a strict and clear framework, which is of course also fair, and not related to arbitrary punishment. But a framework is necessary for a child to grow up healthy. You don’t have to explain or justify everything to your child. You can just say: Go to bed now, because you have to. The problem with child worship is that parents are constantly explaining, discussing, and negotiating.

So you’re arguing for strict rules, right?

DuPont: Yes, but you have to combine this strict framework with benevolence to break out of this framework when necessary, and listen to the wishes of the child. It is about balance. In developmental psychology, where we do long-term studies, we see clarity and goodwill as natural allies. With only charity, the child is in a state of constant uncertainty. In addition, educators must adopt a long-term perspective. The immediate interests of the child, his needs and desires at the present time, are not necessarily in the interest of the adult in the future, nor in the interest of society. So parents and teachers should not give up all the time. What is more, the adults of the future will face significant societal and climatic challenges. So we have to think carefully: what kind of citizens do we want? It’s the same at school. You must continue to set high standards. Knowledge is essential. Intellectual baggage is essential. And the rules are clear.

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