This September, I will celebrate my 20th work anniversary as a nanny. Over my two decades in childcare, I’ve managed to figure out which child-rearing styles work, and which don’t, by observing both immediate and long-term results. I have also had the chance to witness the ways in which cultural trends influence parenting choices.
My conclusions? Let’s just say the prognosis is troubling. One need look no further than one’s local college campus for evidence.
Consider, for example, the phrases “micro-aggression,” “trigger warning,” and “safe space.” They are now common parlance on university campuses all over the nation, and they are far more insidious than they at first appear. They are part of a package of terminology that is the first-born ideological child of the Millennial generation, and their purpose is to protect said generation’s fragile-as-a-snowflake feelings from any thought, word, or deed which might offend them, or simply cause slight discomfort.
Do you remember the fairy tale about the princess and the pea? It’s kind of like that. Think of this generation as the princess, and their manufactured phraseology as the mountain of mattresses designed to protect them from the pesky, picayune pea of opposing opinions and points-of-view.
A “micro-aggression” is a statement or action that is not overtly hostile or ill-intended, but which might (often by far-fetched extrapolation) have some hidden and/or misconstrued meaning that could ruffle a few feathers. For example, asking a pregnant woman anything related to the child inside her is a “micro-aggression,” because she may not plan to keep that child, and talking about it may give her the baby blues. Essentially, a “micro-aggressor” is a parade-rainer.
“Micro-aggressions” are to be meticulously avoided, but if one cannot find any other way to communicate one’s point, he or she should first issue a “trigger warning.” This is a kind of heads-up that something potentially offensive/uncomfortable is about to be said or done – in other words, it’s an announcement that the Sunshine and Lollipops Show is taking a commercial break.
A “safe space” is a place wherein no “micro-aggressions” are allowed (and, hence, I suppose, no “trigger warnings” are necessary). I imagine the ideal “safe space” to be a sort of sparkly la-la-land where “Kumbaya” plays on an endless loop, and everybody is ego-secure, perfectly affirmed in their beliefs and emotions, and barefoot (because nobody ever steps on anyone else’s toes).
Does this sound crazy and completely unrealistic to you? Well, brace yourself, because universities all over the nation are scrambling to transform their campuses into “safe spaces.” Dissenters are routinely sued, publicly humiliated, demoted, and/or fired. And there’s no end in sight. It might have come 30 years later than he predicted, but George Orwell’s dystopian vision is starting to take shape right here on American soil.
So what brought us to this decidedly un-pretty pass? For me, there’s no mystery whatsoever, because I have been watching this drama unfold since back when the Millennials’ must-have accessory was manufactured by Huggies.
If you want to understand why they are behaving so cartoonishly, just put yourself in their shoes and time-travel back to childhood. You’re a toddler, and it’s the late 1990’s. On a regular basis—and in a sugary sing-song voice, no less—you are told that you can do and be anything you want. Get used to it, because this is going to go on for the duration.
And speaking of anything you want, that’s pretty much what you’re given; every time you cry, mommy, or daddy, or miscellaneous alternative parental unit, rushes to give you whatever it is you’re hankering for, because they are supremely anxious to turn off the tears and turn on the smiles. And if they put up any resistance, you just cry louder, kick harder, make a scene in the department store – whatever the situation calls for – until they give in. Yep, you have them wrapped around your finger; you’ve been the real head of the household since before you could talk.
At school, you never lose a race, or fail a test, or write a lousy essay – because nobody’s allowed to lose or fail. Instead, you get a ribbon for participation when you come in last, a happy-faced star for completing the assignment, and a compliment from your teacher on your “conversational” writing style. When your grades (if you go to one of those really backward schools that still uses such a barbaric system of judgment) are so atrocious that you really should be held back a year, you are passed on anyway, because being older than your peers might make you feel awkward.
In short, your skin has never been allowed to grow thicker as a result of the occasional scrape across a bump on the road of life, because the adults in your world have made their hair gray anticipating those bumps, and putting up detour signs directing you down smooth, pothole-free paths. What’s more, they have lined up along the roadside to cheer like you just cured cancer every time you pick your nose. In fact, stroking your ego – they call it “building your self-esteem” – has been the primary goal of the adults who care for you.
Are you starting to get the picture?
Fast-forward back to the present. We are now stuck with a generation of young people that have never had to pick themselves up after a fall, self-soothe after emotional trauma (including the micro-traumas caused by “micro-aggressions”), or mine a failure for learning experience to help shape tomorrow’s success. Nor have they ever had to work for rewards – all they have had to do in order to be showered with trophies, and ribbons, and awards is get out of bed and show up to events with their clothes on – although out here in San Francisco, there are lots of folks working really hard to do away with the latter criterion.
Since no one has ever taught them how to cope with the stress of life’s inevitable problems, we shouldn’t be surprised that Millennials are behaving as if they are psychologically and emotionally incompetent. That’s exactly the problem. They are like untethered, helium-filled balloons being batted about by gusts of wind; their massive heads are fully inflated by overstuffed egos, but they have no practical, experience-built muscle to anchor them and prevent them from getting carried away by the frenzied tide of the academic ideology du jour. And the first big storm they encounter is going to completely blow them away.
* * *
It’s tempting to point the finger at the parents and teachers (and nannies) who raised this generation, but the problem goes back further than that, and is much more panoramic in scope. The parenting style that produced this pretentious, emotionally fragile, experientially bankrupt, and functionally inept generation was, and is, a product of the culture at large.
A culture built upon the premise that all beliefs, opinions, and perceptions of reality are equally valid leads naturally and inevitably to the death of analytical inquiry; if there is no objective truth, then there is no need to think things through in order to tease it out. In such an environment, critical thinking becomes a revolutionary, even heretical act, because it implies that the nature of truth is binary – i.e., ideas and beliefs are either true or false, end of story – rather than some sort of amorphous, all-inclusive spectrum.
In this kind of culture, one may invent one’s own definition of truth by picking and choosing in eeny-meeny-miney-mo fashion the concepts and precepts which produce warm-and-fuzzy feelings, rather than the ones which are logical and supported by verifiable evidence; and one is highly unlikely to analyze the validity of this concocted hodge-podge moral code, since acedia is the status quo, and rocking the boat is frowned upon.
These circumstances lead naturally to the everyone-gets-a-ribbon method of child-rearing; after all, everything and everyone is exactly equal. Nobody can be an exceptional achiever, because that would imply he or she has a gift more valuable than others’ abilities in that area. Furthermore, since we can define truth and reality any which way we please, we are free to re-define losing as merely a different kind of winning, failure as an alternative form of success.
A culture that enshrines the pursuit of “feeling good” and the indulgence of impulse leads naturally to a child-rearing style that prioritizes self-esteem above everything else, and demonizes hurt feelings and emotional discomfort; if a fleeting, ephemeral feeling of well-being is the true basis for and meaning of happiness, it must be pursued at any cost, and anything which interferes is, by definition, bad and/or wrong.
A culture which has replaced the pursuit of God with the pursuit of material goods leads naturally to a child-rearing style that emphasizes material solutions to emotional/psychological pain – because what good is prayer as a solution to distress if no one is listening on the other end? And besides, isn’t it easier to guzzle a few cocktails, or go on a shopping spree, than it is to relinquish control to God and wait for a resolution according to His timeline? Giving a child a cookie or buying it a new toy in order to stop its crying is merely the pee-wee version of the same philosophy.
A culture which has substituted worldly success for an eternity with Our Lord as the ultimate goal of life leads naturally to a child-rearing style that anathemizes setbacks and failure; after all, if this life is not just the opening act, but, rather, the main event, then one can only define and evaluate oneself by means of one’s achievements in the eyes of the world; to fail by its standards is to fail as a human being.
A culture that has re-written, or erased entirely, the history of salvation, and has therefore robbed suffering of its redemptive meaning, leads naturally to a child-rearing style that white-washes weakness and avoids anything and everything that might cause difficulty, discomfort, or disquietude; if nothing can be gained or achieved through suffering and struggle, then of course every means available should be utilized to snuff it out.
And, lastly, a culture which has become intellectually and morally lazy, which has ceased to question its own assumptions, stopped policing its own behavior according to time-honored definitions of right and wrong, and stopped thinking critically about its own underpinnings, is doomed to prance down the yellow brick road of fallacy, through the poppy field of delusion, and right off the side of a cliff.
Perhaps this sounds a bit doom-and-gloom to you. Well, just think ahead a couple of decades, and imagine what things will be like when the hurt-feelings generation is running the show, and gets down to the business of turning your space into their “safe space.” And, as if that thought isn’t frightening enough, be aware of this: the parenting style that produced the “don’t-micro-agress-against-my-triggers-or-I’ll-sue-you” generation is still the primary method being employed today.
It’s going to be a long haul, folks. Fasten your safety belts and cling to Holy Mother Church, because that is the only true safe space on Earth. And if you have children, let them skin their knees from time to time, and for heaven’s sake, never give them a trophy just for showing up.