The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Overwhelmed, Sad and Lonely

Posted on | July 8, 2015 | 58 Comments


The children of the American elite class suffer from a form of oppression that most of us can never understand. Parents whose privileges are a matter of having the right resumé — Ivy League diplomas, etc. — are keenly aware that, in order for their child to follow in their footsteps and become members of the soi-disant “meritocracy,” the child must get into their school’s “gifted” program, must maintain a perfect GPA, must achieve certain scores on the SAT, and must accumulate the kind of extracurricular and school leadership positions that will make their college application a winner. If Dad went to Yale and Mom went to Harvard, their child would be deemed a disappointment if she weren’t accepted at either of the parental alma maters.

To attend a mere state university? This will not do. She might as well be living in a trailer park and working the day shift at Waffle House.

Those who inhabit the affluent uplands of 21st-century America have problems the rest of us cannot imagine. When you’re near the top of the mountain, it’s a long way down, and there are limits to what elite parents can do to prevent their child from suffering the stigma of downward mobility. Money can buy a lot of things, but money alone will not inoculate your child against failure, especially if your idea of “success” requires your kid to have perfect grades, be senior class president, win the state science fair, be solo violinist in the school orchestra, and spend her summers helping famine victims in a Third World country. This results in an over-scheduled childhood, with parents in the role of Doctor Frankenstein and their child as a sort of laboratory experiment to produce the future Harvard student.


If you have to jump through all those hoops to prove how elite you are, are you really so elite? Or are you merely a well-trained hoop-jumper? If a child has outstanding natural ability, and also has a genuine appetite for achievement, is it really necessary for parents to push, push, push kids this way? And what happens when you send such a kid off to a school like Stanford University (annual tuition $44,757) where all the other kids are Frankenstein experiments, too? Not surprisingly, many of these little monsters can’t cope with the pressure:

From 2006 to 2008, I served on Stanford University’s mental health task force, which examined the problem of student depression and proposed ways to teach faculty, staff, and students to better understand, notice, and respond to mental health issues. As dean, I saw a lack of intellectual and emotional freedom—this existential impotence—behind closed doors. The “excellent sheep” were in my office. Often brilliant, always accomplished, these students would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that these outwardly successful situations were their miserable lives.
In my years as dean, I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed they had to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano, and do community service for Africa, and, and, and. I talked with kids completely uninterested in the items on their own résumés.

That’s from Julie Lythcott-Haims who not only recognizes that there is an emerging crisis among America’s elite youth, but realizes that this problem is not limited to the children of the elite:

In a 2013 survey of college counseling center directors, 95 percent said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on their campus, 70 percent said that the number of students on their campus with severe psychological problems has increased in the past year, and they reported that 24.5 percent of their student clients were taking psychotropic drugs.
In 2013 the American College Health Association surveyed close to 100,000 college students from 153 different campuses about their health. When asked about their experiences, at some point over the past 12 months:

  • 84.3 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do
  • 60.5 percent felt very sad
  • 57.0 percent felt very lonely
  • 51.3 percent felt overwhelming anxiety
  • 8.0 percent seriously considered suicide

The 153 schools surveyed included campuses in all 50 states, small liberal arts colleges and large research universities, religious institutions and nonreligious, from the small to medium-sized to the very the large. The mental health crisis is not a Yale (or Stanford or Harvard) problem; these poor mental health outcomes are occurring in kids everywhere. The increase in mental health problems among college students may reflect the lengths to which we push kids toward academic achievement, but since they are happening to kids who end up at hundreds of schools in every tier, they appear to stem not from what it takes to get into the most elite schools but from some facet of American childhood itself.

This is excerpted from Ms. Lythcott-Haims’s book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, which will almost certainly find an avid readership among elite parents who went to Harvard or Yale and who therefore probably don’t have a lick of common sense. If you need an expert to tell you how to avoid turning your kid into a stressed-out psychological basket case, how “elite” are you? I’ve read enough books and articles about parenting to understand that all the truly useful advice from experts tends to confirm what any good parent knows from ordinary common sense.

If you care enough about your kids to read books about parenting, and if you’re intelligent enough that you’re actually able to read and comprehend books about parenting, congratulations — you’re probably going to be a good parent and your kid’s probably going to be a good kid. Intelligence is a highly inheritable trait, and the combination of nature and nurture (a naturally smart child being nurtured by smart parents) usually produces good results. Maybe you jumped through all those hoops necessary to obtaining an elite education and actually enjoyed all that hoop-jumping. Maybe your own child will naturally wish to replicate your path to meritocratic success, and you have the experiential knowledge to provide them guidance in this regard.

Both common sense and expert advice, however, would caution against the kind of control-freak attitude known as “helicopter parenting,” where children are so vigilantly supervised that they never develop the resourcefulness and sturdy confidence necessary to cope with the disappointments and hardships of ordinary life.



58 Responses to “Overwhelmed, Sad and Lonely”

  1. DeadMessenger
    July 9th, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

    Nah. He actually turned out to be a jerk. But you’re right, it would’ve made a good story!

  2. theoldsargesays
    July 9th, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

    I’m with you.
    Florida. Summer time. Hot. Humid. Guyss and gals standing by the side of the roadway spinning signs advertising local businesses.
    Every time I’d see them I say to myself “Good for them”.
    It’d be so easy to say “f_ck it” and go on the sole but these folks are doing whatever they have to do to take care of themselves and their families.

  3. theoldsargesays
    July 9th, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

    Ooof, Oregon. A bit OT but I saw this on the news earlier today.
    Into the abyss we go.
    “But, under a first-in-the-nation policy quietly enacted in January that many parents are only now finding out about, 15-year-olds are now allowed to get a sex-change operation. Many residents are stunned to learn they can do it without parental notification — and the state will even pay for it through its Medicaid program, the Oregon Health Plan.”

  4. News of the Week (July 12th, 2015) | The Political Hat
    July 12th, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    […] Overwhelmed, Sad and Lonely The children of the American elite class suffer from a form of oppression that most of us can never understand. […]

  5. Daniel Freeman
    July 14th, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

    I just recently read about that. It was called “the tragedy in mouse utopia.”

  6. Daniel Freeman
    July 14th, 2015 @ 7:13 pm

    Forget slouching towards Gomorrah; Oregon is skipping merrily, singing tra-la-la and waving a rainbow flag.

  7. Queef McGee
    July 14th, 2015 @ 9:39 pm

    That’s literally completely false. Employers are more likely to look at internships than anything

  8. Grandson Of TheGrumpus
    July 15th, 2015 @ 8:14 am

    Thank you for the link!
    It’s great to know about this study: it seems to be the “root” study, and throughout the 1950’s and ’60’s there were a whole lot more that were published. Most of which the “sustainable future”-people have memory-holed so that they can pack us in like rolls on a Baker’s Rack, side-by-side, end-to-end and with microns of clearance above and below!

    When I find Grampa Grumpus’s citations for the studies, which I’m somewhat sure were different, I’ll post them too! All the rhetoric ammo we can store, after all!

    It will be awhile, though. Grumpa has boxes of journals per half-decade and started journaling shortly before his baptism at age eight.

    It would have also helped if he’d stuck to English… I can translate some of them… such as the Tagalog ones and others… some of the family can translate the Japanese, the Chinese and the German… but Swahili and Basque?

    Whatever possessed him to even learn those, much less write in them? (…and “!”, too!)