Data Keep Rolling in About What a Terrible Parent You Are
And HOW you're fucking up is interesting
American teens are in a mental health crisis. In a recent C.D.C. survey, teenagers reported the highest rates of sadness in a decade. What you might call the “marquee finding” is that nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness, which is the most depressing marquee outside of one that says: “Now Playing: Magic Mike’s Last Dance”.
This data has sparked a lot of discussion. Jonathan Haidt thinks the culprit is social media, and he summarized his position in a tweet that was one of only four percent of tweets that isn’t one teenager calling another teenager a bag of shit. Washington Post columnist and unintentional Fox News contributor Taylor Lorenz blamed a “late-stage capitalist hellscape” in a rant that made me wonder if there’s a specific date that she thinks the anti-capitalist spaceship is going to arrive on Earth. Matt Yglesias used the survey as a jumping off point to note that research suggests there’s a political dynamic to depression, and he included this eye-popping chart:
Two things are stunning there. The first is the sharp upward shift that began around 2012. That inflection point buttresses Haidt’s argument that social media is the main culprit, though I wouldn’t overlook the role that the 2012 cancellation of ABC’s Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 might be playing in the epidemic. The second shocking thing is that liberals are consistently more depressed than conservatives. And before you even scroll up to check: That started before Trump.
Yglesias thinks that the political gap might be partly explained by a tendency on the left to fetishize sadness. He writes:
I think some of it is poor behavior by adult progressives, many of whom now valorize depressive affect as a sign of political commitment.
I think he’s right. Some on the left seem to think that if you’re not channeling Eugene Levy’s character in A Mighty Wind, then you’re not paying attention to current events.
But I’d like to offer a different explanation for the liberal/conservative depression gap (that doesn’t contradict Yglesias’ thinking, but adds to it). I’ve written before about the relationship between parenting styles and political beliefs; my quest to be less ignorant about both increasingly seems like the same project. And the gap between the red and blue lines on that graph makes me think about how liberal and conservative parents respond to teen angst.
Allow me to quickly summarize my earlier argument. Empathy and strength are more-or-less left and right-wing traits, respectively. Liberals tend to be weepy piles of mush, conservatives are often red-faced rage-a-holics (I’m being insulting for effect but you get the idea). Empathy and strength are both broadly positive traits, but having too much of one at the expense of the other can make you a shitty parent and a political nut-job. Too much empathy makes a person yield when they should stand firm; too much strength makes you a hard-hearted asshole. I’m not a big believer in the Golden mean — I think that the middle path is right except when it’s dead fucking wrong — but a balance of strength and empathy strikes me as a good recipe in both parenting and politics.
The survey above is of 12th graders. Obviously, most liberal kids have liberal parents, and most conservative kids have conservative parents (that’s why Family Ties was funny!). And that makes me think that the difference in liberal and conservative kids’ self-reported rates of depression probably has something to do with parenting styles.
Kids suffer injuries. My son recently suffered his first: A bit of water got up his nose during a bath. He screamed like he’d been run through by a harpoon. My wife and I immediately responded by cradling him, soothing him, and blaming each other. Because that’s what you do when a baby cries out: You soothe them (and blame your spouse, lots).
My son is young enough that his challenges are at the level of shitting his pants and not being frightened by his own hands, so I respond whenever he cries. But, obviously, that can’t last forever. If I hop-to every time he suffers a setback, he’ll become dependent. I have no plans to become a tough-love psycho — I’m not going to kick him into the bear pen at the zoo when he’s a toddler and yell “figure it out!” — but he needs to learn to navigate the world by himself. I feel that my job is to provide compassion and guidance but to mostly let him fight his own battles. Otherwise, he’ll become fragile and needy and bother me while I’m playing video games and we simply can’t have that.
I suspect that many of the depressed liberal kids in that survey have highly-empathetic parents. And when those kids say “I’m injured” — or, in the words of the survey, “I’m depressed” — their parents respond. Conversely, many of the conservative kids probably have parents who respond to “I’m injured” with Ayn Rand quotes and a demand that the kid drop and do pushups until they feel better. So, I think that either liberal kids are over-reporting their rate of depression or conservative kids are under-reporting, or both.
Note that this explanation neither condemns nor exonerates liberal or conservative parenting styles. I am not saying “liberal parents are making their kids soft” or “conservative parents are pushing their kids into denial”. We can’t know the “real” rate of depression among teens — we only know what they report — so we can’t know which parents are deviating from the “right” response. Maybe liberal parents are too mushy, maybe conservative parents are too mean, maybe it’s both. Though I doubt that it’s “neither”, because 12th graders are still young enough to be repeating the patterns that they learned as kids.
Which makes me think that calibrating a response to my son’s appeals for help will be one of my biggest challenges as a parent. I can't let him come to believe that claiming hurt is the fast track to getting whatever he wants. Plus, if I’m way too squishy, I’ll glorify victimhood. Conversely, if I’m an unyielding block of granite, my son won’t talk to me about his problems, and as much as I want him to make his own choices, I do want to be consulted. Also, if reporting injury never elicits a response, he’ll just swallow his feelings. I’ve seen both extremes — my Mom’s family has been in a “let’s talk it out” session since about 1962, and my Dad’s family practices a level of injury denial that rivals the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. But surely, a balance is possible.
I’ve only focused on the gap between the red and blue lines, but parenting might also be partly responsible for the upward inflection around 2012 (along with, of course, the untimely death of Don't Trust the B). Maybe parents, generally — both liberal and conservative — are becoming softer. Which, again, might be good (kids acknowledging their feelings) or might be bad (kids fetishizing victimhood). I don’t know. But something's going on with kids, which makes it virtually certain that something's going on with parents, and I find the how and why we're destroying our kids' psyches increasingly interesting.
A truce may be found in the Nordic pattern of parenting, which is simultaneously mushy and assholish. Right now there is a blizzard outside in Stockholm, which I am far too fragile to willingly brave myself, except to placate the increasingly pointed arguments from my dog that he needs to take a poop. And yet, right up the block now, my own dear toddler, at the tender age of two, is doomed to play outside in this harsh Arctic chill with the other condemned of his preschool/daycare. In the United States, this counts as child abuse. Here in Sweden it's "fun." The Finns might add that it contributes to the child's "sisu," the pathological national trait of just dealing with whatever.
And, when I saunter down to the förskolan to dig him out of a snowbank and take him home, inevitably my son will say that another kid pushed him or something, to which I must suppress my American helicopter parent impulse to immediately validate his trauma and call up my lawyer to sue the offending party and their parents. Because, as it turns out, toddlers have a *very* expansive definition of harm... perhaps a little like some in the Leftist Discourse? So I have learned to steel myself against immediately validating his complaints. And would you believe it, he has learned to regulate his own emotions and navigate the confusing social milieu of the winter wasteland that is his preschool playground! The kid who "pushed him" is now his best friend.
Maybe I'm being a huge asshole and enabling a violent prison gang culture among the toddlers of our community, who thrive in secret on parental skepticism and callousness. Or maybe I'm encouraging him to grow into a well-adjusted Scandinavian, whose emotional ballast and resilience (or just low expectations for anything better) famously make them the (allegedly) happiest people on earth?
I was a stay at home dad. My son is now 20. One thing I noticed in those early years on the playground was that after a kid wiped out, they often looked at their parents for a sign of how to react. If the parent revved up the routine for an ouchy, the kid jumped into the act. If the parent brushed it off with a hug and a smile, the kid ran back to play.
I think there’s a lot to your theory. There is such a thing as over emphasizing pain. Sometimes it really hurts, but most of the time you can and should just walk it off, as they used to say.