Politically incorrect writer says conflict builds character

John Strausbaugh says parents project their inner wimp onto kids

Kelly Roesler, Canwest News Service
Published: Friday, September 05, 2008

We have become a society of "sissies," as citizens and as parents -- a culture of whiny, fearful and fatalistic sheep raising a generation of future sissies with coddling and overly protective parenting.

We're obsessed with praising our children to the point of stunting them emotionally -- rendering them incapable of self-reliance, self-respect, individualism and bravery.

That's the controversial theory put forward by journalist John Strausbaugh in his book Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps and Stoopits, released in January.

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Author John Strausbaugh argues that learning to deal with the schoolyard bully can build character.
Julie Oliver, Canwest News Service

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Font:****In his book, Strausbaugh charges that widespread fears and anxieties have infantilized us. "We live now in a culture of fear, anxiety, paranoia and insecurity. We're afraid of sickness, afraid of death and afraid to really live," he writes.

Worse, he says, we are projecting these fears onto our children, thereby putting them at risk.

"We've turned our children into sissies, too," he writes. "We're so concerned with not bruising their self-esteem that we teach them nothing about self-reliance and self-respect. We supervise and schedulize their every moment."

Strausbaugh's observations about the dangers of "sissy" parenting have gained increasing acceptance -- from academia to Hollywood (actor Reese Witherspoon, a mother of two, is a fan)? an apparent shift from the "self-esteem" model of parenting espoused since the 1980s.

Opponents of the "self-esteem" philosophy, which urges parents to instil self-confidence in their children by assuring them everything they do is great, have suggested bullying could be beneficial to a child by nurturing core values of strength, independence and perseverance and generally building character.

In a recent interview on the TV show Good Morning America, Witherspoon said: "I don't want my children to miss out on any of that teasing and bullying. It ... makes you who you are, when you don't make it on to the soccer team."

It's an idea embraced by experts, pundits and mothers, including Chatelaine columnist Katrina Onstad, who examined bullying in a piece written shortly after Witherspoon's interview.

"For years, the dominant parenting philosophy has asserted that self-esteem is the most important attribute to instil in a kid, and to get it requires constant intervention -- rewards, praising, more praising, rewards," Onstad wrote.

"Somewhere on the playground between sugar-and-spice and evil is the quotidian meanness that our kids will face forever. Trying to protect them from every slight, every taunt, is an act of hubris, but it's not surprising that parents try."

Yet experts remain clearly divided about the benefits of bullying.

Many maintain that bullying is a source of emotional trauma, with ripple effects that span well into adulthood. They find the notion of bullying as positive to be both outrageous and archaic.

"This is an age-old attitude that has fostered bullying behaviour," says Dr. Meline Kevorkian, executive director of academic review at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and author of a number of books on bullying, including the new 101 Facts About Bullying

"It's important to move beyond that conception and consider the research that shows that children who are continually victimized by bullying become socially withdrawn. The old line about 'whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' is untrue," says Kevorkian.

Alex Lluch, author of several books about bullying and parenting, draws a clear distinction between bullying and simple teasing, which he says is likely what celebrities like Witherspoon are referring to.

"The definition of bullying is something that happens repeatedly and over time, and is inclusive of an imbalance of power," Lluch says. "In this sense, teasing, as Reese Witherspoon mentioned, is not the same as bullying. Teasing may cause a child to be annoyed or have hurt feelings, but bullying can involve physical threats and can cause a great deal of fear in children."

Parenting expert and author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids, Bonnie Harris falls on the side of the anti-coddling advocates. She says the self-esteem movement has gone so awry that businesses have to hire praise coaches to deal with young employees who grew up coddled and now have an out-of-balance sense of entitlement.

In his book, written in a caustic, ranting tone, Strausbaugh places the blame on "sissy" parents for this family dynamic.

"If you're basically an upstanding citizen and parent but also overprotecting and overfeeding and overmedicating your kids," he writes, "that's you expressing your inner sissy through them."