Sure, these kids might grow up to be okay. They might become responsible adults. But what will their hearts, their characters, look like? The little girl in Dallas might grow up to be a normal adult who has a good job, marries, and has children of her own. But what's going on in that "it's all about me" heart of hers? If her parents continue to pay her off to keep her happy, if she grows up learning that her whims will generally be catered to, what will be going on in her heart when she's a "responsible" adult, if she's a responsible adult? What kind of marriage will she have? What values will she pass on to her own kids? Will she be able to give, or only to take? I wonder if she will be able to truly find joy.
These aren't questions that evolve simply because a little girl is given a tiara for not throwing a fit. Every parent blows it sometimes—or, in my case, a lot of times. But Ellen is being raised to think the world is all about her. The tiaras are just a symptom of a much larger problem—one with potentially devastating consequences.
Dr. Robert Shaw is a practicing child psychiatrist in Berkeley, California. In his bold 2003 book The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children, he writes this:
Far too many children today are sullen, unfriendly, distant, preoccupied and even unpleasant. They whine, nag, throw tantrums, and demand constant attention from their parents....Many kids, even very young ones, treat their parents with contempt, rolling their eyes and speaking rudely....The behavior of these discontented, joyless children is so common these days that many people no longer consider it abnormal. We rationalize it, normalize it, and call it a "phase" or a "stage" at each point along the way.
Joyless children. The new normal. Something is wrong with this picture.
In his powerful book The Progress Paradox, science writer Gregg Easterbrook looks at the fact that in the West, and particularly in the United States, we have ease of life, physical health, leisure time, political freedom, and life spans unimaginable in previous generations. And yet, not only have rates of happiness not gone up in fifty years, rates of depression have skyrocketed, rising ten times since 1950. Surely, some of this is due to better reporting and the decreasing stigma attached to depression. But, like most experts, Easterbrook believes that there has been, in fact, a significant increase in depression in the past fifty years.
People who suffer from depression need help, not condemnation. But is the rise in depression symptomatic of larger problems that plague our culture? Yes, says Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman, who himself largely pioneered the academic study of happiness, says there are four main reasons for the rise in depressionrates in the United States. The first is that "rampant individualism causes us to think that our setbacks are of vast importance and thus something to become depressed about."