It seems that each generation regards successive generations as “softer” than their own. Remember the “I walked six miles to school in the snow” stories our parents and grandparents told us? As a mother of a sixth-grader, I’ve personally noticed certain traits about my son and other kids his age. They seem more sure of themselves and their place in the world in a way than I was then. Although some of this can be chalked up to adolescent bravado, I believe that, in general, today’s children are more savvy and sophisticated than we were. Many possess a kind of confidence that life is going to go their way and that good things are their due. These are actually positive qualities. I worry, however, whether my son has the ability to bounce back from hardship. Can he take constructive criticism? And will he be able to handle crushing disappointments when they come?
Many of the young soldiers in today’s Army also seem to have this sense of surety, and—dare I say it?—entitlement. At the same time, I think there is a fragility about them that leaves them terribly vulnerable in times of trouble. The news is rife with stories about the increase in military suicides over the past several years and I wonder if young people are less resilient than previous generations. (Of course, the Army is merely a microcosm of society, reflecting the same strengths and weaknesses that the United States as a whole is dealing with.) The common media theme is that suicides in the Army are at an all-time high because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), caused by deployment-related injuries and stress. The truth of the matter is that many of the soldiers who attempt suicide have never deployed and many are on their first enlistment. This is not to imply that there are not legitimate situations in which deployment-related PTSD and subsequent suicidal ideations do occur.
In light of the two wars soldiers have been fighting for over a decade now and all the resulting stress on active-duty members and their families, the Army now has a “Ready and Resilient Campaign” to help strengthen coping skills. The Army defines resiliency as “the mental, physical, emotional and behavioral ability to face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover and learn and grow from setbacks.” Here at Fort Hood, there is a huge and impressive “Resiliency Campus” consisting of a myriad of programs to strengthen resiliency, from spiritual to physical fitness. It opened in 2009 and became the model for the Army to follow. I applaud this development.
But if combat stress is taken out of the equation, let’s return to my fragility hypothesis. Are kids being raised without sufficient coping skills when challenges arise? Is technology—which is part of a kid’s life now from babyhood on—creating generations of young adults who are ill-equipped to reach out to others when they need help? And perhaps the more important question: How do we recognize and identify people who might need help before it’s too late?
Allow me to offer up some opinions about this phenomenon. The “Everyone’s A Winner” philosophy and the much-publicized “Helicopter Parenting” might be factors in this trend of outwardly confident, yet emotionally fragile people. (First, let me state for the record that I have been and continue to be guilty of both these parenting styles.)
The “Everyone’s A Winner” syndrome is rampant in sports and schools, just to name a few areas. Fearful of branding some children as “winners” and others as “losers,” we have homogenized the playing field, handing out awards and certificates to all kids regardless of performance-level or achievement. I believe this trend began as a well-meaning way to minimize children’s disappointment and raise self esteem. However, I think we’ve taken it too far and it’s starting to backfire. What’s wrong with a little disappointment? And why is not OK to recognize and applaud the best players on a soccer team, for example? The thing is, kids aren’t dumb. They know when they’re being patronized and when grown-ups are being genuine.
“Helicopter Parenting” refers to our hovering over and around our offspring to a fault. These are the parents who fill out their kids’ college applications for them, type their English papers and continue to do their teenagers laundry for them. All done in the name of love and good intentions, of course. Again, guilty as charged. It’s not easy watching your kid struggle. But it is absolutely crucial for their development toward becoming self-sufficient and, yes, resilient adults.
Dealing with disappointment and “failure” must not be viewed as a catastrophe. By shielding our children from all unpleasantness and difficulty, we are setting them up for tough times ahead. Suicide attempts are clearly the extreme, and sadly, there are no easy answers. I hope and pray that the Army and the military as a whole can get to the bottom of this national crisis.