I believe, but cannot prove, that today's children are unintended victims of economic and technological progress.
To be sure, greater wealth and advanced technology offers all of us better lives in many ways. Yet these unstoppable forces seem to have had some disastrous results in how they have been transforming childhood. Even as children's IQs are on a steady march upward over the last century, the last three decades have seen a major drop in children's most basic social and emotional skills—the very abilities that would make them effective workers and leaders, parents and spouses, and members of the community.
Of course there are always individual exceptions—children who grow up to be outstanding human beings. But the Bell Curve for social and emotional abilities seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. The most compelling data comes from a random national sample of more than 3,000 American children ages seven to sixteen—chosen to represent the entire nation—rated by their parents and teachers, adults who know them well. First done in the early 1970s, and then roughly fifteen years later, in the mid-80s, and again in the late 1990s, the results showed a startling decline.
The most precipitous drop occurred between the first and second cohorts: American children were more withdrawn, sulky and unhappy, anxious and depressed, impulsive and unable to concentrate, delinquent and aggressive. Between the early 1970s and the mid-80s, they did more poorly on 42 indicators, better on none. In the late 1990s, scores crept back up a bit, but were nowhere near as high as they had been on the first round, in the early 70s.
That's the data. What I believe, but can't prove, is that this decline is due in large part to economic and technological forces. For one, the ratcheting upward of global competition means that over the last two decades or so each generation of parents has had to work longer to maintain the same standard of living that their own parents had—virtually every family has two working parents today, while 50 years ago the norm was only one. It's not that today's parents love their children any less, but that they have less free time to spend with them than was true in their parents' day.
Increasing mobility means that fewer children live in the same neighborhood as their extended families—and so no longer have surrogate parenting from close relatives. Day care can be excellent, particularly for children of privileged families, but too often means less well-to-do children get too little caring attention in their day.
For the middle class, childhood has become overly organized, a tight schedule of dance or piano lessons and soccer games, children shuttled from one adult-run activity to another. This has eroded the free time in which children can play together on their own, in their own way.
When it comes to learning social and emotional skills, I suspect the lessoning of open time with family, relatives and other children translates into a loss of the very activities that have traditionally allowed the natural transmission of these skills.
Then there's the technological factor. Today's children spend more time than ever in human history alone, staring at a video monitor. That amounts to a natural experiment in childrearing on an unprecedented scale. While this may mean children as adults will be more at ease with their computers, I doubt it does anything but de-skill them when it comes to relating to each other person-to-person.
We know that the prefrontal-limbic neural circuitry crucial for social and emotional abilities is the last part of the human brain to become anatomically mature, not finishing this developmental task until the mid-20s. During that window, children's life abilities become set as neurons come online and are interconnected for better or for worse. A child's experiences dictate how those connections are made.
A smart strategy for helping every child get the right social and emotional skill-building would be to bring such lessons into the classroom rather than leaving it to chance. My hunch, which I can't prove, is that this offers the best way to keep children from paying of modern life for us all.