Another Week Ends

1. Over at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert surveyed the latest swath of parenting books, […]

David Zahl / 6.29.12

1. Over at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert surveyed the latest swath of parenting books, asking the question “Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?” Much of the article reiterates what we’ve been hearing with alarming frequency the past couple years, namely that the current “helicopter/snowplow” culture of control is backfiring, royally. It’s an honest if also fairly depressing analysis: the “performancism” epidemic being perpetuated (somewhat out of necessity) by US colleges has filtered down to the preschool level, which, combined with the hangover from the self-esteem movement and incredible advances in technology has created this weird situation where kids grow up extremely fast and not fast enough. The term Kolbert uses is “adultescence”. The irony, of course, is that the current climate of control is characterized by a singular lack of discipline, rather than the other way around. Fascinating:

[American children have] been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call… According to one poll, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.

The notion that we may be raising a generation of kids who can’t, or at least won’t, tie their own shoes has given rise to a new genre of parenting books. Their titles tend to be either dolorous (“The Price of Privilege”) or downright hostile (“The Narcissism Epidemic,” “Mean Moms Rule,” “A Nation of Wimps”). The books are less how-to guides than how-not-to’s: how not to give in to your toddler, how not to intervene whenever your teenager looks bored, how not to spend two hundred thousand dollars on tuition only to find your twenty-something graduate back at home, drinking all your beer.

“Our offspring have simply leveraged our braggadocio, good intentions, and overinvestment,” [Sally] Koslow writes in her new book, “Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest” (Viking). They inhabit “a broad savannah of entitlement that we’ve watered, landscaped, and hired gardeners to maintain.” She recommends letting the grasslands revert to forest: “The best way for a lot of us to show our love would be to learn to un-mother and un-father.”

“Never before have parents been so (mistakenly) convinced that their every move has a ripple effect into their child’s future success,” she writes. Paradoxically, Levine maintains, by working so hard to help our kids we end up holding them back.

“Most parents today were brought up in a culture that put a strong emphasis on being special,” she observes. “Being special takes hard work and can’t be trusted to children. Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more oversight.”

Then again, it’s hard not to spoil your kids, or at least perpetuate the ‘specialness’ thing, when they are this cute.

On a related but far less adorable note, The Times published an interview with anthropologist Anthony Graesch about Hyper-Abundance and the American Home, which includes a number of insights about the role guilt (and busyness) play in the whole mess. A key finding: “a direct relationship between the amount of magnets on refrigerators and the amount of stuff in a household”.

2. Some similar dynamics were explored in a wonderful recent Harvard Magazine article by Isabel Ruane, “Effortless Perfection”, which outlines some of the impossible contradictions at the heart of today’s cultural Law. Theologically speaking, Ms. Ruane describes with remarkable–dare I say perfect!–accuracy how the pursuit of righteousness, with all its self-focus, actually precludes its attainment (and even fosters genuine misery), how failure and weakness are what actually produce the compassion and joy that the Law demands, etc, ht AZ:

Click to enlarge

I arrived at Harvard as a successful student who never slacked off. I liked to think my life well-balanced—I played sports, kept close friends, spent time with my family, and even slept. But as I outwardly checked off markers of a good, happy life, inside, I was all turmoil. That “carefree” lifestyle was a daily struggle, a purposeful act. I was terrified of “not doing everything right.” Schedule, schoolwork, social life, family, fitness, eating, clothes, even demeanor: everything had to be just so. Everyone believed I was happy-go-lucky (except maybe my parents, lone witnesses of biweekly meltdowns), and I was largely happy. But the harder I tried to be perfect, the more my perfectionism became torture.

Harvard values “effortless perfection.” To be admitted, high-school students are supposed be smart and play sports, participate in clubs, lead groups, volunteer, and seem socially competent, too. All the evidence says one cannot be a high-school-cafeteria lingerer and be accepted by Harvard.

But there is a disconnect between the students Harvard admits and this life the College suggests we should lead. And there is a greater contradiction between the College’s implicit endorsement of exploration and its explicit honoring of “success.” Harvard honors its Phi Beta Kappas, its fellowship recipients, its grad-school admits, even its ranks of banking and consulting hirees. And of course it should: these are wonderful achievements. But you cannot spend all your time exploring and lingering if you want to be thus recognized. You cannot slip.

And I guess I’m worried about those people who don’t let themselves slip. Because “slipping” a little was one of the best things that ever happened to me... Before [I started to slip], I had thought not working my hardest selfish. Now I saw it was the other way around. By taking away time from being perfect, I built in time for others.

During the spring, the life of one of my closest Harvard friends ground to a halt. Ironically, she had long been my best model of how to lead a relaxed, carefree, humane, balanced lifestyle. She is someone with whom I’d lingered in dining halls, with whom I whiled away hours on adventures. She seemed to have figured out how to balance doing well and living well, and I envied what I saw as her careless grace. Imagine my shock, then, when a panic attack sent this friend into a days-long stint in the infirmary, revealing a struggle with depression and anxiety about which I’d been almost wholly unaware.

As I made room in my schedule to visit her, help care for her, and be the good friend she needed… I wondered how many of [my fellow] “super-students” were secretly suffering. And, second, I thought about my own letting-go of perfectionism. If I hadn’t done so, I could not have been a good friend to my friend at such a critical time. I would not have had the perspective to help.

3. Time for something a bit more uplifting! An extremely powerful (and really quite funny) instance of grace in practice and the fruit it can bear, ht DL:


4. One of my all-time favorite movies is Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me from 2000. Not only is it about as well written and crafted and acted as could be, but Ken himself plays a clergyman in it (shades of William Inge?), and the clergyman is sympathetic, and–gasp!–even a bit wise. Last year, his follow-up feature, Margaret, finally hit a tiny handful of theaters (in big cities)… and no one saw it. In fact, very few people even knew it was out. The film, which stars Anna Paquin as a teenage girl who deals with the emotional fallout of a horrific event, had been sitting in post-production limbo/hell for close to five years. Well, this past week, The NY Times Magazine sat down with Lonergan and tried to get to the bottom of what happened in their article, “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece”. It’s a tale of woe that touches on issues of art vs. commerce, perfectionism and creativity, as well as contemporary cinema in general. Suffice it to say, I could not be more excited that the film is finally coming out on DVD–in Lonergan’s preferred three-hour cut–on July 10th!

5. Speaking of long films that got buried by studio mismanagement, I finally watched John Carter, and I have to say, it was really pretty wonderful. Not the greatest movie ever, but really quite enjoyable, with a handful of truly amazing scenes. If only Stanton could have made the movie for half the money (which, frankly, seems like it might have been doable) – it probably would have been just as good. Nathan Rabin says basically the same thing over at The A/V Club.

6. In books, Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking certainly looks promising, if perhaps not quite as revolutionary as the author suggests (i.e. doesn’t sound like he’s had much contact with the 12 Steps):


7. A couple of fascinating articles brought to our attention by Andrew Sullivan this week: “Aversion to Therapy: Why Won’t Men Get Help?” from Pacific Standard and a terrific reflection on the, um, peculiarities of Mormonism.

8. A playful and profound meditation by Mark Galli over at Christianity Today about “Mastering the Golf Swing of Life”:

We are in the bad habit of thinking that ethics is a REAL SERIOUS BUSINESS, that our welfare and the welfare of the world depend on its proper execution. Not quite. The gospel is the end of ethics in this sense. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. The welfare of the world is a settled issue. Someone has already won the Masters. The key question for believers is not “What are you going to do to earn God’s blessing, or to attain a good life, or to thank God for all he has done for you, or to make the world a better place?” No, it’s “What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything?”

The wonderful thing about the gospel is that it takes ethics away as duty and gives it back as joy—precisely because we don’t have to do it anymore but get to do it in freedom. We golfers don’t look forward to spending four or five hours on a course hoping that, if we play perfectly, we’ll finally enjoy ourselves. No, we step onto the course with a sense of joy because we already love the game, even though we’re going to fail 97 out of a hundred times over the next few hours! Similarly, we don’t try to live the perfect life because, once we do, then we’ll be able to relax and enjoy life. No, it’s because we now can relax and enjoy life—thanks to grace—that we try to live the perfect life. Ethics is the golf swing of life.

9. A couple of solid worship music links to highlight: Mark Miller offers up a few cuts from his new Grace Upon Grace record on Liberate and our beloved High Street Hymns has a Kickstarter campaign for their new project. Speaking of which, since people so enjoyed the excerpt we posted this week, why not watch the whole doc:



Finally, pre-registration for our Fall Conference in Charlottesville, VA opens on Monday! The theme this time around is “High, Low & In Between: Hope Amidst The Ruins” and for more on what that means, visit the conference site, which is now up. Featured speakers will be RJ Heijmen, Matthew Sitman and Paul Zahl. We’ve already got a slew of great breakout sessions scheduled, on topics ranging from Grace with Daughters (and Sons), The Life and Work of William Faulkner, The Counterintuitive Wisdom of The Twelve Steps, The Beautiful Ugliness of HBO, Ministry to Little Children, and yes, The Music of The Beach Boys, to name a few.

Important: the event starts bright and early on Friday morning, Sept 28th, and ends at 12:30pm the following day. Also, we’ll be sending out the postcard invitations next week. To be sure you receive one, sign up for our mailing list. If you’d like extras for any reason, drop us a line at and we’ll roll them to you:



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8 responses to “Another Week Ends: Spoiled Kids, Harvard Perfectionism, KKKlan Grace, Lonergan’s Lament, Negative Thinking, Mormonism, Golf Ethics, Sorkinisms, and Fall Conference Update”

  1. bls says:

    Thanks for the Lonergan tidbit, and the link to the interview. It happens that “You Can Count on Me” is also one of my all-time films – it’s perfect, and so perfectly true – and I’ve been really looking forward to seeing “Margaret.”

  2. bls says:

    (Ooops. The Times link doesn’t work as is….)

    • David Zahl says:

      Thanks for the heads-up, B. Just fixed it. And very encouraged to know I’m not alone in my love for that film! I’d be interested to see the new play the article mentions, the one about the Great Papal Schism.

      • bls says:

        I haven’t heard of that one – but I was really hoping to see “The Starry Messenger” on B’Way a couple of years ago. It was only there a short while, though, by design – and sort of out of my price range at the time anyway. It got great reviews. (I’m always so surprised that people put so much energy into a play that’s destined only for a short run; I can’t figure that whole concept, myself. I don’t get it.)

        Love Kenneth Lonergan….

  3. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    I can’t get to anything from the Andrew Sullivan links, both of which look like interesting articles.

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