“We make our kids navel-gazing and narcissistic.”

We raise our children to be “mentally disturbed, common senseless, navel-seeing and narcissistic,” warns Serge Dupont, a psychiatrist (UCLouvain), following his recent research on “child religion.”

We cherish our kids, put them on a pedestal, put their interests above everything else. But by doing so, we are hurting them in the long run – “it’s hard to raise such a child” – and the consequences are catastrophic for academics and society as a whole, says psychologist Serge Dupont. Along with her UCLouvain colleagues Isabel Roscomm and Moira Mikolajkak, she warns against the catastrophic unintended consequences of calling it “child religion” and the “educational practice” associated with it.

What exactly do you mean by child worship?

Serge Dupont: For centuries, children have been regarded as inferior animals, filled with sin. They had to be modified so that they became full human beings and freed themselves from their animal nature. The philosopher and educator Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave birth to a radical new method. For him, it is rightly deprived of those who are adults, and children, who are still closely associated with nature, who are innocent and pure. These key qualities should be nurtured. Rousseau’s vision will be sure to be romantic. In the twentieth century, the interest of the child will increasingly be embedded in laws and treaties, think of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, the ban on so-called educational spanking in many countries, the ban on smoking. For the presence of children, or more recently in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, to ban combined punishment in schools. What we call the baby cult involves putting the baby at the center of everything. This worship is expressed in new educational practices. Think about the European recommendations on “positive parenting”: Parents should always listen to their children, starting with their personal interests. At school, teachers are asked to consider the needs of each child as much as possible, to create a safe emotional environment, and so on.

Many will say this progress.

Most clearly, but we think the scales are tipping differently.

How did you come to this observation?

First, children are extremely safe today. For example, far fewer children go to elementary school on foot or by bicycle than in the past. We rely on the research of geographers here, which shows that children disappear from the streets. In addition, it is becoming more and more normal to constantly listen to children and fulfill all their desires. Imagine the adults talking and a child joining them. Today, adults often stop listening to the baby. In the past, adults often ignored the child. One of the ultimate educational practices that emerges from a child’s culture is to reduce demand. Numerous studies show that maintaining discipline, both in the family and at school, disappears in favor of habits described as warm or caring, but that reduces barriers for children.

What are the consequences?

The potential consequences of over-protection are mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. These children are less equipped to face the difficulties of life, because their parents always try to solve all the problems for them and overcome the obstacles. Even in adulthood, longitudinal studies show that they have a much harder time, because they have a much harder time growing up. They blame their own external factors for their failure – it is always the fault of others – and display the characteristics of extreme individualism and narcissism. Which is logical. A child who has been the center of attention since birth will see himself later, in his youth, as the center of the world.

Do you think that more and more young people are experiencing mental health problems related to education?

Over the past 15 years, we have seen an increase in mental health problems among young people, with all indicators related to symptoms of depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and loneliness. This is precisely because our young people were already so fragile that the epidemic hit them so hard. Many studies highlight the harmful effects of social networks. We believe this is a result of a change in parenting style at home and at school, which makes young people unable to cope with the normal testing of life.

Besides, physical health problems also occur as a result of child worship. Children play less outside because they are extra protected. If it rained or cold, your parents would send you to play football. Today, parents say: “You can get sick, stay inside”. We have data from French cardiologists that shows that, compared to 40 years ago, children took one minute longer to run the 600 meters – four minutes instead of three. With the risk of obesity that it induces, for example.

Have you seen results in school?

Effective. The culture of the child manifests itself there by lowering the bar of pure knowledge and discipline. The question of listening to the needs of the child in school. But there is a strong connection between so-called student-centered education – student-centered education – and lower educational attainment.

Of course, causation is always complex, but what is certain is that the proportion of acquiring pure knowledge in the curriculum has decreased. You know that then the ability of students to criticize will also decrease. It is a masterpiece of cognitive psychology: without culture and without knowledge criticism is impossible. I can’t criticize Mark van Ranste, because I know nothing about virology.

But it’s quite possible nowadays, you know.

(Laughter) That’s true, but what you see is, at the educational level, the teacher is given a different role. He needs to step aside and be a facilitator who creates interesting activities, tries to get students interested in something, instead of someone who teaches students in front of the class and emphasizes good material skills. In psychology, we have a lot of data that shows that if a student has to discover his or her own material without teacher intervention, the learning process is disrupted and the gap between privileged and disadvantaged students widens.

For educators, always putting the baby first seems tedious.

Parents and teachers can no longer adapt. We always expect more from them. They have to listen all the time, discuss, establish rules with the children ে in some families, the parents are completely exhausted. We still need to explore this link further, but the cult of the child that leads to parental burn-out – and the number of parental burn-outs in Belgium is very high – seems to us to be a reasonable guess.

You even qualify the religion of the child as a threat to democracy.

The Greeks already knew that in order for democracy to work, you needed enlightened citizens of a critical society who could put the common good first. But child culture creates more people who are far from this ideal of citizenship. People who are not psychologically strong, who lack common culture, who are navel-visionary and narcissistic. These people are much more sensitive to the charlatan and power that seeks to undermine democracy. What we warn in our research paper is that as a result of getting too close to the child, parents and teachers lose the ultimate goal of education, which is to develop children as critical citizens.

What would you recommend? I guess you don’t want to go back to the authoritarian model of education?

In fact, we certainly don’t want to go back to the Victorian era or to the educational practice that we now consider barbaric. We emphasize the importance of a strict and clear structure, which is certainly fair, it is not an arbitrary punishment. But a frame is essential for the healthy growth of a baby. You don’t really have to explain or justify everything. You can just say go to bed now, because that’s how it is. The problem with child worship is that parents are constantly explaining, discussing, discussing.

Are you still speaking out for stricter rules?

Yes, but you have to put this rigid structure together when you need to listen to the will to deviate from it and the will of the child. It’s a matter of balance. We find in developmental psychology, where we conduct long-term studies, that a clear structure and benefits are natural allies. Grace alone plunges the child into perpetual uncertainty. In addition, academics need to take a long-term perspective. The child’s immediate interests, his needs and his aspirations of the moment are not necessarily in the interests of future adults or society. So parents and teachers should not be given all the time. Especially since our future adults have to face big challenges in terms of society and climate. So we have to think carefully: what kind of citizen do we want? The same goes for school. We must set high standards. Knowledge is essential. Requires an intellectual background. And clear rules.

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