The Socialization of Children

Dr. Hurd: I am an avid reader of your Daily Dose of Reason along with your Life’s a Beach column. Since I was in college, I’ve been reading your Living Resources Newsletter and online postings along with the readings of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden.

Lately, I’ve noticed a theme in your blogs in which you mention that parents and children in this generation have a sense of entitlement. I would go further to say that this generation not only has a sense of entitlement, but also no understanding of basic social concepts like self-responsibility, rational thinking, and interpersonal skills.

I believe that the lack of social understanding has a lot to do with the sense of entitlement issue that you mentioned on your blog. I don’t know whether it’s the parents, the outside influences, or the school system that is to blame for this issue, but it is clear that most young people in this generation do not have good social skills. I have also noticed that both the public school and higher education systems do not believe social skills to be an important aspect of learning, when really, it’s as important as the classes that the school system offers.

With this in mind, do you think it is possible to create a program, whether it’s software, online, or in-person counseling, that can either teach children or help parents teach their children basic social skills?

Dr. Hurd replies: Social and interpersonal skills are the product of a thinking, productive and confident human mind. People who feel the most enthused about themselves, about life and the use of their minds are the ones with the most to offer others. Socializing is not an end in itself; you must have something about which to socialize.

It stands to reason that if there’s a decline in the quality and quantity of rational thinking taught to young people, there will be a corresponding decline in the lack of social skills.

Your definition of social skills, provided in your question, goes beyond mere human interaction. You reference self-responsibility and rational thinking. Again, these are things that children must not merely learn, but absorb. They absorb these from a family, a household and a culture dominated by these things. Sadly, the family does not always deliver. Many children, past and present, are born into families where self-responsibility and rational thinking are not dominant traits. When the culture was more rational, and encouraged more self-responsibility than it currently does, young people could at least absorb some rational traits and attitudes from the wider culture outside of their family households. I am hard-pressed to identify where young people could turn today for heroes who practice self-responsibility and rational thinking. The closest they can get is sports — a start, but not enough. To some young people, Obama was (at least initially) a hero, but in practice he has turned out to be just another failed politician, for reasons they probably don’t grasp and would never learn from their public school teachers or welfare state-supporting parents.

Psychologically speaking, perhaps the most toxic thing about today’s culture is the sense of anger and resentment that permeates many people’s households and families, as well as the wider culture. There’s a widespread sense of being ripped off, of not getting what one was promised or what one deserves. Many parents walk around with this attitude, and their children quite understandably absorb it. They will find no leadership whatsoever in their public schools. Public schools are (at best) mediocre institutions of learning which, if they get across any conceptual ideas at all, they’re ones which foster entitlement, security-seeking and worship of government dogmas (such as environmentalism) and government figureheads (such as Obama).

It’s ironic, if true, that public schools are doing a poor job of fostering social and interpersonal skills. Public schools are based on the ideology not just of government and socialist dogma, but (more fundamentally than that) the educational philosophy of group identity over individualism. This is why children are taught in groups and as groups, and that the overriding purpose of public education is to socialize young people. Studies are showing that whatever the drawbacks might be of homeschooling, homeschooled children are far surpassing public school children in terms of academic accomplishment. What’s interesting is that this does not matter to most people. Their reaction is, “Homeschooling doesn’t properly socialize children.” The assumption is that socializing is the most important task of education and yet, as you point out, public schools are putting out children who don’t know how to think, and therefore cannot rationally interact with others.

I know that a lot of people want to blame video games, smart phones and technology more generally on the lack of social skills among young people. Such charges are simply smokescreens so as not to face the truth that parents, educators and — dare I say it? — young people themselves are all making choices which lead to this outcome, not technology. Technology does not make you do anything. You do with technology what your values, ideas and choices direct you to do.

As far as most young people are concerned, they interact just fine with one another. I think the biggest problem with all but the rare exceptions among them is that they’re bored. Calls for “national service” or a restoration of a military draft, while wrongheaded in approach, reflect an observation that young people are bored, preoccupied with themselves in a way that many people consider “selfish” and therefore wrong. I would argue that being interested in oneself, and one’s life, is not a crime and in fact is what makes for the most fulfilled, enlightened and socially responsible people you will find. The issue isn’t that they’re too interested in themselves, but that they’re not interested enough. They don’t know what to do with their minds, because they haven’t been trained.

The extent to which young people are not taught how to think critically, rationally and intelligently is the extent to which they will enter adulthood feeling bored, kind of alienated and lacking in confidence. These emotions are a breeding ground for the entitlement mindset. The less confident you feel, the more you “need” — and at some point, even demand — that others take care of you. They get it from their parents, in that they absorb angry resentment from their parents … not all of them, but probably most of them. If their parents feel, “I’m entitled to what’s mine, and I’m not getting it,” their offspring take it one step further: “I’m entitled to what’s mine, and you had damn well better give it to me.” Today’s generation is operating on the same premise as most of their parents, only they’re more definite and consistent about it. (Hence, their widespread love of Obama, the prince of entitlement.)

To my knowledge, children don’t need a specialized computer or educational program to give them what they’re missing. What they need is a whole rational philosophy of, and approach to, life which they’re not presently getting from most of their teachers, parents and society at large.