Implausible Wimps: A Reply to Hara Marano
By Bryan Caplan
I’m not a big fan of Hara Marano‘s A Nation of Wimps. While I agree that overparenting is silly, I recently complained that she “implausibly claim[s] that overparenting does long-term harm to children by infantilizing them.” Marano kindly responds in the comments:
as the author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive
Parenting, i want to register my surprise at your comments about my
book. i draw on a body of social science…directly relevant
studies…to link overprotection with the lack of coping skills and
psychological fragility of overprotected kids. the claim is not, as you
allege, “implausible.” it is highly credible, supported by numerous
It’s true that Marano cites many studies. But as far as I can tell, none of them even try to deal with the central problem of family resemblance: It can result from nature, nurture, or a mixture of the two. If you see that wimpier kids have more protective parents, this might show that protectiveness causes wimpiness. On the other hand, it could show that the inherited trait of anxiety makes parents protective and kids wimpy.
How can you weigh these competing hypotheses? The standard methods are to study twins or adoptees. And according to a full Amazon search of A Nation of Wimps, neither twin nor adoption research appears anywhere in the book. Marano cites a lot of studies, but alas, they’re all genetically uninformative.
Now you could say I’m being picky. So what if there’s one conceivable flaw in all of the research on protectiveness and wimpiness? No empirical work is perfect. My reply: The hereditary hypothesis isn’t just conceivably true. It is presumptively true. A massive twin and adoption literature on personality finds that family environment has little or no effect on personality. See John Loehlin‘s thorough literature review on personality, heredity, and family environment in Unequal Chances. So my complaint isn’t just that Marano’s case isn’t airtight; my complaint is that she doesn’t even try to rebut the hereditarian presumption long-established in personality psychology.
Marano also presents a lot of evidence that “college kids were becoming increasingly psychologically fragile and
breaking down in record numbers when they left the protective cocoon of
home for campus.” This doesn’t show that protective parenting is the cause, but doesn’t it at least demonstrate the reality of a wimpiness problem?
Again, I’m not convinced. People today consume a lot more of almost every kind of “mental health service” than they used to. The best explanation isn’t a “mental illness epidemic,” but (a) looser definitions of “mental illness” plus (b) reduced stigma against seeking treatment. Fifty years ago, we told wimpy college students to toughen up, so they largely kept their complaints to themselves. Now we send them to counseling, so they pipe up. When you ask their counselors if they need more resources to deal with the “crisis,” you can guess how they answer.
When I picked up Marano’s book, I wanted to like it. I did find good bits and pieces. But despite her efforts, she doesn’t show that we’re facing a wimpiness epidemic, much less that bad parenting is to blame.