December 19, 2023

Author of “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #123

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. Hara highlights the challenges of overprotective parenting and its correlation with managerial struggles. She emphasizes the importance of embracing challenges and viewing failure as a crucial part of personal growth and will overall benefit the future of work.

Hara argues for the need to provide diverse experiences for young people, addressing what she calls an “experience deficit disorder.” Her perspective underscores the broader impact of invasive parenting on how managers are able to motivate and inspire their workers. Hara also expresses how failure is important at all ages. She says without failure, we will never be able to evolve.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Hara shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Evolution requires challenge.”
  •  “You don’t change if you’re very comfortable doing what you’re doing.”
  • “People are happiest when they’re striving to reach a goal.”

Sam Caucci: For background, you know, I was given your book by a friend who was a teacher at a university. And in all honesty, when she first sent it to me, I was kind of offended. I was wondering if she was trying to send me a message based off the title. But Hara, I’d love to, maybe you can open us up by sharing some background on, maybe not just yourself, but what made you write A Nation of Wimps?

Hara Estroff Marano: I didn’t plan to write A Nation of Wimps. I was at Psychology Today, I was putting out a newsletter on depression for Psychology Today, in addition to working on the magazine, and I got wind of the fact that there was a one sentence article in the Chronicle of Higher Education,  something to the effect that there were rising rates of anxiety on college campuses, just 1 sentence. And being in New York and having just fledged 2 sons into the world, I thought “Oh, I’m sure I know why there are higher rates of anxiety in the Northeast. It’s all that pressure to get into Harvard.” 

So I did what any responsible reporter would do. I called Harvard. And I directed my call to the head of the Campus Counseling Center, who happened to be the head of the Student Health Center, also the Mental Health Center. 

And I spoke to him and I said I understand that rates of anxiety are rising. My hypothesis is that this is a phenomenon of kids in the Northeast all going to private school and trying to get into Harvard. And he quickly corrected me and told me that “No, this is a national phenomenon. It’s been happening for a couple of years.” And I asked him  what every journalist knows to ask is, how do you know what you know? 

And so I said to him, “Well, how do you know that this is happening all over the country?” And he said,  “I’m on a listserv of campus counseling center directors.” And that was in my notes.  But he assured me that this was a universal phenomenon in all of North America.  It later turns out to be even wider than that.

But when I got off the phone, I was looking at my notes and I saw that he said he  was on a listserv. I called him back and I said,  Can I ask you a question on your listserv? And the answers can come to me. Just one question.  I woke up the next morning and 500 emails told me the same thing.  Why were kids showing more anxiety and depression, which are kind of two faces of one coin. 

And that became a very rich goldmine of information. And what I did was, so this was in 2002, early 2002, and I devoted an issue of my newsletter to “Crisis On the Campus”. It made national headlines. Rising rates of psychological problems, serious psychological problems among students, not just I’m homesick. I don’t like my roommate.

But in the beginning of really serious disorders. And I explored that. I thought thoroughly.  And then in 2004, I decided to go back  and I discovered, went back to all my sources discovered that the rates were rising very quickly and the symptoms people were showing were even more serious, like self harm and rates of suicide, serious depression were really rising and of dramatic concern to people. 

And then I  began asking why, and I got the same answer from absolutely everybody.  This cohort is very different. They come to school with no coping skills. Their parents have pushed them to get into some brand name college.  And in the course of doing so, they’ve taken all the lumps and bumps out of life for them, so that they will just be able to achieve very quickly and very easily. 

And no one realized, of course, what the downside of that is.  And the downside became my book. And I didn’t plan to do the book. I was just besieged by offers to do it. And you know, to answer the question,  why is this happening and why is it happening now? 

Sam: What was the initial reaction? The book came out, I believe in 2008, what was the initial wave of reaction from folks when you were talking about it? 

Hara: Well, something interesting happened before that.  So the art, I initially wrote an article on Psychology Today, came out at the end of 2004.  And that article was called the Nation of Wimps.

And immediately, just immediately, I was inundated with offers to speak. And the first place I was asked to speak was at Notre Dame University. I was the featured speaker on faculty day.  And that to me was the revelation because I heard from so many people on the faculty.  The  Deputy, the Dean of the Mendoza Business School wrote me a nine page letter telling me what was different about the students and how rapidly it had changed and the students needing to know all the answers in advance there was no tolerance for uncertainty, it showed up in many, many ways.

Parents called. Parents were constantly intervening. But the most interesting thing, the first person to ask me a question when I finished was the Head of Athletics at Notre Dame. Now, can you think of anyone closer to God, then the Athletic Director at Notre Dame?

And this was a theme that I heard constantly from coaches. Coaches became like my first audience because of working closely with students and the results of their decisions being immediate, “Does my kid play or not play in the next game?” They were getting a lot of interference from parents. They could see changes in the nature of the kids and the emotional composition of the kids.

And they were also suddenly being inundated with calls from parents. So the athletic director at Notre Dame told me something that I wound up passing on every time I went to a school and teachers would pull me aside and ask me for any hints, what can we do to stem this epidemic? In asking me a question, he also told me that how he dealt with this intrusiveness of parents was that he literally told every student, “If I get a call from a parent, you’re benched for the next game.” 

That’s a pretty effective way of handling things. I don’t think that other professors would have the leeway to do that. I think they would be benched by the university. That’s another thing that has happened. So these are all kids being turned out into the workforce, and they’ve been  protected. 

People have argued on their behalf when they don’t get something. When they get something they don’t like, when they get an evaluation they don’t like, when they get a grade they don’t like it isn’t something that they internalize. It isn’t something where they say, oh, my, I need to do better work.

Where are my strengths? Where are my weaknesses? It’s no, I’ll have my parents call and get my grade changed.  I mean, that would have been totally unheard of, not only in my cohort,  but my kids’. I mean, it would just be unthinkable. But we have now 20 years of this. And they’re being fed into the workforce. And I’m sure you’ve seen them, I’ve seen them, and it’s really quite stunning.

Their fragility has all kinds of implications, and not just for the workforce, but for democracy,  because you have to be a very self coherent, self functioning, self directing person able to make up your mind in order to carry out the most basic task of democracy, which is to vote.  So there are implications all up and down the line for this.  

Sam: What do you think about today when you hear, you know, for the last three years with COVID, you had great resignation you know, then they have I lose track of all the sayings. ‘quiet quitting’–

Hara: Quiet quitting.

Sam: ‘Thought slots.’ Now the new one is ‘quiet hiring’, I heard. I guess, is there a connection between these trends and, you know, over the last, you know, two decades? How do you think about it?  

Hara: Well, I think to some degree there is certainly some resonance with quiet quitting. Because to some degree, it reflects indecisiveness. To some degree, it’s not making a move, but just doing the minimal amount of work to stay where you are to protect yourself. 

I’m doing the minimal amount of work.  Number 1, there’s a lack of commitment in there. That’s very much characteristic of these people of this generation, given this kind of upbringing. I do want to qualify it and say that this is not true of 100 percent of the cohort. This is what I’m talking about is largely a phenomenon of the  middle and upper middle and upper class that the segment of society that knows that it’s kids are going to go to college that knows from even before birth, because getting into college is the focus of their push and of their anxieties. 

And that’s where it mainly shows up. And because the college, a brand name college, becomes  important it’s sort of a marketable brand that somehow certifies you to be of use and to be marketable in the job market.  So I want to make it clear that there are segments of society that are not over-parented.  

I wish the parents who over-parent would kind of spread out their parenting and deliver some of it to the kids whose parents are much too busy trying to make a living and struggling to make a living and equalize things a bit.  

Sam: I think about your managers today in the workforce who are hiring young people out of college and I know speaking for me and my business 15 years ago, hiring a young person out of a university into an internship program and always worked with sales teams.

So, you know, a young person coming into a sales role and earning commission and. Growing through in a performance environment. It has become increasingly more difficult to find. And it’s not a skill, I don’t believe it’s necessarily a skill  problem, but it’s become increasingly difficult to find young people at the same age with the drivers and the motivation necessary to approach that task the right way.

And I wonder, I guess, what can I do as a coach? What can managers, coaches that are responsible for  onboarding and trying, what can they do other, you know, given these experiences that they can’t go back in time and adjust? 

Hara: No, they can’t. So, I mean, there are several things that they can do and one is where they look  in the hiring pool.

And I’ll tell you a great conversation I had.  I was on a plane going out to Los Angeles to give a talk. And seated next to me was a woman who was a senior VP at Goldman Sachs. No, I don’t know a parent who wouldn’t give their left arm to have their kid hired out of college, you know, like Goldman Sachs.

And she asked me what I was doing, what was I going to be talking about in L.A. And I told her, and she said, “Oh my god, she said, I am not a parent, but I hire lots of kids.” And she said, and this is exactly how she said it. She said, “I will not hire any more ‘fancy kids’.” Air quotes around fancy kids.

Meaning the kids coming from privileged backgrounds and private schools. She said, I will hire only the kids first generation immigrants because they’ve never had anyone running interference for them. They can problem solve. They can function on their own.  That was an eye opener for me.  So that’s one thing.

Where do you look to hire? And it turns out that there are colleges in New York City that predominantly serve that 1st gen  of college students. And I learned from one of them, Baruch College, that they have an extraordinarily high rate of the kids being hired into these firms for precisely the reason that I mentioned, and that senior VP clued me into.

So, number one is where you look to hire.  No, you may have to teach those kids some of the cultural skills but those are remediable very quickly, remediable. And those kids are smart. They catch on very quickly. So you might have to teach them which fork to use when they’re going to a very fancy awards dinner or something. 

But the kids who were emotionally fragile.  They’re a lot harder to manage and deal with because you can’t give them feedback. You can’t give them direct feedback. That’s something that they really can’t take, nor are they as resilient and flexible as people need to be in this work economy.

So one of the things that managers can do is establish– anyone who’s managed anyone in this generation knows that they need constant, constant, constant feedback.  There’s so much uncertainty about themselves. About how good they are, how well they’re doing. And they can’t read any signals.  That they need constant reassurance.

It’s terribly demanding of managers. Takes up a great deal of time. So I think the one thing managers can do is that they hire from, um, that pool of kids. They can establish a relationship in the beginning. Hey, look, you know, what do you need from me? Here’s the way I work.  I can’t stop to give feedback every 10 minutes.

But if you’re not hearing anything negative from me, you can assume that everything is on track. Otherwise, you have these kids sitting there paralyzed with anxiety and inability to work and certainly detracting from their productivity. So that becomes an important tool.  

Sam: Yeah. The communication one is very valid. Learning to it , I grew up  from South Florida and I grew up in an environment playing high school football and said, the coaches never led with why. They explained it later when they told you to do something,  never asked why.  And I talked to my, you know, I go, always go home to Miami and I always go and have lunch with, you know, coach, like always go back and see coach once a year and, you know, he’s at the end of his career and he made the comment.

You cannot, you know, he goes, “We’d probably be put in prison for the stuff we did to you, to you all.” And he talks about, you have to, he continued to win championships with young people and on top of not allowing parents anywhere near the field on practice, to your earlier point, he talked a lot about how you had to adjust your communication style and had to lead with why and be okay with it and tell people why this drill makes sense and why you’re asking them to do it.

And that was it. Some coaches, you know, some coaches retired, they wouldn’t make that change. Some have adjusted and still been successful. 

Hara: Yeah, I mean as I said, the coaches have been almost the point people. They were certainly my first fans. I mean, I heard from them utterly immediately.

And we’re talking Head Coach at Yale Assistant Director of Athletics at Yale at Notre Dame.  I heard from people the need for reassurance that these kids,  I say keep saying kids, but these young people are very hard for managers to deal with and I think they have to set the boundary right at the beginning. 

Otherwise they’re going to find a real lack of productivity and this definitely uncertainty that will be paralyzing the reports. So their direct reports. 

Sam: The other thing I had written down that I kind of took a look at from another vantage point was  just like hiring managers are trying to avoid the fancy kids or avoid the candidates who came from an environment they know won’t work for them. I  feel like,  from the point of view of the first generation immigrant, or the student, the young person that came from the right environment, they’ve got to avoid the invasive HR people who are also invasive parents, who are also afraid of some of the things you talk about in this book, like not being afraid of failure and challenging and using play and struggle being important to learning,  that’s not a common–

I mean, there’s a lot of HR teams that are deathly afraid of failure and challenge and making people uncomfortable.  So I don’t know what you think about that. But I thought about you know, for a lot of people who want to make sure they work in the right organization, they have to almost keep a look out for the managers or HR people who aren’t a good fit for them either. 

Hara: Yeah, you know, challenge is a basic principle of life. First of all, evolution requires challenge. I mean, you don’t change if you’re very comfortable doing what you’re doing. Your environment changes, there’s a challenge, you need to meet it. This is how life evolved on Earth. By challenge and adaptation to the challenge.

Rising to meet the challenge in some way.  Most of us don’t perform very well, unless we’re given a challenge. And then we summon our resources because including all of these, we have an inner desire to do well, it’s part of the way we see ourselves, or because we want to please someone, and we want others to think well of us. 

So a challenge is absolutely necessary. People perform well when challenged.  If you remember your favorite you Professors and teachers in school, they weren’t the easy graders. They were the ones who challenged you the most. So it’s always really important to remember that. And it may be hard for managers to find that exact sweet spot of challenge. 

But it’s very important to challenge people, and there are several benefits of doing so. So, when people are challenged and they’re focused on a goal, number one first of all, people are happiest when they’re striving to reach a goal. Number 2. This is a generation that is so self focused. It’s pathetic when you’re dealing with a challenge and focused on a goal, you’re not self absorbed.

So, in a sense, not only are you getting them to contribute to the organization, but you’re making them happier in themselves. They may not realize it right away, but it’s them taking their eyes off themselves, giving themselves some relief.  

Sam: I think about all the stories that my best teachers and coaches taught me when I was growing up. And I’ve said to people, it’s almost like when you use these, I feel silly at times using some of these stories that feel like everybody should know them. Or these motivational, or these quotes, or these concepts around being a team.  But, you know, I think it’s true. Given technology, given the upbringing, given the moment, we, you know, you said, get your eyes off yourself.

Some of those stories or concepts are, it’s like you just, you know, reinvented something never seen before. And, um, people want to be,  people want to be a part of a team if you create the right environment for them to be a part of it. That’s great. Our last question. I appreciate you being so gracious with your time. And we’re talking a little bit about future of work. 

My final question for you is what is your hope for the future of work?

Hara: Wow. Well, like a whole lot of other people, I’m interested in AI, ChatGPT, of course, is somewhere among the top layers of my mind right now. Especially since I’m in the world of writing journalism, reporting and ChatGPT is a big deal.

So what are my concerns? I don’t think the need for people is going to go away. You know, the funny thing is the editor in chief, just the very day that ChatGPT was announced my editor in chief had ChatGPT answer some question for her. Unbeknownst to me that she had done that she showed me that product, and she said to me, “What do you think of this?”

Because we were talking about the topic. I had no idea this was from ChatGPT,  and I read it. And my immediate response was, “This is so anodyne, this is just boring. This is flat. This is, yeah, it’s accurate, but how dull can you get?”  And I think we need to remember that we all respond to personality to flavor and experience your anecdotes.

These are all the human elements that draws in. I think there’s always going to be need for that managers are always going to need to motivate people, and you motivate people with real stories of real people and real experience.  So I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. But I do hope that we can find a balance, and that,  you know, people just don’t get too obsessed and too overwrought with the advent of AI. 

I’m sure it’ll find its place for the routine tasks where it belongs. But I think it’s really increasingly important to have analytic skills to have conversational skills to have managerial skills to have to have really good coping skills to have flexibility and adaptability.

And to be able to sum up information, abstract and express things really well. The need for that is never going to go away in any organization. So I hope that people recognize that and I hope they reward people for that as well. And that would be an achievement if we did that. 

Sam: Hara, thanks for taking time and joining us today.

Hara: Thank you. Take care. 

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Parenting, Helicopter Parenting, Workforce

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

You might also like... View more