Mollycoddling parents are limiting their children's academic potential by making them less resilient to adversity, according to one of Scotland's leading experts on confidence and well-being, Carol Craig.
Teachers and heads, particularly those working in middle-class, "leafy" areas, were reporting queues of parents complaining of teacher cruelty if their child did not get the lead part in the school pantomime, she told a conference of headteachers in North Ayrshire last week.
Parents were increasingly likely to lodge complaints along the lines of: "My son failed this maths test - you should not be doing tests because they are bad for his self-esteem", or "My daughter has fallen out with her friends - she is being bullied. She is an angel, by the way."
Parents had got it into their heads that their children had to be protected from a bad day or a bad experience because it was damaging their self-esteem, said Dr Craig, director of the Glasgow-based Centre for Confidence and Well-being.
By adopting an over-protective approach, parents were "in danger of weakening young people's resilience by protecting them from adversity in life", she warned.
One delegate commented on what seemed to be a growing trend: because parents wanted their children to be happy, they did not want them to be stressed by doing five Highers.
But Dr Craig said happiness was a complex issue, and evidence from the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme suggested young people found the "challenge" element the hardest but also the most rewarding.
There was growing evidence across Europe that something had happened about 10 years ago to young people's attitudes to learning, Dr Craig said.
She quoted a sports coach in Scotland who said that a decade ago, boys would arrive at a training session and be desperate to play football; now, they were scared to kick the ball in case they did a "duff" shot or lost face in front of their friends.
"Protecting their ego or concern about how they are seen in the eyes of others is now more important than enjoying football," Dr Craig said. "That's what people in a learning environment are telling me repeatedly - that more kids are saying they can't do things when before they would have tried."
She also warned about the trend - at its worst in the United States, she believes, but a growing problem in the UK - of young people having an unrealistic level of self-esteem, or even narcissistic tendencies.
She recounted the concerns of one of the top US sports coaches. "He is working with a generation of young people who only want to know about their strengths. He told me: `We are not allowed to tell them about their weaknesses. If you do, you might get a letter from their parents saying you are destroying their confidence.' How can you become a top athlete if you don't work on your weaknesses? You can't eliminate that kind of feedback."
Children needed positive and negative feedback, she said, likening the self-esteem movement in the US to the practice in some schools where competition is discouraged and "everyone gets certificates".
The danger of this approach - "that you don't want some people to shine if it's at the expense of other people feeling bad about themselves" - risked weakening academic standards, she claimed.
"Academic results in America have plummeted. They spend a lot of money on education and care passionately about it, but their Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores have plummeted," Dr Craig said. "Just about anyone who went from Scotland to America would be top of the class there, so dumbed down is their education system."
Critics of the US drive to raise children's self-esteem had argued that if you asked young Americans to rate their performance in maths, they would place themselves "top of the league". But if you asked them to do a maths problem, they would be bottom of the league. Meanwhile, Korean students rated themselves as poor but performed very well.
"The Americans are now excelling at remedial education when kids go to university," she said.
Dr Craig blamed "celebrity culture" for fuelling the idea that the most important thing in life was "how you are seen by other people".
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Granny knows best
The antidote to the preoccupation with esteem, Carol Craig suggested, could be found in the work on "mindset" by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, whose ideas (TESS, September 18, 2009) had influenced Glasgow educational psychologist Alan McLean in his research on the "motivated school".
Young people who had a "fixed mindset" and believed they were born with fixed abilities tended not to try things that might push them to their limits; others, with a "growth mindset", believed that they could get better at anything with motivation, good teaching and hard work - and often did better than those with more natural ability but a fixed mindset.
"People with a fixed mindset believe failure is terrible because it is showing to the world that you can't do it, so you are better not to try than to try and fail," Dr Craig said.
Academic attainment was not the "be-all and end-all", she argued. She cared more about well-being than academic attainment, but "there is a very good reason to believe we will also compromise the well-being of our young people with the self-esteem agenda", she warned.
"Our grannies were right - you are not the centre of the universe. There is a better way to live your life than to believe you are," she added.
Original paper headline: Over-protective parents stifle pupils' potential, claims expert