Teacups: lovely, fragile things to be handled with care. The word is also used to describe some toy dog breeds of the Paris Hilton handbag variety—presumably because they’re almost small enough to fit in one. And, more recently, I discovered, it’s being applied to people, specifically members of the current generation of adolescents and young people who may be growing up a little too fragile—too sensitive, if you like—for their own good.
Of course, every grown generation criticizes the next one, just as every younger generation criticizes its parents and tries to rebel and break free. Or does it? Part of the teacup kids’ problem, it appears, may stem from the fact that their understanding, reasonable, best-friend parents have never given them anything to criticize or rebel against—unless it’s the fact that they’re ever-present. They’re the opposite of those other ever-present parents, the Tiger Moms—the ones for whom a B+ might as well be an F. No, these are the self-esteem worriers for whom every finger painting exactly like the last one deserves a “Good job!”
All above average
If you’ve ever listened to Garrison Keillor’s public radio program A Prairie Home Companion (and even if you haven’t), you may know that when he winds up each week’s show with weirdly compelling fake anecdotes about his (fictional) hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, he describes it as a place where all the men are strong, all the women are good-looking and “all the children are above average.” He’s been saying that for 20 years, or however long the show’s been going, and of course it’s a nice little joke. It appears, though, that recently it may have become rather less of a joke—and not confined to Lake Wobegon, either.
It seems that these always-above-average teacup children may be the offspring of another relatively recent trend, “helicopter parents”—those intense moms and dads who hover over their children, never letting them slip out of sight or make a decision, however tiny, on their own, intervening on their behalf with teachers, coaches, bullies, other children’s parents and anyone else who the kids might have to interact with. Protecting, nurturing, prodding and overseeing their children is their second job. And the result, apparently, can be the teacup child, perfect—but oh, so fragile.
The teacup rule
Since I encountered this expression, thanks to the ever-terrific site wordspy, I’ve been having that experience of seeing examples of it, or ideas related to it, everywhere: an article by Lori Gottlieb in the Atlantic called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” in which Gottlieb, who’s a therapist as well as a writer, describes how she’s now seeing patients in their 20s and early 30s who “suffered from depression and anxiety, had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.” But where, Gottlieb asks, “was the distracted father? The critical mother? The abandoning, devaluing or chaotic caregivers?” They didn’t exist; these kids’ problem, it turned out, may be the opposite. “Was it possible,” she continues, “that these parents had done too much?”
Then there’s a blog post on “Law School Lessons: the Teacup Rule,” by a frighteningly productive New York City criminal defense lawyer named Scott Greenfield (he seems to post about 100 times a month), where he takes issue with a law-school professor’s blogged list of things he wished he’d known before he started teaching, specifically that “It’s easy to lose sight of how fragile student egos can be…. Student anxiety/sensitivity is an inevitable factor in the classroom and one that requires delicate management…. I make a big effort to stress when a student has hit the right answer to a question, and correlatively try to find the kernel of value in even off-base student constructions.”
Whatever happened to blistering John Houseman in The Paper Chase, which was practically required viewing when I went to graduate school, even though I certainly wasn’t studying law? Is this the new face of the Socratic method? Greenfield calls the new regime the Teacup Rule, and ascribes its existence to fear of the reviews that students post about professors after a course. He also thinks it’s terrible training for a lawyer. “People’s lives rest in our hands,” he says, “and yet law profs coddle students for fear their fragile egos might crack. If they can’t handle a decent humiliation in a class with similarly fragile, yet empathetic law students, however will they survive a vicious thrashing in court before their client?”
The next thing I came across was in this morning’s New York Times: a piece by John Tierney (full disclosure: not usually my favorite writer, being a somewhat kneejerk libertarian) on playgrounds. Apparently all those railings and rubber matting and slides that start level with parents’ heads that they’re equipped with now may be… too safe. “Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” a Norwegian psychology professor tells Tierney. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great… these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.” Reading that brought back a sudden vivid memory of the first few times I dared to go up on the big slide at my London playground in the 1960s, which seemed like a skyscraper when you were at the bottom and like the high diving board at a swimming pool when you were at the top. But you couldn’t go back, however terrifying it was, because the steps behind you were clogged with other children dying for their turn. So you had to sit down, push off and go, and of course it was fantastic and you flew and when you got to the bottom all you wanted was to go back and do it again. When things are too safe, the experts told Tierney, kids may actually be more likely to be anxious and fearful. The dangers of exploring speed and heights seem “to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.”
Essentially, the message of all of these stories is that a life that’s too cushioned, literally or metaphorically, doesn’t prepare kids for difficulty. If you’ve never seen any kind of problem before, you don’t know how to go about solving one. And if you aren’t able to tackle and control problems you encounter, you feel powerless and anxious. In her Atlantic article, Lori Gottlieb talks to another psychologist, Dan Kindlon, author of a book about raising children “in an indulgent age.” “’If kids can’t experience painful feelings,’” he told her, “’they won’t develop psychological immunity. It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops. You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get into the school play or make the cut for the baseball team.’”
I’m a parent; I’ve tried hard to bring up resourceful, independent kids. And yet at least one of my three is an over-sensitive plant who struggles with living and working in the real world and falls apart all too easily when I try to confront her with the reality she needs to face in order to make it—and I’m talking here just about getting on with life in an ordinary way, not about being a major success. Nearly every day I debate whether I’ve coddled her, spoiled her, let her avoid dealing with even ordinary issues. She’s in her early 20s, not a kid anymore. I hope she’s not a teacup. But it’s going to take a few more sessions in the dishwasher of life before either of us knows if she can get through without cracking.—TAMARA GLENNY