Five Canadian psychologists recently published a satirical article about Winnie-the-Pooh titled "Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood." On the surface, say the authors, Pooh appears to be a healthy, well-adjusted bear; but on closer and more expert examination, it becomes clear that he is suffering from multiple infirmities: attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, binge eating and borderline intellectual functioning ("a bear of very little brain").
Piglet displays classic symptoms of generalized anxiety; Rabbit, narcissistic personality syndrome; Owl is emotionally disturbed, which renders him dyslexic. Eeyore has low self-esteem, chronic depression and an inability to enjoy pleasure, a condition know as anhedonia, which the authors refer to as anhe(haw)donia.
The Canadians' diagnostic romp in the Hundred Acre Wood makes a serious point: The propensity of experts to pathologize and medicalize healthy subjects is getting way out of hand.
It is not uncommon to hear that mental or emotional distress afflicts whole segments of the population. In 1990, Carol Gilligan, a developmental psychologist and professor of Gender Studies at Harvard University, announced that America's girls suffer a devastating loss of self-esteem in adolescence. In her words: "As the river of a girl's life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing." (Gilligan asserts it is the "patriarchy" that silences and demoralizes them.)
Gilligan offered little conventional evidence to support her claim of an adolescent-girl crisis, but she quickly attracted powerful allies. Within a very short time, the allegedly fallen state of American girls achieved the status of a national emergency.
Popular writers, electrified by Gilligan's diagnosis, began to see evidence of a girl crisis everywhere. In Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, girls undergo a fiery demise: "Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves . . . they crash and burn." She speaks of America's "girl-poisoning culture."
Later, the crisis talk would turn to boys. On June 4, 1998, McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., the psychiatric teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School, issued a two-page press release announcing the results of a new study on boys. The study, titled "Listening to Boys' Voices," was conducted by Dr. William Pollack, director of the Center for Men at McLean and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard. Pollack's conclusions are sweeping and alarming. He says that even seemingly normal boys are "disconnected," unable to relate to people and unable to express emotions.
Echoing the talk of girls as Ophelias, Pollack refers to American boys as "young Hamlets (who) succumb to an inner state of Denmark." And he urges immediate action on nationwide scale: "(A)s a nation, we must address these boys' pain before it reaches epidemic proportions and severely disrupts our society." News of the boy crisis made it into all the major newspapers; it was the subject of an ABC 20/20 segment. Oprah Winfrey devoted two programs to it.
By using Ophelia and Hamlet as symbols, Gilligan, Pipher, Pollack and a host of colleagues and followers offer a dark and unwholesome portrait of the nation's children. They speak of the urgent need of saving, rescuing, reviving them from the culture. But is the portrait accurate? Do America's children need to be rescued from the ravages of the patriarchal culture? Are our adolescent children helped in any way by the being portrayed as tragically distressed? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no.
The calamities reported by Gilligan, Pollack and Pipher are nonexistent. Their alarming "findings," which are not based on respectable research, were not presented in conventional social-science journals. They were disseminated to the newspapers in press releases and popularized in best-selling books.
Meanwhile, conventional adolescent psychologists who follow the protocols of social-science research find that the vast majority of children are sound and healthy. In 1993, American Psychologist published an article reporting the new consensus among researchers in adolescent development: "It is now known that the majority of adolescents of both genders successfully negotiate this developmental period without any major psychological or emotional disorder, develop a positive sense of personal identity, and manage to forge adaptive peer relationships at the same time they maintain close relationships with their families."
In talking of American children as "Hamlets" and "Ophelias," the crisis writers unfairly stigmatize them as pitiable victims. Pipher speaks of girls as drowning. Pollack's description of American boys follows suit: "Our nation is home to millions of boys who are cast out to sea in separate lifeboats, and they feel they are drowning in isolation, depression, loneliness and despair."
By contrast, here is a description of boys that I find far more accurate and generous: "When I picture to myself a boy of 10 or 12, healthy, strong . . . only pleasant thoughts arise. . . . I see him bright, eager, vigorous . . . completely absorbed in the present, rejoicing in abounding vitality." The latter is from 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It describes most boys whom I have known. And it suggests that boys have not fundamentally changed since the 18th century.
The sensationalist, alarmist portraits not only denigrate our children, they greatly harm them by deflecting attention away from their real needs.
The average girl does not need a self-esteem workshop. The average boy does not need a 12-step program to help him free him from a cultural "straightjacket of masculinity." On the other hand, when we compare American boys and girls to children of other advanced industrial countries, we find them badly undernourished academically: They are markedly less numerate and less literate and less well-informed about the world. This may not be a crisis, but it is not a fabrication; it is a real problem that needs a real solution.
To solve this real problem, we need a powerful dose of common sense, a great deal of evidence-based research on what works, and a firm resolve to resist the temptation to treat healthy kids (or healthy bears) as miserable mental cases.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.