Stay Together For the Kids
Get ready for free-range kids. It turns out a lot of the trends in the colleges and universities can be traced back to parenting. In The Coddling of the American Mind, three of the six factors Lukianoff and Haidt identify have to do with parenting; paranoid parenting, the decline of play, and the bureaucracy of safetyism. There’s a common theme running underneath each of these factors, the end goal of raising kids.
In the opening section on the three great untruths, the authors identified the extremely common belief that what doesn’t kill you might actually make you weaker. They go on to explain what is probably one of the top two to three takeaways from the entire book, the principle of antifragility. Borrowing from Nassim Taleb’s book of that name, they explain that human beings need to face adversity in order to develop properly. Of course, there are potential dangers that can forever stunt your growth, but there are fewer than you think and in 21st century America, they’re on the decline.
Take for example, the lack of free play among kids. Sometime in the recent past, everyone became convinced that children who don’t have adult supervision will be kidnapped. Now, the last thing I want to do is shame any parent worried about their child getting kidnapped. Obviously, that’s one of every parent’s worst fears. But the point the authors make is worth thinking through: it’s not about kidnapping. What parents have done to avoid potentially dangerous situations has created another dangerous situation. When kids are developing, they need to practice being independent. This requires spaces in which the kids are relatively safe but there’s no adult present to step in.
In the age of bullying, this can be a really daunting prospect. Some of the risk can be mitigated by thinking through habits and relationships to cultivate that allow kids to individuate and also express their concerns when something goes wrong. This is really hard stuff, and I don’t claim to be an expert. For an example of some people who I think have thought through these issues really well, check out The Collapse of Parenting by Leonard Sax and Be The Parent Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat by Naomi Schaefer Riley.
This section of the book is less about specific parenting advice, though, and more about the way we develop. This is really interesting; Haidt and Lukianoff explain that the human brain is wired in a way that it predicts thousands of hours worth of trial and error time in order to develop. There are these proto-concepts in the brain that do not come fully formed, but need hours of data input to work out. It’s like the brain was meant for apprenticeship, and there are some things you can only learn by experience.
It’s easy to see this if you’ve ever stepped back and just watched kids play. it’s pretty funny when you really think about it. What is playing? It’s silliness. One of the psychologists they quote put it really well: play consists of “the expenditure of great energy with apparently pointless risk.” That’s pretty much right. You can see this in rough and tumble play. There's’ nothing kids love more. But, why? Because even though they don’t know it at the time, their brain is working double time while they’re wrestling around on the floor. If you’ve ever listened to Jordan Peterson, you know this; he talks about it all the time. When kids roughhouse and wrestle, they’re learning where the limits are, growing in their knowledge of their own abilities, exploring social norms, and these pathways they’re creating are indispensable in the long run.
All of this comes together around the idea of antifragility. Kids have to overcome some obstacles in order to fully mature. Where this really comes into focus is the college campus. In the closing section of the chapter titled, “The Bureaucracy of Safetyism,” Haidt and Lukianoff bring up two opposites, dignity culture and victimhood culture. What we’re seeing at elite American universities and beyond is a victimhood culture, and that comes from a lack of dignity. They explain, “Perspective is a key element of a dignity culture; people don’t view disagreements, unintentional slights, or even direct insults as threats to their dignity that must always be met with a response” (210).
As democracy requires a level of morality, universities require a level of maturity to operate effectively. The same criticism can be leveled against fraternity hazing incidents and activist groups holding university representative hostage to their demands; there’s a lack of requisite maturity present. What I think Haidt and Lukianoff are arguing is that this maturity is reached through giving kids free range at the appropriate times, encouraging and facilitating hard play, and keeping the goal of antifragility in mind.
There’s another thing the authors make clear about raising kids. Statistically, there are three things that make the biggest difference in how kids turn out: the people who do best, on the whole, are born into a family where the parents are married, they graduate from high school, and they don’t have any kids until they are married. David Bahnsen’s book, Crisis of Responsibility, makes this even more clear. The top echelon of society knows this, but they're hesitant to say it. Bahnsen calls for them to “preach what they practice.” This is extremely unpopular to say, but it’s undeniably true. Why? For one, saying this is the goal feels exclusive to those whose lives do not follow this pattern. That’s a legitimate feeling. If you interpret these stats to say that if you don’t do these three things you’ll ruin your life and the lives of your kids, then, of course, you’ll be upset. But that’s not how statistics work, and that’s not how societal ideals work.
The point is, there are certain patterns that have significant effects, not just on individual children, but on the entirety of society. It turns out that the loving embrace of an intact family is a good thing! That doesn’t mean that if you don’t have that you won’t turn out well or that if you are a single parent your child is doomed. But the reverse is also true - it’s important how we organize society collectively. If you step back from the loggerheads for a moment, it makes you thankful for redemption. There is a kind of synthetic second chance in society, and it often has more to do with what class you find yourself in than what you deserve, but there is no such thing as redemption.
In Ephesians 6:4, when Paul tells fathers to bring their children up in the knowledge and instruction of the Lord, there’s a sigh of relief in knowing you can start right now. The Ephesians weren’t previously doing that, but Paul urged them to start where they were. This is the correlate of gospel truth in every area: what you’ve done so far is never the final word. The same is true in parenting.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
Like the content? Support the site and get more at patreon.com/sowespeak!