My birthday gift from daughter Talia was a book titled: “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It is excellent. The two authors hit every nail straight on the head as they examine disturbing new trends in American culture, most made with good intentions but with disastrous results. (Indeed, the subtitle is: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”) From the way hand sanitizers subvert building a strong and healthy immune system to university policy’s designed to protect students from controversial ideas, this is a thorough examination of what is not working, why it happened and how we might turn it around.
Amidst dozens of important insights, this paragraph struck me:
There are two very different ways to damage children’s development. One is to neglect and underprotect them, exposing them to severe and chronic adversity. The other is to overmoniter and overprotect them, denying them the thousands of small challenges, risks and adversities that they need to face on their own in order to become strong and resilient adults.
Amen to both. In the first instance, we mindlessly allow them full freedom with screens that are addicting them earlier and earlier and robbing them of needed physical and social play. We allow the NRA to continue their strong-armed lobbying to put assault weapons in the hands of youth who enter schools. We allow advertisers full freedom to get into the heads of vulnerable young children to addict them to harmful products like fast food. Underprotection is rampant.
Our solution? Overprotect them, keep them away from “dangerous” playgrounds, replace free play with adult-organized play complete with sponsor’s T-shirts, schedules and screaming parents on the sidelines, ban peanuts from schools and so on.
In their chapter “The Decline of Play,” the authors affirm that our genes give us a first draft of a blueprint for survival and then turn over the work to experience, the things we need in any particular environment to both survive and thrive. As noted:
“…the brain expects the child to engage in thousands of hours of play—including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion—in order to develop. Children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults.”
I’m amongst the guilty in telling kids climbing trees “Be careful!”, monitoring their conflicts, wondering how my school and I have failed when kids exclude each other or are mean to their classmates. And though there are times when adult help and intervention is needed, I’m beginning to see how it weakens kids’ abilities to handle their own conflicts, grow some resilience, strengthen their social immune systems. In my new book, I have a section BE SAFE/ TAKE RISKS. I do want my class to be a bully-free and emotionally safe space and at the same time, give kids lots of opportunities to take risks, experience power dynamics when making things up in small groups, face the challenge of difficult music kicking their butt alongside the realization, “I can do it!” It’s an ongoing conversation.
Meanwhile, I looked at the list and thought about my own life of “falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals…” Some as recently as last week. It’s good to remember that this is what we signed up for in this human incarnation and the challenge is not to avoid them, but learn how to negotiate them and grow stronger through them. Though I would never choose that any of the above to happen, I indeed must thank all my enemies because every time they slammed the door in my face, another door opened. If any wisdom is coming with age, it’s learning not to react with such astonishment and outrage (though often justified), but feel confident that I’ll get through it and it will lead me to someplace equally interesting.