When my first child was born, a well-meaning but inexperienced relative held her for the first time and spoke over her this wish:
“I hope you never have to do anything hard in your whole life.”
At the time, I instantly felt like I was in that scene from Sleeping Beauty where the bad fairy curses the child and the others struggle to mitigate the damages. Except, I was overreacting, right? My relative’s words weren’t ill-intended. Rather, I felt like I would be called a bad fairy if I were to suggest that there was something wrong with them.
I kept my mouth shut that day but didn’t change my mind. It seemed like an awkward time to speak out about how challenges build character. I was also a brand new mother and understood I probably had a lot to learn about parenting. Still, now that I’ve had a decade of experience under my belt, and especially after reading The Coddling of the American Mind, I am more assured now that my instincts that day were right.
The ideas are:
The authors call these ideas “Great Untruths,” meaning each “contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures)...contradicts modern psychological research on well-being…[and] harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.” (4)
In their conclusion, they rephrase these messages:
“Our argument is ultimately pragmatic, not moralistic: Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of [living these Great Untruths]. That means seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).” (14)
This book is so complex that I’ll probably use material from it in at least one other essay. Please read the book yourself and find the nuggets of wisdom that you can apply to your specific life stage, whether you have kids who are suffering under helicopter parenting, teens who are spending too much time on social media, or college kids who are crippling the right to free speech as they cry for protection.
The authors begin with an evaluation of sweeping changes to childhood that have resulted from increased safety measures and overprotection at the expense of free play and room to develop problem solving skills. For example, they include a fascinating comparison of first grade readiness checklists. The current checklist consists solely of academic skills, whereas in 1979, an evaluation considered gross and fine motor skills, emotional readiness, attention span, communication skills, and whether a child could navigate their neighborhood alone. From what I’ve seen of public schooling through my kids’ experience over the past seven years, the teachers do encourage the kids in most of these areas, though kids need to be nine years old (not six) in order to walk to or from school on their own. Still, the expectations are largely centered around academics, and our kids’ days, by and large, in and out of school, are very structured.
Let me digress to say that this book is not a yearning for yesteryear. The writers acknowledge that progress generally has been a good thing, and they remain optimistic that the strides we’ve taken as a society only bode for a brighter future. Yet, the authors recognize that there are problems with progress, meaning “bad consequences produced by otherwise good social changes.” (13) “We adapt to our new and improved circumstances and then lower the bar for what we count as intolerable levels of discomfort and risk.” (13-14)
One consequence of this is general lack of free play for kids. Children without free play, they warn, “are likely to be less tolerant of risk, and more prone to anxiety disorders.” (193) On the other hand, if children are provided opportunity for it, “[f]ree play helps children develop the skills of cooperation and dispute resolution that are closely related to the “art of association” upon which democracies depend.” (194) (I include that last quote because their later arguments about struggling college students build off of it.)
The writers quote an excerpt from a speech given by Chief Justice John Robets in 2017 at his son’s middle school graduation. He spoke on character, and his words are a thought-provoking counter message to the one I heard said over my daughter:
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend on your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.” (193)
I was assured by now that I didn’t want my daughter to never have to do anything hard for her entire life. Rather, I wanted the opposite for my daughter -- enough struggle to know the pride of her own strength and ingenuity.
Coincidentally, a day or two after I finished reading this book, I had an unexpected opportunity to try out these suggestions. Our day began painstakingly like our new normal -- setting up for a remote learning day and trying to wrangle kids bursting with too much energy. By 10AM we all had had enough, so I took my kids to play at a local forest preserve, hoping they’d get lost in the woods. I’m only sort of kidding because I think they needed as much space from me as I needed from them. And they also didn’t know they couldn’t get that lost -- they could experience the freedom of an adventure, and I was assured to (eventually) find them.
In reality, they were out of my sight for about 30 seconds, and my heart was warmed as I heard one of my sons’ voices carrying through the woods (he can really project),
“Guys, I can’t see Mom. I can’t see Mom!”
So really, I wasn’t being negligent. That is what I’m trying to tell you. You have to know this before you hear the rest of the story.
Shortly after that we bump into some moms and kids we kind of sort of recognize from church, from over a year ago back when we were going into the church building, families who have kids around the same age as my youngest kids, that it so say, mainly a bunch of preschoolers. After talking to the moms for a little bit, my kids and I meandered up a small hill where most of those kids were playing in a teepee constructed from fallen branches. It was clear to my family that those kids had been at it for a while and that they were feeling pretty territorial about a structure they hadn’t built but claimed as their own. It was also clear to me that my kids wanted to play in the teepee. This would take some negotiating.
After asking the kids what they were playing -- “Emperors versus monsters!” -- and asking about everyone’s role, I saw our “in”.
“So it seems like every one of you is an emperor or an empress. Where are the monsters?”
The lead six year old shifted his feet, lowered his stick weapon, and dropped his defiant gaze for a moment before admitting, “We don’t have any.”
I let him wait a second before asking, “Would you like some?”
His face lit up, and, nodding at me, he said, “Yes!”
“Great,” I responded. Then I turned to my own kids who were kicking dirt along the perimeter of the area, as if awaiting entry, and asked them, “Any of you want to be monsters?”
“Yeah!” they all cheered. And amidst whoops of joy and fearless climbs up the external walls of the teepee, the battle began.
At this point you also have to know that I wasn’t putting any other kids in danger. By the time my kids joined the game, the other eight or so kids were armed with substantial sticks but my kids hadn’t had time to find anything for themselves and there was nothing suitable left underfoot. They were going in with their grit alone.
Now on a scale of kids’ games that require intervention, let’s say from one to ten, where one is a situation where any parent would be comfortable daydreaming or scrolling through a phone and ten is a situation where any parent would frantically call for an immediate and nonnegotiable ceasefire, this quickly escalated to an eight or nine. But having just read The Coddling, I wanted to test the truth of the free play theory. My kids were being attacked with sticks, but they hadn’t actually been struck. So for every cringeworthy near-miss, I repeated to myself, “No one got hurt. No one is hurt yet.”
As I stood there watching the kids fight with all of their will, I noticed a change. My kids were fighting back in their own way, turning their fingers into magic lasers that could fire “blasts” at the emperors who chased them. I also noticed that if a child was chased, he or she could easily run to safety just a short distance from the structure. The kids were figuring out both their own boundaries and new rules of engagement. I was starting to become quite proud of them actually, “fighting” so well with one another that I was a bit startled from my reverie when one of the moms climbed the hill and, gesturing to the scene, asked in a tight, high-pitched voice,
“Is this okay?”
I sighed and then admitted, “I don’t know. I just read this book about free play though and wanted to see how it went.”
The mom glanced back as one boy swiped at another with a stick, barely missing him. “Do you want me to say something?” she offered.
She was so polite.
“Nah, I was just going to let them beat the crap out of each other,” I told her.
I don’t know if it was the notion that parents would actually let their kids fight that did it, or if she just didn’t like me saying “crap” where there were three and four-year-olds milling about, but her eyes flashed white and she called for an immediate and nonnegotiable ceasefire.
See, I think it just goes to show how nicely the kids were playing that they listened right away. Then they stood around awkwardly for a minute or two trying to decide how to handle this maternal disturbance to their epic game. From where I stood, I saw emperors and monsters talking things over, yet not knowing exactly how to proceed. No one had a fallback plan per se.
That’s when another mom walked over and with an apologetic tone asked, “Did we ruin it?”
I shrugged. No, to intervene in one instance doesn’t ruin it. To intervene every time, on the other hand… Well, I couldn’t fault the mom who charged in. I’m sure I’ve done the same many times in the past ten years. And yet, now as my kids are getting older, and now that they are back in school, spending much of their time completely away from me, I have a new fear for their safety. I won’t be there to intervene, so I need to know they can take care of themselves and those around them. I want them to be able to wrestle with hard stuff and come out stronger on the other side.
In their acknowledgments, the writers recall the psychologist Haim Ginott from the 1960s and his maxim for parenting, words that I will continue to test out in my interactions with kids. They go like this:
“Don’t just do something, stand there.”
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.