One of the funniest memories I have from growing up is how nervous my Mom would get on weekday afternoons, especially in the spring or early fall. We were homeschooled, and the morning had been spent memorizing lines of Dickinson, charting the countries of South America, or pulling our hair out at Algebra.
Aside from the pajamas, there was nothing about our school mornings that really made us different than our public schooled friends. Afternoons were a different story. The local kids arrived home from school a little after 2—3 at the latest. Our homeschooled regimen, though, built in time for free play and activity in the early afternoon. But Mom was always nervous about our going outside. “Don’t go outside until later,” she would say, before offering this priceless line that has been repeated in our family for years: “You’re in pretend school.”
By “pretend school” Mom meant that she didn’t want neighboring families to see a couple kids outside after lunch and assume they just didn’t “do” school. We were some of the only homeschoolers we knew in our rural town (there was a small network of homeschoolers that met occasionally), and Mom felt the pressure to keep up educational appearances. She feared what might happen if someone who knew nothing about our bookish mornings and playful afternoons saw us having a good time before we should be. “Pretend school” very quickly became a humorous euphemism for our self-consciousness as a family that did things a little differently. Even as a kid, I could sense how high the stakes of public parenting can get—and just how tricky it can be to navigate them.
Parenting is arguably one of the last remaining cultural institutions in which we are constantly invited to feel worse about ourselves and yet better than other people. Everyone acknowledges that parenting is difficult, yet many today cannot shake the nagging suspicion that it hasn’t always been this difficult. Modern parents subsist on a steady diet of anxiety, hyper-attentiveness, and regret, a fact that can inferred not only from casual conversation but from mammoth marketing campaigns and “mommy blogs.” The common parenting wisdom of today reflects an extraordinarily intimate relationship between children and their parents, especially for families in the upper-middle class, who are careful to script just about every hour of their children’s lives for maximal “flourishing” (and, if we’re being honest, it’s never too early to start thinking about those college applications). What’s happened to parents today is not unlike what has happened to the “wellness” industry, with its swelling product lines, relentless “studies” that prove You’re Not All Right, and emphasis on increased introspection and self-care.
Yet at the same time that parents have never been offered more reason to think they’re failing, parents themselves have become atomized, and talking honestly about parenting has never been harder or more fraught with peril. Think civility in political discourse is in bad shape right now? Just try posting something on Facebook about the best discipline for an unruly toddler. Discussions of parenting are so laden with emotion and a sense of attack and self-preservation that many moms have had to deactivate their social media accounts just to stay sane.
Something has gone wrong. Parents are stressed, anxious, shamed, and scared. Our kids are overworked, underplayed, depressed, and distracted. And yet such a thick blanket of fear lies over conversations about parenting that we seem unable to do anything but keep scrolling through Instagram or listening to our hundredth TED Talk. The abundance of information and the granting of autonomy to every family to “do it their own way” have not made us better parents, and we know this, if for no other reason than they have not helped us nurture better people. Our fragmented public square bears the scorch marks of a generational parenting failure when it came to iGen, the children who came of age in the late 2000s and who are graduating college today. Just as the broken housing market in 2009 testified to the greed and foolishness of an economy, modern college campus culture testifies to a shortsighted and deeply self-righteous character in our contemporary parenting wisdom.
That last sentence would be my Tweet-sized summary of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. You’ve probably heard that this book is a conservative book written by two conservatives who want to own the libs on campus. Such a description is inaccurate and defensive. But it’s actually not defensive enough. Dismissing Haidt and Lukianoff as right-wing partisans completely misses the truly controversial—and truly transformative—insight of the book. This is not a book about politics, professors, or protests. It’s a book about parenting.
The Coddling of the American Mind is an expansion on Haidt and Lukianoff’s cover essay of the same name that appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic. When it was published, most of the commentary around the article interpreted it as a jeremiad in favor of free speech on college campuses, which, of course, it was in part. But such a categorization put Haidt and Lukianoff’s work in an unfortunately politicized context; since the vast majority of the free speech problems that Haidt and Lukianoff document are directed at right-wing speakers from left-wing student bodies/school administrators, the essay became yet another shibboleth in the left-right divide.
Lost in much of the response to the essay was the fact that if Haidt and Lukianoff’s insights into some of the worst cases of “coddling” were correct, then much of the problem lay not at the feet of activists or even college administrators, but at the feet of parents. While the essay did include a couple hundred word section on “how we got here” that discussed dubious parenting theories that flourished while iGen was growing up, a more provocative hint was the piece’s brilliant featured image: A tousled-haired toddler sitting in a college-sized desk, laptop open, mouth agape, wearing a sweater with the word “COLLEGE” emblazoned on the front. The image subtly communicated the real contention of the essay: That colleges (and by extension, our public square) are populated by children who haven’t yet grown up, belonging to parents who didn’t help them to.
Haidt and Lukianoff center their attention on three “Great Untruths” that they argue have become accepted dogmas for younger Americans.
The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
Each untruth yields a corresponding effect in culture. The Untruth of Fragility cripples personal growth by cultivating fear of difficulty (Chapter 1). The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning perpetuates a vicious cycle of mental anxiety (Chapter 2), while the Untruth of Us vs Them polarizes people and prevents us from learning from each other (Chapter 3). Haidt and Lukianoff are especially interested in how these Untruths shape campus culture, and most of The Coddling of the American Mind is geared toward understanding and responding to the last few years of unrest at colleges.
Near the heart of the book’s argument is the idea that human beings (as well as human systems and institutions) are antifragile. Antifragility for Haidt and Lukianoff is a reality embedded into human nature. Building on the work of NYU statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the authors argue that people are not like a tender piece of ceramic, which can easily break, nor like a tough teflon shield, which can take a lot of stress without showing wear. Rather, human nature is more like the immune system, which requires difficulty in order to become stronger:
Many of the important systems in our economic and political life are like our immune systems: they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow. Systems that are antifragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously. . . . [Taleb] notes that wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire. He advises us not to be like candles and not to turn our children into candles: “You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” (23)
Antifragility is the cornerstone of everything that Haidt and Lukianoff argue in the book. If this is truly what people are like, then always trusting one’s emotions and always seeing people unlike you as enemies are profoundly and fundamentally counterproductive. On the other hand, if antifragility is a myth, or if it is partially true but not the way we should see ourselves and others, then the moral imperative to challenge my own intuitions or empathize with the other is wholly relative, if it exists at all. In other words, if people are fragile, then coddling is wise and good for them. If people are antifragile, coddling is foolish and destructive.
The book chronicles dozens and dozens of astonishing stories that illustrate such destructive foolishness. Most of the stories are from American college campuses. At first it felt backwards to me that Haidt and Lukianoff organized the book to feature these stories in Part II, and to discuss their explanation for “How We Got Here” in Part III.
But the organization is actually compelling, because in presenting the stories of violent protests and outrageous undergraduate antics Haidt and Lukianoff invite the thoughtful reader to discern that, no matter your politics of free speech, something is indeed wrong. Consider this incredible anecdote about a protest at the University of Oregon that disrupted a speech by the university president:
A student with a megaphone insisted, “We will not be ignored” and “Expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.” A student protester complained about the oppression of minority students, tuition increases, and indigenous rights, and described “fascism and neo-Nazis” as the reason for the protest. (The president, Michael Schill, whoes extended family members were murdered by actual fascists during World War II, responded with a New York Times op-ed piece titled “The Misguided Student Crusade Against ‘Fascism.’”) The following week, at the question-and-answer session of an event at UCLA titled “What is Civil Discourse? Challenging Hate Speech in a Free Society,” sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, protesters from a group called “Refuse Fascism” disrupted the event. (92)
There are countless stories like this one peppered throughout The Coddling of the American Mind. While different in details, every story has a common core: Generation Z (or iGen) students that engage ideas or speakers they dislike with emotion-driven responses that end up polarizing observers along preexisting political lines, and sometimes resulting in physical violence or loss of jobs/careers.
But lest you think Haidt and Lukianoff are building up to some “get off my lawn” generational shaming crescendo, their insight is not that college-aged Americans are spoiled or bratty (though some are, as are some Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers, etc), but that these students are overworked, overstressed, and severely misunderstood. Where does this overwork, overstress, and misunderstanding begin—at elite liberal colleges? Not quite. It begins at home.
Parenting and the Public Square
The Coddling of the American Mind is situated as a book about the decay of campus culture and American free speech, but its key ideas are actually about the power of parents (and those who find themselves in an unofficial role as parent—like college administrators). In a bracing chapter, Haidt and Lukianoff discuss the exploding pandemic of teen anxiety and depression. Some readers will gloss over the data while hurrying to find another juicy tidbit about campus protests or free speech law, but doing so completely misses the point. Haidt and Lukianoff have written an elegantly constructed case for our fraying public square as a referendum on the emotional consequences of misguided (though well intended) parenting practices.
Rather than seeing American college students as spoiled wards of an amoral, Marxist educational order, the authors argue that the campus crisis is a parental one. Having been shorted on confidence in their own antifragility as young children, and on the wrong end of the smartphone/social media revolution, iGen is arriving to campus with a psychological and emotional (and I would add: spiritual) deficit that university bureaucrats are both eager and totally incompetent to fill.
Why did this happen? The authors argue that it began to happen in the last years of the 20th century, when a combination of paranoia over child safety and misleading theories about child development birthed a cottage industry of overprotective parents and hyper “programmed” kids. “Good parents,” Haidt and Lukianoff write, “are expected to believe that their children are in danger every moment they are unsupervised” (171). The authors call this condition “Safetyism,” and while a safer society is a good “problem” to have, an inordinate prioritization of safety can cultivate the myths of fragility, emotional reasoning, and us vs. them.
Reading the chapters on Safetyism, I was reminded of Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, which documents the very serious consequences of an almost entirely mythological worry about public childcare centers. Beck’s book recounts how good leaders and caretakers lost their jobs and reputations due to erroneous allegations of abuse and neglect, many of which were manipulated from children by advocates who twisted the facts to fit a predetermined narrative. Beck’s history sounds frighteningly similar to contemporary accounts (a few of which feature in Haidt and Lukianoff’s book) of child protective services (CPS) arriving to rip a child from her family for “neglect,” merely because the child was playing a few feet too far from the adults. Safetyism as cultural orthodoxy appears to have given way to safetyism as law of the land.
Perhaps one could argue that “safetyism” as depicted by Haidt and Lukianoff is simply a neutral generational shift largely along class lines, and has more to do with technology and diversity than about a philosophical transformation about raising kids. The problem, though, is that while American society has never been physically “safer” for children and teens, it is arguably the most psychologically and emotionally harmful that it’s ever been.
Herein lies the ironic failure of contemporary parenting: In trying to insulate children from the exterior threats to their physical safety and academic performance, we have made kids exponentially more vulnerable to other threats to their flourishing—threats that seem less worrisome in principle but make up for the deficit in sheer omnipresence and residuality. The failure to see the trade-off is why, for example, so many parents have been blindsided by the research showing negative effects of screen time and social media. When your imagination is filled with images of kids getting snatched off the sidewalk or murdered on their way home from school, it’s almost impossible to feel a proper trepidation at the thought of their safely and warmly spending the weekend on the couch scrolling through Facebook or Instagram.
The result is a generation of American citizens who have been prohibited from valuable experiences that teach them their own antifragility and capacity to empathize with those unlike them. These students “have been systematically deprived of opportunities to ‘dose themselves’ with risk,” the authors conclude. “Instead of enjoying a healthy amount of risk, this generation is more likely than earlier ones to avoid it” (185). Unsupervised play, for example, is becoming rarer in the American middle class.
But such “un-helicoptered” interaction with other kids has a powerful shaping effect on the public square. Being unable to constantly invoke a grown up authority forces kids to practice the art of citizenship, where they solve differences through negotiation and value judgments instead of fiat (191–192).
I worked at a local Chick-Fil-A during college. Thursday nights were Kids Eat Free nights, which of course meant pandemonium and insanity in the play place. But the thing I dreaded most was being approached by parents asking me to stop serving customers and go into the play place to tell one child to stop picking on this adult’s child. I would shrug and meekly communicate that I couldn’t really do this, but afterwards I always wondered why the parents thought it was a better idea to get a restaurant employee to intervene rather than (1) let the kids figure it out or (2) simply leave.
The intrusion of an authority figure who had no skin in the game and no particular affection or commitment to either party seems to me a small parable for our society’s rapidly eroding localism and self-government, and rapidly increasing dependence on massive central government and Big Politics. This is about far more than “free range parenting” or even free speech. It’s about the disappearance of love from our public square, and its replacement by polarization and the sterile ethics of human resources. That sad exchange doesn’t start on campus. It starts in the play place.
How Christians Can Lead the Way
As is typical with books like this, the positive suggestions for change come at the very end, and are not quite as compelling as the critique. I appreciate the specific recommendations that Haidt and Lukianoff recommend, particularly when it comes to helping teens moderate their screen time and cultivate good offline experiences. Rather than appraise their suggestions, I’d like to conclude this review by suggesting a few ways that Christians can lead the way in raising a stronger, more intellectually confident, and more public square-ready generation.
One of the tendencies of evangelical parenting literature is to reduce the moral center of parenting to discipline and/or spanking. Get this right, many books seem to say, and trust God for the rest to fall into place. But surely “train up a child in the way he should go” is a more wide-ranging command than that.
A fair question for evangelical culture may be why we have not been leading out on the kind of whole person-forming parenting practices that make for non-coddled adults? We need to own that we lack a strong corps of resources or practices for fighting these disturbing trends. Sorting ourselves along partisan political lines every time there is a protest on a major American campus won’t do. People who call the creator of the universe “Father” need to recognize that a cultural crisis in parenting is a crisis on our own turf.
Christians who want their children to “own” their faith should recognize that such owning is a skill that must be cultivated and practiced, not something that magically happens when a teen arrives at college. Thus, children’s ministry matters. Churches can serve many needs of their congregation simply by paying more attention, time, and (yes) money to their children’s ministry, especially ministries that come alongside families throughout the week to disciple their kids. Evangelicals need to reimagine the church less as a gas station that fills up individual tanks on Sunday before sending them back on the highway, and more as a central hub of embodied spiritual practices that promote holistic discipleship. Whether this means opening up the church doors for stay-at-home moms to come and let their kids interact with each other, or whether it means starting a two-day-per-week kindergarten out of the church, evangelicals can do much to promote a unity among parents and children that can help model the wider public square to young future citizens.
Second, Christians should lead the way in rethinking our culture’s academic meritocracy. Parenting in American society, particularly the middle and upper class, is overwhelmingly college-and-career-centered. As Haidt and Lukianoff explain, much of the decline in childhood play owes to the increasing obsession with extracurricular activities that look good on a college application. Christians should be able to call this what it is: Materialism.
Putting our money where our worldview is on materialism might mean making allowance for our kids’ not being able to compete as well for a scholarship because they were too busy, well, being kids. We who confess a connection between the spiritual and the physical must realize that a teenage schedule that allows little or no time to just be around the people and places that God has put around us is spiritually corrosive.
Third, Christian parents should not believe that “worldview training” is a substitute for talking to other people. A lot of evangelicals are eager for their teenage and twentysomething children to stand out from the broader culture with their moral choices. What if they stood out from the culture for their empathy and good faith too? Christians who are too busy being “discernment” pros on Twitter are missing a gaping opportunity to be strangers and aliens in a polarized American society.
Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes With a House Key is a moving and theologically compelling case for a Christian hospitality that ditches the perfectionism of “hosting” for an open, imperfect home that receives neighbors for the sake of the kingdom. Too many of us evangelicals grew up, or are currently, creating homes that feel more like sealed bomb shelters than gospel outposts. Transforming this dynamic can not only open up evangelistic opportunities; it can inspire our kids to love those different than them, to defend the dignity of those they disagree with, and to be a drought of water in a parched, polarized culture . . . especially on campus.
Finally, Christians should be more willing to receive correction and exhortation on parenting than we often are. Part of the problem behind the coddling of college students is a defensiveness and quick offense in our parenting conversations that has undermined our ability to receive wisdom.
We don’t need to feel anguish and constant guilt about our parenting, because Christ has died for our sin. Nor do we need to imprison our children in safety bubbles, since God is totally sovereign over the universe and is working all things together for the good of those that love him. Rather than moms who get burnt out by the “mommy wars” or dads who tune out what’s going on, evangelicals can be a people to humbly admit our imperfections, our need for each other, and our need for wisdom more ancient than us.
The Coddling of the American Mind is a convicting book. It is difficult to read it and feel good about where we are as an American society. It’s even more difficult to feel good about our contemporary parenting practices. Yet it may be the most important book I’ve read in a long time. These aren’t ephemeral trends that can be dismissed. They are the intellectual and emotional scars of an emerging generation of leaders, teachers—and most importantly, parents. It is not conservative adults who stand to suffer the most from an unchecked coddling, but the unborn. It is for their sake that believers should pay careful attention to this book.