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adrw // Andrew Alexander

The Coddling of the American Mind

Books, Author(Jonathan Haidt), Author(Greg Lukianoff)9 min read

2018 | Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff

Part 1: What went wrong?

  • Three great untruths have taken over university and leftist culture
    • 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 vs them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people
  • Each of these accomplish the following
    • It contradicts ancient wisdom
    • It contradicts modern psychological understanding
    • It harms the people that accept these untruths
  • Problems include
    • Teen anxiety and suicide rates
    • Ideological uniformity at universities
    • Political extremists provoking each other to hatred
    • Social media has encouraged a public shaming "call out" culture
    • New social media and news outlets allow retreat into amplified and repeated echo chambers
  • Humans are anti-fragile (concept from Nassim Nicholas Taleb of The Black Swan), meaning that like muscles they only grow and succeed when placed under points of stress. Humans psyche, just like their muscles, atrophy when not exercised.
  • "What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but how we think about them" – Epictetus (Greek stoic philosopher)

Part 2: Examples of the problem

  • Covered many examples of the trends of safety-ism, shutting down speakers, and other phenomenon at universities starting

Part 3: How did we get here?

  • Rising political polarization and cross party animosity
    • Members of political parties view people of the other party with more fear and disgust than at any time in the surveyed past
    • Members within political parties have less and less in common within where they live, work, religious beliefs, and views on core policy differences (ie. near impossible to find a pro-life Democrat compared to many pro-life Democrats 20-40 years ago)
  • Rising levels of teen anxiety & depression
  • Changing parenting practices
    • Parents are increasingly fearful of horrible statistical unlikely events of child abduction, assault, and murder because of heightened awareness of rare cases in news and talk show media
    • As a result, they reduce free play and hover increasingly over their children's every move. Stories of teens not allowed to leave the house alone or bike to school are not uncommon
    • To ensure children get into prestigious post-secondary institutions, parents enroll children from early age in rigorous schedule of extra-curricular activities that limits free play and time for children to learn on their own
  • Decline of free play
    • Kids no longer are allowed to roam free or spend most of their free time interacting with other kids
    • They don't have the opportunity to develop independent conflict resolution, exploration, or social interaction skills
    • Instead, living within exclusively adult supervised environments, they learn to turn to adults as police to handle their problems instead of learning how to navigate them independently
    • In university, kids that grew up without free play are now more likely to turn to administrators to solve their feelings of discomfort at new ideas or offense from careless or provocative classmate comments instead of handling emotions and situations independently
  • Growth of campus bureaucracy
    • Changes the purpose of the university from faculty's focus on pursuit of academic knowledge to upholding and promoting bureaucrat's values
    • Bureaucrat's increasingly are focused on the building of campus as a bubble where no student wants to leave because it is safe, comfortable, and not emotionally threatening with respect to ideas discussed in the classroom or in the cafeteria.
  • Rising passion for justice in response to national events combined with changing ideas of what justice requires:
    • Obama years & early Trump years had publicized news highlighting racism and marginalization leading to heightened awareness of these issues
    • Justice now requires fairness of outcome, disparity in outcome is causally linked always to injustice. This is not as previous generations expected procedural justice (the right process led to the decision) and proportional justice

Part 4 discusses proposed solutions

  • Things have gone very wrong with respect to:
    • Teens with significantly increased anxiety, depression, and suicide rates
    • Campuses with suffocating "callout culture", dis-invitation of speakers, and changing norms about speech (especially the trend to designate certain speech as violent or unsafe or dangerousness). A culture of safetyism isn't good for students or campus.
    • Increasing fragility of children potentially resulting from a lack of free play and natural growth of their own confidence in their own ability to withstand physical and emotional stress and in the accuracy of their evaluation of risk
  • Instead of the "concerted cultivation" technique of raising kids...
    • Over protecting, over scheduling, and over parenting kids that forgets about the importance of free play
  • ..."Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child"
    • Prepare kids to be able to handle the hardship, surprises, and offenses that inevitably will come as part of life
    • Akin to reducing peanut allergies, exposure and teaching the body to recognize peanut protein as safe, improving the anti-fragility of children emotionally involves exposure to potential hardship
    • Kids need unstructured, unsupervised times in order to learn how to deal with frustration, boredom, and interpersonal conflict
  • Techniques for Raising Autonomous Children
    • Assume a child is more capable this month than they were last month. Each month ask what tasks they think they could start doing on their own. Don't always jump in and help if they try and fail, trial and error can lead to better learning than direct instruction
    • Let children take small risks. Let them learn from small bumps and bruises. Children need opportunity to "dose themselves with risk". Consider junkyard playground in New York where kids are able to play with construction tools, if they pound their finger with the hammer once, they will learn not to do that again.
    • Learn about Linor Schenezy? "free range kids" movement, incorporate her lessons. Consider 1st grade readiness checklist from 1979 where 6 year old was expected to be able to travel alone in the neighborhood 4-8 blocks away from a house. Send them outside as soon as they are able. Encourage them to roam the neighborhood with friends. Remind them that strangers can help with directions but not to ever go off with one. The crime rate is back down to the low rate of the early 1960s when everyone played outside without concerned parents.
    • Visit for tips to raise resilient children. Simplest idea: print out a Let Grow Licence that children can carry with them in case they are stopped by busybody's or police who question whether they are allowed to be out on their own. License essentially acts as a parental permission form and reminder that independent children is lawful and not a form of neglect.
    • Encourage children to walk or bike to school as early as possible (with consideration to the neighborhood safety, distance from school, etc.). Ask school to provide a process for kids to check in and out of school so that parents aren't forced to give them a smartphone directly to track their location.
    • Help your kids find other kids who are also parented without over-protection. Work with other parents to teach kids how to stick together, what to do when someone gets hurt, and good areas for them to hangout. Kids are more likely to learn independence and responsibility in these groups than in parent supervised play-dates.
    • Send children to overnight summer camp in the woods for a few weeks without devices. Children learn from making their own choices and from unstructured time away from their parents. Key is that children must be away from parental and adult guidance and able to take their own risks in their decisions.
    • Encourage children to engage in productive disagreement. Most creative people often grew up in homes of arguments. Parents now argue behind closed doors. Being able to give and take criticism productively is a key life skill
    • Frame it as a debate. not a conflict
    • Argue as if you're right, but listen as if you're wrong (and be wiling to change your mind)
    • Take the most respectful interpretation of the other person's perspective
    • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics, and what you've learned from them
  • Your worst enemy can not harm you more than your own thoughts unguarded
    • Children need to learn how to interrogate and handle their own emotions and choose good ways to respond
    • Teach children the basics of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)
    • Fundamentally it is techniques of how to interrogate their own exaggerated thoughts and feelings
    • One technique is to practice hearing their own exaggerated thoughts in a cartoon voice so it is less urgent and easier to set aside
    • Encourage the ability to ask questions about a child's own thoughts. Sometimes thoughts aren't true.
    • Consider reading The Worry Cure or Freeing your Child from Anxiety
    • Many curriculum and even phone apps that can help teach and coach CBT
    • Teach children mindfulness
    • Mindfulness: paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally
    • Can reduce anxiety, stress reactivity, coping, attention, compassion and self-compassion, and regulation of emotions
    • Can improve in school behavior, test taking, grades, ability to calm when child is stessed
  • The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being
    • Quote is from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who when reflecting on his own virtue and his despising of the secret police who had locked him up, he remembered when a few years ago he had almost joined the secret police. He realized that there are not good people and evil people, but that it lives in each person.
    • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Use the principle of charity to interpret other people's statements in the best possible form instead of the most offensive form.
    • Practice virtue of intellectual humility is recognition that their own thinking can contain so much bias and poor reasoning that it is safer to be uncertain that their argument is correct."On being wrong" Ted Talk presents the question of "What does being wrong feel like?" and discusses that until you are proven wrong and you realize and feel shame for being wrong, you feel the same as if you end up being right. It's impossible to by emotion alone recognize that your argument is wrong until you listen to a successful counter argument.
    • Look very carefully at how your school handles identity politics. Common humanity identity politics is beneficial. Common enemy identity politics points to certain groups as good, and others bad. Parents and students must push forward to have common humanity approach adopted.
    • Push to have "great untruths" defeated at schools. Parents, administrators, and teachers can have a great impact in eliminating these untruths.
    • Homework in early years of school should be minimum. Outside of encouraging reading, initial grades should not have homework. In later primary grades, minimal homework that doesn't interfere with unstructured time is acceptable.
    • Give more recess with less supervision. It provides a physically safe setting for free play, but adults who interfere with children's skirmishes or fights can lead to moral dependency of kids on adults to solve their problems. Consider "No Rules School" video of New Zealand school where rules were slowly removed from recess and kids then had the opportunity to play as they wanted, and experience the consequences of risks they take. Doing this thoughtfully can This will promote more anti-fragility with students. Consider an after school play club to allow continued play instead of students returning home to be self-entertained by a screen.
    • Discourage using words of safe or safety for any situation not involving physical safety. Promoting "safetyism" through a focus on emotional or safety of ideas should not be tolerated. Instead of kids becoming safer, they become more fragile.
    • Have a no devices policy. School policy should be that smartphones must be kept in locker and out of easy reach throughout the school day.
    • Protect or expand middle school recess. Academic performance depend on regular breaks from intense in class academic work.
  • Cultivate the intellectual virtues. The skills to be a critical thinker and effective learner. Include curiosity, open mindedness, and intellectual humility. "Intellectual Virtues Academy", charter middle school in California, work to accomplish this specifically. This also becomes an antidote to "us vs them" thinking.
    • Teach debate and offer debate club in order to learn the skills of civil disagreement. Students must practice arguing positions against their own views.
    • Assign readings and course work that encourage reasoned discussion. Teach the habits of good thinking. Heterodox Academy presents an illustrated version of chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" that presents the argument for the importance of listening to opposing opinions.
    • Limit and refine device time. Left to their own devices, most kids would use their free time on screens. Teens spend 8-10 hours on screens. Younger children spend on average 6 hours. This comes with some serious consequences.
    • Place clear limits on device time. 2 hours per day maximum is the highest before mental health effects are found to start taking effect including higher rates of anxiety and depression. For younger children, consider only time on the weekend so daily routines are free of devices.
    • Pay as much attention to what is done on devices, as to how much time. Do social networks help or hinder the ability to build close relationships with others? Which are essential to communication? Which instead promote FOMO, social comparison, and unrealistic presentations of other's lives? Read book "iGen" with teens to see the harms of high device use. Parents' device use can limit their interaction with children too
    • Ensure children get enough sleep. It improves academic performance, reduces anxiety and depression, and their overall growth and development
    • Support new national norm: service or work before college. Kids grow up slower these days, reaching adult milestones much slower than previous generations. A year off from high school working and learning away from their parents, learning interpersonal skills, and maturing before starting university can help teens learn how to work together with people of different views, age, race, and stage of life.
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