A review of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
There are a lot of untruths circulating in our world today, but Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that three “Great Untruths” are having a devastating impact on our young people:
- 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
The impact of these untruths can be seen in higher rates of anxiety, suicide, and depression among teens, less acceptance of ideological differences in educational settings, and what is often referred to as “cancel culture,” or public shaming for doing or saying something that is considered offensive.
The title of the book and the authors’ focus is on American society and parenting culture, something that I live and breathe as a resident of North Carolina and the mother of two boys, ages 11 and 15. As an ex-pat Brit, though, I think there are insights that apply to many western countries, including the UK. Certainly, their observations about how the world has changed in the last 20 years seem to apply on both sides of the pond.
The world has become more polarized politically; anxiety and depression are on the rise; children spend less time in free play; parents have become more paranoid about keeping their kids safe; institutions, such as schools and universities, are similarly obsessed with “safetyism”. And alongside this, social justice movements are experiencing a level of prominence and interest not seen since the 1960’s.
To be clear, not all of these changes are bad. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too have increased awareness of discrimination, inequalities, and injustices against minority groups.
Cancel culture plays an important role in holding people accountable for their words and actions, speaking truth to power. I also believe that some ideas should not be given a platform and therefore it is acceptable to protest against speakers or content that spreads false information or hate speech.
Fragile, reactive, ill-prepared
Yet the collision of these trends, along with the introduction of smart phones and social media, have created a generation of young people who are more mentally fragile, emotionally reactive, and less prepared for the stresses and challenges of adult life.
This book made me reflect on what can I do as a parent to raise “antifragile” kids?
- Resist overprotective parenting. We all want the best for our kids but as a parent, I must constantly remind myself to “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
- Help kids recognize and understand cognitive dissonance. My younger son is prone to catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, and black and white thinking. It is important to name these negative thought patterns, present an alternative viewpoint, and teach coping skills, such as mindfulness, to break cycles of negative emotions.
- Emphasize the importance of giving people the benefit of the doubt. There are no “Us” or Them”, we are all part of the same human race and when interacting with others we should first seek to understand rather than be understood.
Lastly (and this is not in the book), I have chosen to raise my children in a faith community where they are constantly reminded that they are both children of God AND have a responsibility to face up to the challenges of this world and make it a better place.
After discussing the book with my pastor, who had also read it, he wove it into his next sermon. He said:
“The goal is not only to protect and nurture a child so that they feel valued and special but also to build in that child a resiliency to do the things they were born to do, the things to which they are called to, in a world that is complicated and beautiful, full of unknowns and full of promise. The same thing is true of the life of faith.”
Liana Humphrey is originally from the UK but now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and is a Director of Goodwill Industries