Jonathan Haidt on kids and the 'cult of safetyism'

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a new book out titled, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Today, National Review published an interview with Haidt about the book and some of the key ideas it seeks to present. One of those ideas is that humans are born unfinished and require exposure to a certain amount of risk in order to mature properly. He offers this thought experiment involving a magic cape:

I would invite readers to consider the option of protecting their child until the age of 18 with a magical cape, which would perfectly protect the child so that she’d never experience social rejection, would never fall down and skin her knee, would never be insulted and teased. If you could magically grant your newborn baby complete protection from physical and emotional suffering and pain for 18 years but then, on her 18th birthday, the cape is removed and she goes off to college — would you do it? Most people can see instantly that that would cripple their child; that that would prevent her from maturing.

And so the best metaphor, though it’s not actually a metaphor but rather a homology — in other words, a similarly structured thing — is the immune system. The immune system, like the nervous system, comes into the world unfinished. And it requires experience to finish itself.

But it turns out society has gradually adopted something like a cape of protection over the past several decades. He refers to it in the book as the “cult of safetyism” and traces its development to several factors, one of which is round-the-clock cable news:

In the last half of the book we investigate six different threads that all combine to create the problem we’re now facing now.

In terms of recent history, I can just point to a few things. One is rising wealth and declining family size all over the world, which means that people invest more in each child. Second, as competition for university in the United States rose and rose, the pressure on children to spend their childhood preparing for college increased, which meant they had less time for play.

Third, and among the most important of all factors, the changing media environment of the 1980s, with cable TV, meant that any child who was abducted could now become the front and center of everyone’s consciousness for weeks and weeks. There could be 24-hour coverage…

So, until the 1980s, almost all children had unsupervised play time. Almost everyone I talked to who’s over about 40 remembers going out to play. Then you’d come back in for dinner. But sometime in the 1990s that stopped for most middle-class families and above.

Now, when I speak at colleges and ask the students at what age they could walk over to a friend’s house or play outside with no adult knowing where they were, the answer is normally around 13 or 14. It’s rarely below twelve. So this is one of the biggest factors.

This is something that all of the parents I know have talked about at some point. When I was seven up to maybe the age of 10, my family lived in a fairly nice part of Northern Virginia. Not rich, but solidly middle class. My best friend at the time was named Daniel. He and I both had bicycles with banana seats and coaster brakes and on the weekends we would get up and go for a ride. One of the things I particularly enjoyed at the time was trying to get lost. That’s not a metaphor. We would set out to see if we could ride someplace we’d never been to before, a new neighborhood that didn’t look familiar. And we’d be gone, riding into the unknown, for an hour or more.

Another fond memory I have from this same age: Playing in the dump. We didn’t have a real dump in the suburbs, but I had one friend named Toby whose house backed up to a wooded area where there had once been a gas station. This area had somehow become a kind of unofficial town dump full of used appliances, tires, car parts, just a lot of old junk. A great time, circa age 9 was going into this tetanus factory and building a fort out of the garbage.

Did my parents know what we were doing? Not exactly I guess, but they knew we were running off by ourselves for hours at a time (either into the woods or out onto the streets on our bikes). They definitely were fine with that. In fact, I had the impression at the time that all the parents were fine with it.

Can you imagine what would happen if some parent allowed their 8-9 year old to do these things now? I think it’s very possible they would be arrested, certainly for letting kids play in a dump in the woods but maybe even for letting them ride a mile from home unsupervised.

And here’s the thing about all of this. I’m not sure we ever really went that far. I mean, maybe a mile or two, but not five or ten. We wanted to push the boundaries but we also didn’t want to actually get lost forever. I’m not sure kids today know what that feels like or, if they do, maybe it’s a block from home instead of a mile. And yes, that applies to my kids too because as much as it seems crazy to me, I’m probably as overprotective as everyone else.

Anyway, I’m definitely going to pick up Haidt’s book. It just seems impossible that the changes we’ve seen in how parents treat their kids (not to mention all the technological changes) aren’t having some impact in how kids think about risk.