Jonathan Haidt: How overparenting backfired on Americans

Jonathan Haidt is a social scientist who has a new book out, co-written by Greg Lukianoff, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” A site called Big Think has produced a new video in which Haidt offers support for one of the central themes in his book, i.e. that American parents became worried about allowing their children to have unsupervised playtime starting in the mid-90s, making kids who grew up after that time very different from those who grew up before.

What Haidt describes certainly tracks with my personal experience. Here’s what I wrote earlier this year about growing up in the 1970s in Northern Virginia:

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…

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.

It seems obvious that the changes in how children are raised would create changes in how those children behave and see the world. As Haidt puts it, “They got years and years of practicing independence.” But with far less of that now, Haidt argues it’s not surprising that some kids head off to college and want “safe spaces” and expect adult authorities to protect them from rude people and hurt feelings.

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