It is not age-old wisdom, but credentialed expertise that engenders our trust nowadays. We take our cue not from grandpa and grandma and their advice of “a little bourbon on the gums,” but from experts in psychology and sociology penning peer-reviewed studies that tell us obvious, common-sense verities.
Several years ago my wife and I attended a party composed mostly of DINK (dual incomes, no kids) urbanites. We acknowledged to a pregnant woman and her husband that we had two children at home under the age of three. The wife, an expectant first-time mother, expressed her grave fears about crying babies, and confessed that she had spent hours searching for all the right videos she could show her newborn on her iPad to entertain or distract. Jokingly, I responded: “Well, what else can one do?” She, misunderstanding, nodded in solemn agreement.
Call me late to the party, but I just got around to reading Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s 2018 best-seller The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, based on the authors’ viral 2015 Atlantic article. It is a decent book, identifying three terrible ideas popular among young Americans: we are fragile human beings who need to be protected from all pain or discomfort; that we should unequivocally trust our emotions; and that life is a battle between categorically good and evil people. Lukianoff and Haidt even offer some solid practical solutions to address these problems.
But as I read Coddling of the American Mind, I kept thinking of that nervous millennial couple clutching their electronic devices, trusting that technology and technocratic expertise, and not inherited wisdom, was the key to perfect parenting. Lukianoff and Haidt identify trends among American youth stemming from that parental faith in technology as something that can protect their children from harm, or, heaven forbid, anything that might curb future academic and professional success.
“On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations,” they write. Smartphones and social media have in turn dramatically altered the way American children spend their time and the types of physical and social experiences that guide their development (or lack thereof, as the case may be). The results are alarming, to say the least. “Children deprived of free play are likely to be less competent — physically and socially — as adults. They are likely to be less tolerant of risk, and more prone to anxiety disorders.”
Members of iGen have far higher rates of anxiety and depression, and the suicide rate of adolescent girls has doubled since 2007. Many experts claim frequent use of smartphones and other electronic devices are the primary cause of that increase in mental illness. Add to that paranoid helicopter parenting (“safetyism”) that restricts children’s exposure to danger or ability to “develop their intrinsic antifragility,” and it is little wonder our universities have descended into hotbeds of emotive, activist outrage, prone to violent hysterics when confronted with any perceived threats to students’ well-being.
Lukianoff and Haidt offer many practical solutions for modern parents, most of which are aimed at restraining their protectionist tendencies and letting kids explore the world, encounter ideas different than their own, and even (gasp!) fail.