Book Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

This month for LEU, I’ve decided to veer slightly off course from the typical Crest and Current article to write a book summary/recommendation for our submission. As a teacher, mom, and self-proclaimed nerd extraordinaire, I love to spend my spare time reading books and listening to audiobooks about child development, education, and current trends in the world. They lead me to reflect on my parenting and teaching practices, provide me with many insights and tools to implement in both my home and school life and – whether I agree or disagree with the ideas presented – give me plenty of food for thought indeed.   

I have recently read an especially thought-provoking book entitled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff. The book centers around what the authors refer to as the “three Great Untruths” which are bad ideas that have become increasingly woven into childhood and education in American and Western culture in recent decades:  

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. 
  1. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. 
  1. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. 

The authors point out that all three untruths meet three criteria: 

  1. They contradict ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literature of many cultures). 
  1. They contradict modern psychological research on well-being. 
  1. They harm the individuals and communities who embrace them. 

Haight and Lukianoff are very concerned about the culture of “safetyism” which they believe has taken hold in the United States and Western societies in general. They lament how the misguided yet well-intentioned efforts of both parents and schools have been breeding inorganic fragility into children who would otherwise be antifragile by nature. They explain: 

Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors within limits and in age-appropriate ways or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions. 

The authors point out that there has been “a shift to more fearful, protective, and intensive parenting in middle-class and wealthy families” since the high-profile child abduction cases of the 1980s. Schools have followed a similar trajectory with their policies and practices, and even though crime has steadily decreased, and life has become progressively safer for children in general, parents and schools have continued to tighten their reigns.  

The authors bemoan this culture of ‘safetyism’ as the cause of widespread play and risk deprivation for children, compounded by an ever-increasing amount of time spent on screens. Additionally, as admission to universities becomes more competitive, parents fill their children’s schedules with exam preparation and extracurricular activities to build their resumes and improve their chances of getting into good schools. According to Haight and Lukianoff, being sheltered and denied experiences has resulted in a generation of people who are coming of age (on paper) less mature and prepared to face adversity and more desirous of protection than those previously.    

Adding to this, Haight and Lukianoff explain that the idea of “safety” has recently undergone a phenomenon called “concept creep”, which occurs when a concept expands significantly outside of its original meaning. In the case of “safety”, many people now equate emotional and ideological discomfort with physical danger. The authors report that members of iGen/GenZ (people born between 1995 & 2012) are “obsessed with safety” and believe that one should be safe not just from car accidents or assault or discrimination, but also from people who disagree with you. This leads them to mislabel everyday feelings and interactions as dire problems in urgent need of solving and requiring intervention from authorities.                                                                                                            

Not surprisingly, the premise taking hold on many college campuses today is that students are fragile and need protection from all ideas, people, or interactions that may make them feel uncomfortable. Haight and Lukianoff argue that all the protections being put in place –?safe spaces, disinviting controversial speakers, trigger warnings, censorship of speech, removal of materials from the curriculum, cancel culture, and so on –?actually increase the likelihood of students becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt. They argue that by not exposing people to the inevitable discomforts of life, including ideas that contradict their worldview, we’re making people less antifragile under the false premise of protecting them. Haight and Lukianoff also contend that these actions are antithetical to the raison d’etre of universities – to serve as arenas for the free exchange of ideas and places of “productive disagreement”. 

Haight and Lukianoff cite studies that show that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in adolescence and young adulthood have reached all-time highs, indicating that increased safety has certainly not resulted in increased happiness. This at first might seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you consider how unsettling it would feel to believe that you were immensely vulnerable, weakened further by challenges and adversity, and that threats to your fragile well-being lurked at every turn.  

To combat this culture of fragility and safetyism, the authors are adamant that the role of parents and educational institutions should be to “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”, a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree. On their website, they provide many resources and helpful strategies to achieve this lofty goal (website), such as: 

Give children a substantial amount of unstructured playtime that is free from adult intervention. 

Let your kids take more small risks, and let them learn from getting some bumps and bruises. 

Assume that your kids are more capable this month than they were last month. 

Encourage your children to engage in a lot of “productive disagreement”. 

Help your kids find a community of kids in the neighborhood who come from families that share your commitment to avoid overprotection. 

Haight and Lukianoff concede that we are all prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (seeking out and paying more attention to ideas and information that confirm our beliefs). However, they draw attention to a trend in society where emotional reasoning is beginning to supersede logic. They provide examples throughout the book of how people are putting ultimate trust in their feelings and arriving at the belief that their personal feelings define reality. Instead of relying on facts and reasoning and trying to be as objective as possible, people are increasingly relying on their feelings to interpret situations and the intentions of others. As Haight and Lukianoff put it: “When you think that your feelings ARE reality, you may start to believe that other people have worse intentions than they actually do. This may cause you to start seeing harmful behavior in places that it does not actually exist.”?  

Haight and Lukianoff connect the rise of emotional reasoning to the rise of what has been dubbed “victimhood culture” in which individuals and groups display a high sensitivity to slight, tend to seek assistance from third parties to handle conflicts and have an overall desire to be perceived as victims. The authors juxtapose victimhood culture with “dignity culture”: 

[in which] everyone is assumed to have dignity and worth regardless of what people think of them, so they are not expected to react too strongly to minor slights…People are expected to have enough self-control to shrug off irritations, slights, and minor conflicts…Perspective is a key element of a dignity culture; people don’t view disagreements, unintentional slights, or even direct insults as threats to their dignity that must always be met with a response.  

Haight and Lukianoff also claim that emotional reasoning and the belief in one’s own fragility make people more inclined to subscribe to the untruth of “Us vs. Them”: life is a battle between good people and evil people. T site the rise of identity politics and extreme political polarization in the last decade as evidence of all these trends intertwining.  

Below is a helpful visual summary of the key ideas of the book that I found online: 

Young people are antifragile Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker 
We are all prone to emotional reasoning and the confirmation bias Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother. Always trust your feelings 
We are all prone to dichotomous thinking and tribalism. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Life is a battle between good people and evil people. 

In my experience, I have observed that children naturally tend to see the world through the lens of these the “Three Great Untruths” outlined in The Coddling of the American Mind. This is expected and completely developmentally appropriate (up to a certain age). I found this book very compelling and inspiring because it reminded me that it is the responsibility of parents and educators to provide children with the opportunities, life experiences, and perspectives that will steer them away from integrating these harmful and counterproductive fallacies into their fundamental belief systems. By doing so, we help them become mature, independent, autonomous individuals who are well-prepared to navigate the road of life with grace, gratitude, fortitude, and understanding, even if – and especially and inevitably when – it gets bumpy and takes sudden and unexpected turns.   

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