How do we grow? We grow through change. Fearlessness. And the occasional failure, too. These are potent catalysts for personal and spiritual growth. That’s why I live by them daily and am a die-hard self-proclaimed “change junkie”!
At the same time, we parents can’t help but feel responsible for protecting (and sometimes overprotecting) our kids. Protecting our children is in our DNA… literally. When they’re toddlers, we tell them not to touch the fire. (Eventually, they’ll do it anyway and figure out firsthand why we warned them!) When they come home crying after being bullied, we want to march straight out and give that bully–and his or her parents–a piece of our minds. And let’s be honest: the world, according to NewsLand, can seem beyond scary. Our kids aren’t blind to any of it. In fact, recent statistics show that nearly 10% of children aged 3-17 have diagnosable anxiety, and almost half of all adolescents have experienced a mental health issue during their lives. The question is, what’s at the root of this alarming trend?
As with most sweeping questions, there’s no one simple answer. But recently, I came across a book that took on this question with an interesting (if controversial) theory. The Coddling of the American Mind, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, posits that the rising generation of young adults has been–and continues to be–coddled to the point of causing them harm in the long run.
One culprit mentioned is “safetyism.” The authors write, “Safetyism refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value.” In the university world–the focus of most of their research–the emphasis is on not just physical safety, but emotional and psychological protection to the point of speaking and acting “to avoid pain…. discomfort…. [and] all potentially bad experiences” at any cost. The authors argue that students and institutions are so apprehensive about offending or being offended, they cancel or discourage opportunities for fostering social resiliency.
Lukianoff and Haidt outline what they see as the three “great untruths” many young adults have been “coddled” into believing:
1) That children are fragile (when, in fact, they are naturally strong and resilient)
2) That emotions are to be trusted above all (when they are, by nature, purely subjective)
3) That life is a battle between “us” and “them” (when polarization rarely results in real progress)
Are we being so overprotective, so hypersensitive to our children’s feelings, and so tribal in our modeling that we’re ushering in a generation crippled by these untruths? Are we raising children driven more by fear than by courage… more by blame and divisiveness than by an open exchange of ideas and personal context? Or are we justified when we find ourselves coddling, if not swaddling?
After all, there are times when being vigilant and even over-protective is entirely understandable–and even necessary. We know that, for all the good people in the world, there are those whose light has been covered (a Kabbalistic idea), often due to their own trauma or pain. Some of them may speak or act out in ways that are legitimately threatening. There’s no underplaying this fact.
Yet Kabbalah reminds us that we live in the 1% realm. It’s like looking at a carnival through a pinhole. We see only what’s right in front of us: it may be the garbage bin, or perhaps the cotton candy stand. We may think it looks disgusting (the trash) or wonderfully delicious (okay, maybe not to me–but most everyone else seems to love cotton candy!). Yet we remain blind to the other 99% of what’s really out there. This is what lends mystery to our lives. This is why we continue to seek, to discover, and to evolve.
So in the bigger picture, I hope you’ll step back, if even a little, from the kinds of fear that can keep you (or your child) from experiencing the fullness of life. My own book, Fear is Not an Option, explores this topic in depth through a different lens–but with a few overlapping ideas.
As for curbing the coddling and promoting resiliency in our children and ourselves, Lukianoff and Haidt offer some tips for helping to counter those “untruths” we talked about earlier:
1) Seek out challenges rather than removing or avoiding everything that feels “unsafe.” As author Nassim Taleb writes in his book, Antifragile, we–along with most biological systems–don’t just survive challenges and stressors; we require them to learn, adapt, and grow. Know the difference between a challenge and a true threat.
2) Realize that feelings are subjective (much like that pinhole in the doorway) and can lead to cognitive distortions. In other words, we need to stop catastrophizing and open ourselves to the bigger picture.
3) Instead of the “us vs. them” mindset, the authors recommend embracing MLK’s common human-identity politics. Tribalism is an evolutionary trait. When the “other” invaded, we needed that mentality to survive! However, we can evolve beyond it by remembering our opponents’ shared humanness–and by appealing to them from a place of compassion. The likely result? Kinder and more productive outcomes.
Ultimately, whether we’re coddling or being rightfully protective is a matter of perspective. To me, the question is worth examining, both as individuals and as parents and mentors for the next generation. Either way, from a Kabbalistic standpoint, experiencing resistance in some measure is crucial to our soul’s journey. And it’s through our challenges that we grow–and come to know ourselves–most of all.