While on a business trip, my daughter and I were staying at a relative’s house, when she slipped and fell from the staircase, landing with a hard thud. She’s just five years-old, and somehow miscalculated which step she was on, and missed the last two steps completely, hitting the floor on her hands and knees.
There were tears, and like any parent, my instincts kicked in, and I went hurrying over.
I said, “oops, you missed those last two steps!”
And she said, “it’s okay, I’ll get used to them!”
In that moment, I had a good chuckle, because she can be a real tough cookie, but I was also reminded just how resilient kids really are.
Today, however, we seem to live in a time dominated by the “rise of safetyism” (a phrase I’m borrowing from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt). It is very tempting to shield kids from every possible harm. And I suspect that this has happened because, as we haven’t gotten more and more technologically advanced, we have been able to make the world safer and safer – only, we can never make a world that is perfectly safe.
Which is why it seems we still need to foster resilience in our kids. If only it weren’t so!
Alas, Haidt’s work has show that our culture of safetyism is, paradoxically, cultivating a generation that is more prone to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Because humans have evolved a psychology that is anti-fragile. And kids have a need to test their limits. Playgrounds need to offer just the right amount of challenges. Youngsters need to fall and dust themselves off again. Because without these small exposures to accidents and mistakes, they begin to live in a bubble where their sense of what is dangerous is exaggerated and grossly distorted.
And that triggers anxiety, because the brain has never been trained to get a realistic model of what is really dangerous and what isn’t.
Of course, the flipside is that children need to be protected from acutely traumatic events.
But falling down a couple of steps – as much as that might hurt in the short term – helps prepare the mind to encounter real dangers in the future, and not to imagine danger is lurking where there is none.
This is an important, but very expansive topic, so if you’re interested in exploring it further, I can’t recommend Haidt’s work enough.
On his website, he’s posted an excerpt from his book “THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND” which you can read here: https://www.thecoddling.com/chapter-1-antifragility
One adjacent topic is how kids have faired during the pandemic.
We know that they are experiencing high levels of stress, as we all are. But is it all bad news for them?
Maybe we should take some comfort in the fact that these difficult times, while coming at a high cost, may actually make kids more resilient to future challenges – of which there are many. My hope is that I’m setting a good example, modelling behavior that shows my daughter that, yes, this is a hard time, and we should look out for one another, especially the vulnerable, but that we can also manage through it, and take comfort in each other.
When she needs a hug after falling from the steps, she can always get one. But I also trust that she can pick herself up, dust herself off, and keep going.
Hopefully, after this difficult time is over, that will be a strength she carries with her into adulthood.
Read more: https://www.thecoddling.com/
If the topic strikes you as interesting and you want to take a deeper dive, you can order your copy on Amazon here: The Coddling of the American Mind