Discussion: Progress and Coddling

I was listening to a podcast this morning where Jonathan Haidt was interviewed.  He’s a very interesting guy and I recommend checking out some of his work, but he was there to talk about his new book that he co-authored called The Coddling of America.  It is something that is commonly talking about as a university professor, and of course it is a pretty mainstream discussion as well.  Helicopter parenting and the hand-holding that still takes place even as they enter college is somewhat alarming.  He argues that the changes in attitudes of university students on campus started around 2013 and so his discussion isn’t about millennials but rather about iGen or GenZ.  He talks about the fact that we have this generation that is raised where an adult is constantly around.  Also the constant testing and homework means kids don’t play enough and when they do play it is always under adult supervision.  Kids don’t learn conflict resolution strategies when an adult is always a mediator.  There was far more detail that he gave but what primarily caught my attention is his explanation of why this is.  I mean if these young people are actually having moral panics and creating obstacles in their life that don’t actually exist, it is the fault of the parents and how they are raised.  So he asks the question, why are we pre-disposed as parents to coddling?

He talks about the progress paradox.  The basic idea is that what progress has done is made us all a lot safer, and thus we begin to worry about low probability risks.  Things we wouldn’t have paid much attention to before but now do simply because we don’t have to worry about kids dying from small pox.  Progress means we also aren’t having as many kids, as education and access to birth control has increased for all people.  This progress means we are more worried about the few kids we do have.  Progress has also led to increased leisure time which gives us more time to spend with our kids and watch over them.  We also are more aware of child development issues and are more apt to get them involved in structured activities over free play.  All of this, Haidt claims, explains why we have increased levels of moral panics on university campuses, why there safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions.  (Interestingly Haidt says that removing yourself from triggers if you’ve experienced trauma is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to heal from trauma.  In cognitive based therapy which has been shown to be the most effective in helping people recover from traumatic events, it is recommended that one have graduated exposure to triggers rather than removing yourself from them.)

It seems a weird byproduct of a safer world, but from the discussion it seems that what we are doing is inventing or exaggerating fears because we don’t have as many as we used to.  So I thought I would ask some questions for purposes of discussion. Does this hypothesis seem reasonable and fit what you’ve observed in society?  What sort of shift would you like to see happen, and how do we go about making that change?  Are we all just old fuddy duddys who don’t get the younger generation?

12 thoughts on “Discussion: Progress and Coddling

  1. It is an interesting swing. Two things; parents are always talking about how great it was to roam the neighborhood or the woods when they were kids, but now free range parenting is national news on child abuse. Over regulated and too much fear, lawsuits, and judgement from others. Parents aren’t as worried about strangers as they are the kids meeting a CPS worker or a cop. Tragically our kids wind up in front if the tv and under lock and key due to unwarranted fears. 2nd, I don’t really agree that fewer kids means more worry. Although it is a safer time to be alive, uber awareness of every little thing that happens has parents more cautious than they need to be.

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    1. Hi Jim. Thanks for your comment and I apologize for the delayed response, but I wanted to have the time for a proper one. First I wanted to address your comment about it being over regulated. Perhaps your experience differs, and I have no doubt it varies from state to state, but I too was getting concerned about what seemed like good parents getting the bad end of the stick, so I decided to do volunteer work to help neglected and abused children so I could get familiar with child protective services. While there are certainly legitimate cases of overreach in my opinion by CPS, I think this is also a case of our ability to get news nationally and thus it is giving us a skewed perception of the scale of the problem. You don’t get to hear any of the stories where agencies that are there to protect children literally save their lives and protect them from abuse and neglect. There are certainly problems in the system, but this often has to do with the fact that in most states working for youth services doesn’t always require an appropriate degree because the state doesn’t want to pay such people more money. Here Child and Youth Services is a civil service job, requiring only the taking of the civil service exam. Although I would say most people who work for CYS here have a social work degree, but I would argue that it takes more expertise than that. This aside, there are so many children that are in dangerous situations and so many kids are helped everyday. Here in PA, parents are helped too, with free services to help that get on a path to get back their kids. The biggest problem such agencies have is too little staff for the massive amounts of cases they have. Each worker is overloaded, and it is a high stress job. It’s easy for a case worker to not be able to spend all the time on the case that is required. Which is part of the reason why my organization, CASA, does what it does. The same goes fro the legal representation of children in court. Lawyers have so many cases they also can’t spend the time they need researching cases. The system is far from perfect, but having done this work, I personally think that our fear that the state will just take our children for a minor infraction is completely overblown. I am far more worried about a judgmental parent calling CPS for something minor, than I am of what CPS will do to me. Most of such calls end up in a visit, and then case closed as soon as you explain the situation. So judgment from other parents is a huge factor and something more troublesome. I mean if I saw my neighbor’s kid by herself outside her home and no parent was around, my first instinct would not be to call CPS, but to see how I can help. If something became repeated than it would be a legitimate case of neglect and should be reported, but how easily people will just report you is a far bigger concern of mine.

      I certainly don’t think Haidt meant to imply that people with more children don’t love their children as much or worry less, but I think in the bigger picture there is a different mindset. My grandmother was one of 14 children, and 2 additional children died at childbirth. One ended up dying (I can’t remember the reason) as a young child. In times and places where infant mortality is high, where communicable diseases can pass easily and no cure was possible or available, when you have children you sort of know the odds. You are somewhat prepared for that reality. The rate of childbirth does tend to be significantly higher in such conditions. Furthermore, the more children you have, it’s perhaps true you might feel the same amount of worry, but this doesn’t change the finiteness of your time and energy. The amount of time you can simply spend with each child is diminished, and you are forced to farm out some of that care to the child’s siblings, neighbors etc. My wife admitted to me that part of the reason she wanted another child was that if something happened to our oldest, she would literally have a hard time moving on if he was our only one. Having a second one that she also had to take care of and who she needed to be strong for would help her deal with the loss. I have no doubt that this is true, and I’ll admit that this would also certainly help me to a certain degree as well. We simply live in a time where we don’t expect our children to not survive until adulthood, and having only one or two kids means we have the time to spend with each of them significantly, and there is nothing preventing us from acting on our worry (like having 13 other kids to take care of!).

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  2. Interesting post.
    I think part of the problem is that our news and social media is awash with cases of child kidnapping and or abuse that people have been also manipulated to think the world is not a safe space anymore for kids.
    I am curious however to hear what others think and especially those of your followers who have been around longer than 5 decades

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    1. I agree that this seems like it would have to be a factor as well and its certainly something that I’ve concluded before in regards to why we might all be more prone to being fearful about things. The amount of information we consume from all over the world everyday is far larger than in the past. Victoria had cited an article one time about a neurological study that showed that in order to balance out a negative event, it took 5 times as many positive events. I am not sure how accurate that ratio, but the upshot is that when bad things happen it strikes us more strongly than positive events. I think there is a good evolutionary reason for this.

      However if you look at some horrible event that might only have a probability of 1 in a million of happening each day, this is something you’d almost never see or worry about in a tribe of a few hundred hunter gatherers, but today, such events happen 300 times a day in the U.S. alone and we hear about. So our risk perception is just screwed up. No intentional manipulation is even required. But if you add to that the intentional manipulation in the attention economy on social media, this would exacerbate the problem.

      I don’t know if this definitely negates what Haidt is saying, but is perhaps another important factor that needs to be taken into account. One could even argue that our ability to communicate quickly, easily, and cheaply over large distances is also progress, but for which has also had a negative consequences.

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  3. Margaret Claire Hogue

    I can see a feedback loop involving fear and parent shame. The fear can stem from anything like overexposure to frightening things shown in the media, a fear that your child won’t make it in the world because other parents are putting so much effort into creating extra educational and experiential opportunities for their children (which usually takes having a lot of money), to being seen as a poor parent in the eyes of your peers.

    Parents are often shamed if they let their children explore (or get the police/DCFS called on them – not in Utah, though, we now have a Free-Range Children law). I grew up wandering my huge neighborhood and my parents never knew where I was; now my 73 year old mother constantly worries over my 13 year old riding a city bus about 5 miles home from school and questions my parenting decisions for allowing it. I’m guilty of having kept my child scheduled with over-structured activities or so-called rigorous school programs (even preschool and kindergarten because I would compare myself to other parents, thinking we needed to keep up in order for my child to have future opportunities. Then there is the shame that comes from being seen as being a poor parent. Your child just yelled at mine and you didn’t jump in right away? Bad parent.

    And maybe correct me if I’m wrong, but universities have catered to this over-involvement when courting new admissions. My 78 year old dad was surprised that my first university (1997) did so much to involve parents initially. When he started at that same university, his parents dropped him off and that was it.

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    1. Wonderful to hear from you Claire and thank you for your comments here. You raise some excellent points. Someone else also raised the point about judgment from other parents, and I think this mentality is also part and parcel of the loss of the more communal mindset we had for childcare in the past. I am not sure exactly what caused this shift. As makagatu suggested earlier it may be the impact of media and social media skewing our perception of how dangerous the world is. I am often dispelling the myth for people that a child is abducted every 45 seconds, as this was a popular fact that was spread a decade ago and its effects have been clear. Some even well-educated people have not bothered to check the voracity of this claim and judge you harshly. My wife too has noticed how much more worried her mother is about our children, then she was about her own children. Something has certainly changed here, and I would argue not for the better.

      After this podcast, Maggie and I talked about how we might maybe set up a community of parents who believe in free range parenting so that we can set up some play periods for our children, where we might be nearby, but certainly not immediately present. It’s tough though, and you’re lucky to live in a state that seems to encourage it.

      You’re right about universities. The reasons though are certainly not for the purposes of coddling but rather much more financially driven.

      1) Studies show that a student is much more likely to stay at a university if they feel connected to it, so getting everybody in the family on board increases student retention (i.e. tuition dollars)

      2) Universities would say they are responding to changing attitudes of prospective students. They’ve already been coddled and thus expect that when choosing a university. So in terms of attracting students they need to change how they court students.

      All this focus on money is because around the time that you went to university the amount of government funding for higher-ed started to decrease and has been decreasing ever since leaving universities to adopt more of a business model. I don’t agree with it, but it’s happened. University is also a much more significant cost and when the parents are footing the bill, they often feel like they should be more part of the process anyway. As a result students are treated much more like paying customers. This has a degradation effect on the quality of pedagogy, because professors are now constantly seen as not doing their job if a student is failing. The business model has also created a lot more competition among universities. Education should be something that shares best practices and share common goals. But if enrollments drop you aren’t getting the money to cover operating costs from the state if you don’t have enough to tuition dollars yourself. Well I could go on for longer, but yeah money is the driver here, and it’s something that Haidt I think doesn’t mention enough as a factor in the way universities also coddle students.


  4. Swarn, I think I may have listened to the same podcast. But at any rate, leaving parenting aside for the moment, another key point Haidt made in the podcast I listened to was the notion that there is a culture in which prestige is gained by being offended and then choosing to square off with your offender–even in cases where no offense was intended. What concerned me most about this is the notion that it’s okay to be unwilling to do the difficult work of having meaningful communication with another.

    I wonder if there isn’t an interesting relationship between this post and your next, about the loss of innocence. Could it be that it’s as simple as parents wanting to protect their children from that loss? And to protect themselves from that pain?

    I also wonder sometimes if this generation, which may seem tiresome to the old fuddy-duddies, isn’t simply less willing to tolerate inequities in the world. And through their impatience, they’re drawing attention to it. We all kind of feel “nagged” when we’re asked to get involved in a situation we don’t feel is really mutable. We want to say, “Look… this is how it is…” And the younger generations are less willing to settle for that. So while I don’t think it’s very positive to develop a system of prestige based on being quick to elicit confrontation, I also think it’s interesting that attention is drawn to particular issues.

    Personally, I think mutual respect and tolerance is a virtue of paramount importance, so I am disinclined to side with those who insist on taking offense where none is given or intended. There’s a lost opportunity I think to have a real conversation. But I wonder… about the bigger picture sometimes.


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    1. Hi Michael. Sorry it took so long to respond to this wonderful comment. As always I like to respond to your thoughtful comments with a little more depth and so I put it aside until later, but then this would got pushed to far aside. lol

      Yeah I’m always mindful about ways the younger generation are perceived by the older one, because I do think there is just a different mindset that can be sometimes hard to bridge. I think Haidt certainly is on to something here, but I would agree that we should be careful not to ignore the strengths of this upcoming generation and there are many.

      I wonder if there isn’t an interesting relationship between this post and your next, about the loss of innocence. Could it be that it’s as simple as parents wanting to protect their children from that loss? And to protect themselves from that pain?

      I think there is. One of the things that I liked about the Haidt interview was that he said that he believes most people are well intentioned as they try to navigate these times. I don’t think parents are bad intentioned at all in this protection of their children…but I think that we need to look at what it really means to protect children? If coddling them is bad then we aren’t really protecting them. If we are falling prey to low risk fears we also maybe aren’t doing the best job at protecting them. Just like that attitude in this country seems to be the only way to stay safe is to get a gun, I think that sometimes we think that for kids to be safe we need to watch over them 24/7 and this is a mindset that has to change, even if well-intentioned.


  5. Great question, Swarn. I’ve wondered about this too. I agree with some others that there seems to be a large component of comparison involved. I wonder if we’ve allowed a fear of judgment to seep into our society. Perhaps, with it being so easy to find like minded people on social media, it’s become more uncomfortable to be surrounded by people that disagree with you in the real world. For my part, when it comes to my kids, I try to let my fear of them becoming non-contributing, uncompassionate, irresponsible, lazy wimps override any fear that they might get abducted or abused.

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    1. I try to let my fear of them becoming non-contributing, uncompassionate, irresponsible, lazy wimps override any fear that they might get abducted or abused.

      I agree with you. This was the gist of what I said to Michael who commented earlier. That as parents we all have certain fears, but I think it’s important to prioritize those fears, and put the low risk ones further aside even if they might be terrible in the small event they should happen. Ultimately our children will also have to wrestle with fears and there is no parent that can change that, so if they don’t have the tools to overcome fear because you are always trying to take them away or handle the situation yourself, it’s usually not a good thing in the long term growth of your child.

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