By Mollycoddling Our Children, We're Fuelling Mental Illness in Teenagers

By Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky

Jonathan Haidt

Of course, we should work to make life safer by removing physical dangers from the environment, such as drunk drivers and paedophiles. And of course we should teach children to treat each other with kindness and respect. But we also have to let our kids out to roam the road without us.

We talk incessantly about how to make children more “resilient”, but whatever we’re doing, it’s not working. Rates of anxiety disorders and depression are rising rapidly among teenagers, and in the US universities can’t hire therapists fast enough to keep up with the demand. What are we doing wrong?

Nassim Taleb invented the word “antifragile” and used it in his book by the same name to describe a small but very important class of systems that gain from shocks, challenges, and disorder. Bones and the banking system are two examples; both get weaker – and more prone to catastrophic failure – if they go for a long time without any stressors and then face a major challenge. The immune system is an even better example: it requires exposure to certain kinds of germs and potential allergens in childhood in order to develop to its full capacity. Parents who treat their children as if they are fragile (for example, by keeping them away from dirt and potential allergens, such as peanuts) are depriving their children’s immature immune systems of the learning experiences those systems need to develop their maximum protective capacity.

Children’s social and emotional abilities are as antifragile as their immune systems. If we overprotect kids and keep them “safe” from unpleasant social situations and negative emotions, we deprive them of the challenges and opportunities for skill-building they need to grow strong. Such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events, such as teasing and social exclusion.

Read the full article in The Guardian.

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership.