coddling overprotection education

The unintended consequences of good intentions

A review of The Coddling of the American Mind

I have not been able to stop thinking about this book since reading it 6-months ago. The Coddling of the American Mind awakened a new interest in the freedom of speech and the role of academic institutions. It makes your brain tingle and you start to question both news and social media with fresh eyes. For me, it also prompted change. I’ve slowly been sucked into a framework of overprotection as a parent. Before the schools closed again I let my daughter walk home from school alone, much to her delight. I wasn’t relaxed, but I was happy with my decision and I hope to continue to challenge her capacity for independence.

Who is this book for?

Everyone should read this book but it is written in a style that won’t suit all readers. It originated from academic research and then longer-form articles. If you like your reading simple and full of sound bites this isn’t for you. If you appreciate well-researched, detailed arguments, and enjoy having your current thinking challenged you should read The Coddling of the American Mind.

Why you should read it

Because we are increasingly intolerant of each other and this is a bad thing.

I’m not sure what triggered the shift, if it was global discontent combined with polarising social media and search algorithms or if it is just the shifting visibility of voice. Either way, we have stopped listening to each other.

Tolerance is often misunderstood; it isn’t about agreement. It should be about dialogue, exchange and a willingness to understand another viewpoint even when you don’t accept it. Hate, violent commentary and when we should draw the line are more challenging concepts than I’d originally appreciated.

By over-protecting our personal sensitivity, we’ve lost some respect for each other. In the interests of freedom of speech, we have to encourage exchange and debate. The Coddling of the American Mind speaks about cancel culture and when it is appropriate to lose your job for expressing an unpopular opinion.

If you are a parent you should read this book because it will challenge your ideas about how to educate your child and what freedoms you should provide. I don’t think there is one right way to parent, but I think that we can learn from the experiences of educators. Perhaps I engaged so heavily with the parenting ‘lessons’ because I believe we constantly underestimate the capacity of children. But, I think there is a lot to be taken from their recommendations.

I share the fears of other parents but what I want most is for my children not to need me. By giving children freedom of expression and removing the fear of taking risks and asking questions, we are giving them the opportunity to live. The Coddling of the American Mind challenged the type of environment I was providing for my children and how I was preparing them to navigate a challenging a complex world.

Key takeaways

“Us Versus Them” thinking is damaging

We developed in tribes, so one of our basic social reflexes is to look for others to re-enforce our idea of self. But this leads to subsections of society and why inequality and bias exist. The TED talk below by Kimberlé Crenshaw shows the importance of understanding intersectionality and how dangerous it can be when we do not. In understanding bias, we can move towards positive action. This is the difference between “Us Versus Them” and change. If we don’t seek to understand we can’t make ground to move forwards. If everyone who doesn’t support our view is dangerous and wrong, conflict is the only natural conclusion.

 There is no one universal truth

Many future leaders come from academic institutions so what they learn during their studies has a significant impact on the future of the world. The research conducted by Lukianoff and Haidt shows a significant shift to left-leaning professors in American institutions.

Even when teachers try and operate without bias their political leaning will often have an impact. It directs both research and questions posed in class. This is why diversity is essential. It encourages not only debate, but provides students with a broad framework where they have the greatest opportunity of forming their own opinions.

We are being driven by hate

Americans are now motivated to leave their couches to take part in political action not by love for their party’s candidate by hatred of the other party’s candidate

This hatred was exploited by both the Brexit and the Trump campaigns. We shouldn’t however naively believe that hatred is only exploited by the right. We’d then be victims of ‘Us Versus Them’ thinking. There is a cycle of hatred and extreme opinion breeding on US campus’. Mobile phone recordings going viral has accelerated the way that we think about opposition and encourages opinion rather than debate.

Growing up safe and unprotected

There appears to be a number of opposing realities. Children have never been as physically safe. We are better protected against both disease and crime. Yet, children are more vulnerable and less emotionally mature. Both rates of depression and suicide are rising in many countries.

Technology is a part of our lives yet we don’t systematically address the dangers. There is a role of parents and educators to talk about the dangers as well as the benefits that it can bring. We shouldn’t exclude screens from the home, but in the same way that we teach a child how to hold a sharp knife, we should guide best practice.

Turning thoughts into actions

The authors handily summarise their own work;

Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child

It is fruitless trying to eliminate all the obstacles life presents. Better to have the right mindset and toolbox when we embark on the journey. There are number of suggestions of how parents and educators can move forwards, but I think these points can apply to a wider audience also:

  • Assume your kids are more capable today than yesterday
  • Let then take small risks
  • Learn about the Free-Range kids movement and integrate it
  • Go camping
  • Engage in productive disagreement
  • Argue as if you are right but listen as though you were wrong

But if you aren’t a parent, the biggest action you take is to change how you view discussions or differences of opinion. It is taking time to challenge if you are viewing everything as ‘Us Versus Them’ and if you are, stepping back and starting to listen to the opposing side. Our feelings are valid, but they might not be justified and they may be disproportionally controlling our thoughts. Taking action pushes us outside of our comfort zone. But, this is exactly why we should do it. As we stay within our frame of reference and view others as wrong or dangerous we are limiting our opportunities to enjoy and engage with the whole world.




Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

About Good Words Online

This blog was designed to be a home for all the content I’ve created over the years. It is a mix of book reviews, personal reflections and business learnings. There is no definitive way to live or work, we all make our own choices. I in no way think I am right about any particular subject. This is simply about sharing what I’ve learnt and creating an online reminder for myself.

The name, good words, has no religious references. We can’t be good all the time. Each of us will make mistakes. All we can do is try to learn from them and try and attempt to be a little better next time.

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