The other day, I checked my email and yet another column about overly-coddling our kids has emerged. Perhaps I’m paying extra-careful attention these days because of how deeply involved in education I’ve become (and especially as a soon-to-be parent!), but it seems like this particular meme has reached cockroach-level prominence in the contemporary ecosystem of ideas. If you do a google search of “coddled kids” the front page alone contains at least four different articles published in major media outlets. If you do only a few searches with memetically related terms (e.g., here, or here, or here) and you can see that there’s a general trend: lots of people seem to think that we’re too soft on our kids in this bloated, debt-ridden nation we call home. And those people have columns.
Before we even look at the truth or untruth of this idea, though, I think it’s important that we take a deep breath and start to consider some things.
First of all, we live in uniquely charmed times. By just about every possible measure, our current standards of living in the US are higher than they’ve ever been. As a nation, we are wealthier and healthier than any generation that came before ours. The infant mortality rate in our country is about as low as it can possibly get–and if you read books from the nineteenth century (like this one), you can see how devastating a high infant mortality rate can be to a people. Similarly, it’s been just about 150 years since a war was fought on American soil. Violent crime has been declining for decades. In a very real sense, our lives are about as certain as any group of humans (nay, any group of organisms) can make them.
Second of all, we Americans live in a uniquely charmed country. Or, I should re-phrase that: we live in a uniquely charmed fraction of the global population, which is to say that most of us are living in a state of relative affluence. It’s not hard to travel to a place where you’ll find people worse off than you, and if you’re an American who can afford to go to one of those places, you’re already doing pretty darn well.
The reason I bring this up is to point out something that lies in the background of all our worries that our children are overly-coddled. Living in total opulence as we do, I think we look back at our grandparents’ generation–you know, the ones who lived through the depression and World War II and all–and wring our hands. It’s been decades since anyone in this country had to deal with a national crisis on the scale of either of those two events. You could say 9/11 was bad, sure, but it wasn’t World War II bad. You could also say the recession of 2008-2009 was bad, but it wasn’t Great Depression bad (thanks, Obama!).
I think it’s easy for us Americans to look around at the opulence and ease that surround us now and start to worry. Dealing with adversity is a critical part of what we’ve come to believe is the American character. We were a nation of subsistence farmers in our not-too-distant past (or, I should say, the fantasies of our not-too-distant past), and to lose that hardscrabble mentality is to lose something essential. We look at our grandparents and compare their experiences with ours and find ourselves coming up wanting in characteristics like toughness, grit, and determination. We compare ourselves with the hungry masses living in China, Latin America, and Asia and find ourselves wanting in the same characteristics.
And we didn’t even grow up with iPads!
So I think you can see the panic engendered by this thought. Are we spoiling our kids now? Should we make them go back in time, and live the life of our grandparents, just so that they can know what it’s like to really work for something?
I hope you can see here what I think is the appeal of this narrative. It’s sexy, because it reminds of us of our own insecurities about the society we live in and how it might affect our moral character. It’s also sexy because it allows us to stand in judgment of others: who are these crazy parents who negotiate their kids’ grades with their teachers? Who are these people who think everyone deserves a medal just for participation? It reminds us that, even though we don’t think our moral character can compare to that of our grandparents, who dealt with adversity that we can only imagine, at least we’re not as dissolute as some of these other people over here.
Someday I’m going to write about post about how to tell when an author or speaker is drawing their conclusions from a narrative more than from an analysis of data. Suffice to say for now that Bruni’s latest article reeks of the former. No numbers are cited, and the column is rife with anonymous anecdotes. It might be good writing to cherry pick illustrative anecdotes, but it doesn’t make a compelling evidence-based case for your point.
Many folks like Bruni like to point to the ever growing body of motivational research about kids and praise (as summarized relatively well here) as support that we’ve gone too far as a culture towards supporting our children’s self-esteem, aka, coddling. That may or may not be true in some cases, but I would argue that people who simply think we need to get tougher on kids are missing the point. The most astounding piece of recent research on motivation is that what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” is damaging regardless of how you communicate it. Simply believing that your child has a fixed quantity of talent at any endeavor is dooming him or her to achieve less than they could–regardless of whether you communicate that belief with supportive language (“You can do it, honey! You’re so gifted and talented!”) or with unsupportive language (“I knew you’d fail at that, dumbass. You’ve got no talent!”).
The point everyone seems to be missing is that the self-esteem movement was really just an effort to place a band-aid over our culture’s deeply-ingrained belief that some people are special and talented and deserve wealth and others aren’t. We didn’t seek to change the basic idea that talent and intelligence are purely innate and you’re either gifted or you’re not. Instead, we called the gifted kids “sparrows” and the ungifted ones “doves” and gave everybody a ribbon.
I’d like to suggest a third way. I honestly don’t think we necessarily need to get any tougher than we already are. Heck, if you went to Harper High School in Chicago at all recently, life is probably about as tough as it needs to be. Rather, I think we need to start treating schooling the way we treat video games. What if school were like an RPG, where you could only level up once you’ve reached certain benchmarks? And what if everyone was at their own level, advancing at their own pace? What if people had the freedom to level up in areas that interested them and could avoid those areas that didn’t?
Might that be a better solution than simply getting tougher?